(Originally written some years ago but reworked for our local churches magazine as part of a series on life’s challenges.)
The loss of a family member is always very sad but it is a part of the natural course of events that when we get older we are faced with the death of our parents. Nevertheless, the circumstances can make a very great difference for all concerned.
The 13 November 2003 was a dry, late-autumn day and my father spent the morning raking leaves in the garden, came indoors and ate lunch with his wife, then sat down in their living room for coffee – and died. He was four and a half months short of his eightieth birthday. A post-mortem revealed that hugely elevated blood pressure had been undiagnosed and untreated. My mother was absolutely devastated but she said a number of times that it was exactly the sort of death my father would have wanted – no illness, no doctors, no hospitals; he had not suffered. Amid our shock and grief at this sudden and unexpected loss, we all recognised the truth of this and took some comfort from it, but over the next few years my mother suffered a great deal.
Following my father’s funeral, my mother seemed to cope fairly well at first. Friends did all they could and my sister and I visited regularly. But it very soon became apparent that my parents had done so much together in the almost 30 years since his early retirement from the RAF that my mother scarcely knew how to function without him. It seemed that for many years she had hardly ever left the house alone; to do anything or visit the shops entailed a car journey and she never went on her own. She had not driven a car in the UK for years, only sharing the driving on their thrice-yearly trips to their holiday home in France. However, she could not stay in her home in an isolated Wiltshire hamlet without driving, so in early 2004 she bought a smaller car, had some refresher lessons and gradually ventured out. But during that year it was increasingly obvious that she was becoming withdrawn and not eating properly. She began to say that she didn’t want to go on living and eventually my sister and I took her, despite great reluctance on her part, to see her doctor. Anti-depressants were prescribed and, after much persuasion, she also agreed to try bereavement counselling. However, before the second session could be booked, she was taken into hospital. She had lost so much weight that she had begun to collapse and it was no longer possible for her to stay at home.
After some weeks in hospital and numerous tests to eliminate any physical cause for the weight loss, she was transferred to the elderly psychiatric assessment unit of the local hospital. We all found this a distressing situation but were desperate for her health to improve and were reassured by the environment and the staff. She had her own room in bright and spotless surroundings, with excellent care, but many of the other patients were suffering from dementia and some were noisy, which made her anxious; she had been used to privacy and her own space and she just wanted to go home. She refused to eat properly, displaying many of the signs of anorexia nervosa, and despite frequent visits from close friends and family she seemed determined to starve herself to death while nevertheless denying that this was her intention. Nothing that anyone could say or do made any difference. She wanted to die and said so, but she also said that to kill herself would be ‘wicked’. To make no effort to live was apparently a different matter.
The medical staff tried everything to alleviate the severe depression: different anti-depressants were tried and when all this failed electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) was recommended. This was frightening for my mother and, despite sedation, sometimes painful – and after a number of courses it was clear that it wasn’t helping. So, after eight months in the unit the doctors reluctantly admitted defeat and she moved into an elderly care home nearby. After a couple of months there – when it became clear that the longed-for improvement just wasn’t going to happen – my parents’ house was put on the market and my mother moved to a smaller and more personal care home in Wendover, nearer to me and her only grandchildren. But all she wanted was to be with my father again; as far as she was concerned she had lost the whole reason for her existence, the most stable feature of her life. During 2006 her physical health declined and in early autumn she was taken into hospital with a chest infection, given antibiotics and after a few days was back in the home. But weeks later there was another infection and by now the medical staff from the local practice knew her circumstances – and her wishes – better. The GP who came out told us that she had developed pneumonia. It could be treated, but he knew that wasn’t what she wanted. If nothing radical was done she could be kept comfortable but wouldn’t live more than a few days. What did we think? That was very hard indeed, and my sister and I talked about it at length. The last two years had been hard on us all but awful for our mother. There seemed to be no hope that she would ever lift out of the depths of grief she was in and so we agreed that she should stay where she was. We stayed with her and in the early hours of 29 October 2006 she died in her sleep, aged 78. In the final three years of her life she had suffered a great deal, affected by the massive changes in her life circumstances and, even more, by the loss of her frame of reference.
Neither of my parents had been churchgoers – their attendance limited largely to weddings and funerals – and they had found my ‘conversion’ as a student rather alienating. As far as my father was concerned, he lived in a Christian country, was nominally C of E and that made him a Christian. He seemed to find talk of God embarrassing, certainly never spoke about death or what he believed about a life beyond death, and apparently regarded religion as a crutch for other people. My mother was slightly more open to the idea of God, and both my sister and I had been encouraged to say ‘bedtime prayers’ as young children, but for both of my parents Christianity seemed to be rooted in the Bible stories of their schooldays – something that perhaps they had left behind in the years of the Second World War. Nevertheless, they lived by a moral code drawn from the teaching of the Bible, they respected the faith of sincere believers and they regarded the Church as part of the fabric of British society. The Christian faith impacted on my parents only through the lives of other people and I have no way of knowing whether, had my mother been a committed Christian, things might have been different for her final years. The fact that her grief became a depressive illness suggests not.
My parents’ deaths inevitably raised questions for me about their relationship with God, but I had never really believed that if you hadn’t been ‘born again’, or had a definable conversion experience, you were destined for an eternal hell; my understanding of a loving, just and righteous God makes me more of a ‘universalist’ than that. On the night of my father’s death my mother had asked me if she would see him again and I had told her that I believed she would. It was what she needed desperately to hear at that point and I also believed it.
A few days after her death I had to visit the doctors’ surgery in Wendover for some paperwork and, hearing me mention my mother’s name, a nurse from the practice approached me. She explained that she had got to know my mother in her last few months of life, only ever seeing her as a frail, elderly woman who wanted to die. She was a Christian and she went on to tell me how she had woken her husband in the early hours of 29 October to tell him that she thought Ricky (my mother) might have died. She had dreamed of her as a younger woman, upright, lively and, above all, smiling. She wasn’t suffering any more. This encounter was one of those rare occasions when I really felt that I had heard God speak to me personally – and I cannot read or write about it, even now, without tears. It was all the reassurance that I needed to move forward on my own life’s journey, in the knowledge that somehow, in some way that I will never understand in this life, and do not need to, my parents are now at peace and are held safely in the hands of God.