Posted July 19th, 2009 by Jane

Ceciley Hamilton is credited with the foundation of the first modern hospice in 1967 in south London. I remember its foundation and rather liked the idea of a holistic approach to death where spiritual, social and psychological needs were as central to dying as the physical ones. The concept too of a particular kind of modern death…the ‘good death’…for one, leaving school, off to University, aged 18, romantic about death and suicide, reading Sartre for the first time, held a real fascination.

And so 40 plus years later I find myself having a few nights stay in an NHS/charitable hospice outside Southampton.

I was there for ‘pain management’ which long sufffering S. tells me is ‘what we’re good at”. Patients not actually in the last weeks of life often spend time getting drug cocktails right before returning to their ordinary non hospicised lives.

Trouble was that most of the accommodation in my hospice is in 4 bedded bays and so I shared my ward with two very sick and dying women, and one other, who, like me, was just there for pain control. There was crying and shouting in the night and it frightened me; I was really frightened.

Whatever Ceciley Hamliton’s lofty ideas of a holistic death, of dying people being loved and cared for as they slipped over into eternity or nothingness, it is the reality of slowly declining and degnerating bodies, in pain and confusion, that most focused my thoughts. The staff were kind and caring; they oozed kindness until sometimes I felt it to be cloying. I couldn’t help but notice how the language of the nursery crept into their talk with patients. We were poppet, and sweetheart, and lovey and darling. I caught the eye of another patient and found myself giggling when we overheard from behind the not very private bay curtains, a young care assistant saying: ‘now just move those little leggies over, darling’.

Cyber friend B. summed it up well when she remarked on one of the forums that we get born into baby talk and end up with the same. Unusually I remember Shakespeare:

Turning again toward

Childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound.

Last scene of all,

That ends this strange

Eventful history,

Its second childishness and

Mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans

Taste, sans everything.

My thoughts and feelings are churning away. I’m back tomorrow for more. The experience this far convinces me I want to die at home, though I know a death here is probably a death better than in hospital, where most people reluctantly die. And hospice provision is privileged provision, mainly preserved for those with cancer.

I used to be able to stop crying by pressing my tongue to the roof of my mouth (a useful trick when you want to talk to a doctor and not get sidetracked by your tears) but it doesn’t work any longer. Sometimes tears just leak out of me.