Anyone who has been bereaved through chronic illness will know that anticipating the death of a loved one prefigures the grief that is to come. We feel the loss even before it has occurred but try to contain it somehow for the sake of the one who is dying as we try to wring every last moment out of what time remains. Yet, in the midst of medical procedures and the comings and goings of friends, nurses and carers, it can be hard to sustain the one relationship that we most care about.
My wife Chris Seeley died aged 48, from the effects of a brain tumour on 3rd December 2014. With the support of the Penny Brohn Centre and Cotswold Hospice at Home, I looked after her at home for the last seven weeks of her life. Despite her physical infirmity, she wanted to sleep in her own bed; to be surrounded by her own paintings and furniture; to make art; to eat well; to be convivial; to be in nature; and to be expansive until the moment she died.
Chris Seeley, Geoff’s late wife
Continuing to do as many of the things she loved as we could manage was hugely important to Chris and it comforted me to know that I was doing my best to make it possible. Some things were easy to arrange and others – especially those which involved leaving the house – took a great deal of effort to accomplish. Now she has gone, I look back on these memories like wild strawberries, all the sweeter because they were the last of the season.
We discovered that friends were delighted to be asked to help with expeditions, domestic chores, cooking, making art and occasionally providing a night’s respite for me. It’s almost impossible to over-estimate how exhausting it is to care for someone round the clock and it was wonderful for Chris and I to have the opportunity to stay at Penny Brohn together for a few days, just two weeks before she died. We both knew that she didn’t have long and we had been struggling to talk about it.
On the last day of our stay, we sat holding hands in adjoining armchairs, wrapped in blankets, with the lights dimmed as we listened to the sublime tones of the Benedictus from Karl Jenkins’ Mass for Peace. It wasn’t yet time to say goodbye but deeply stirred by the music, we both wept for the cutting short of her life and the grief that was to come.
It’s hard to be with someone you love when they are dying. But it is also a privilege: an opportunity to say and do what is needed to prepare for the moment of separation; a chance to resolve matters and find peace in each other’s arms; a lesson in the harsh beauty of love.
Each person’s encounter with loss and bereavement is unique and I wouldn’t presume to tell anyone else what to do, but looking back on the experience of losing Chris, I see just how important it is to get support for yourself when looking after someone else. I’ll always be hugely grateful for the opportunity that hospice and palliative care gave us to come together before we had to part.
Geoff Mead is the author of Gone in the Morning: A Writer’s Journey of Bereavement.
More books on bereavement can be found here.