A letter to … the hospice doctor who helped us to say goodbye

The letter you always wanted to write

 ‘There is nothing to do but wait and I see that you know how hard this is. You have seen this many times.’
‘There is nothing to do but wait and I see that you know how hard this is. You have seen this many times.’

When my father arrives in the hospice, there is a flurry of activity. Drug charts are checked, vital signs are tested. We all know he has come here to die, but still the idea is that something might be fixed, at least temporarily, and the young doctor and nurses on duty that evening have an air of “sorting things out”. It is a relief to get here; they know what to do. The flat has become a claustrophobic, smelly and unmanageable place for my mother to care for Dad.

The next day, you slide into the room like an elegant cat – without an entourage of junior doctors, a computer on wheels or a stethoscope slung around your neck. You lean over my sleeping father and take him in without saying anything, and then turn to my mother with a smile that is at once kind and serious.

You take us to a side room and tell us that he is nearly finished with his body now, that it is normal and natural and that there is nothing to be done except to keep him comfortable. You say it clearly and calmly, making eye contact with my mother. It is a beautiful day, and you suggest we take a walk and look at the sky, the daffodils, the trees beginning to bud. “He will be with you in these things,” you say, entirely without sentimentality. “It is time to let him go.”

For the first time in the entire period of my father’s cancer, my mother cries. Woman to woman, you look at her and she feels your genuine solidarity. It is a turning point, and from then on my mother prepares to cut free from her husband of more than 55 years.

Over the next days, when on duty, you appear quietly in the room with an aura of respect for the sacred space we have created with flowers, cards and drawings by grandchildren. You never talk loudly to my father as if he is deaf or stupid. You also never adopt the drippy, concerned tone often used by professionals with the ill or grieving. Your gaze is clear and direct, as is the information you give us. Dad is taking his time, he has things to say and his body is not quite ready to close down.

“This is not a medical condition we can treat, or something I can help with drugs or charts,” you say, as I pack away my violin after playing the Scottish folk tunes of Dad’s childhood to him. “This,” she gestures to my son sitting on the bed, the guitar lying on the chair, Mum holding Dad’s hand. “This is all that’s important now.”

There is nothing to do but wait, and I see from your experience and wisdom that you know how hard this is – this endless waiting, which is pregnant with ambivalence. You have seen this many times before.

Thank you for what Cicely Saunders (the founder of the modern palliative care movement) called the “depth of time” you have given to us. Perhaps you spent no more minutes with my dad than any of the other professionals. Perhaps you even spent less time, as you didn’t bother much with symptoms or drugs and interventions that we could all see were pointless. But you met my dying father, my mother and me with honesty, dignity and sincerity, and this is what we will remember and treasure.


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