Let’s think about life and death

Let’s think about life and death

The Coronavirus crisis has raised some of the deepest questions we humans ever face: what is the value of life?  Is quality of life more important than length of life?  What is the meaning to us personally of our lives?  What gives us meaning, a sense of wellbeing, a sense of purpose?  These are big questions and we very often are too busy to give them adequate consideration but this virus and all it signifies in terms of the limits it is making on our lives, makes us reflect on these big questions, doesn’t it?

Aged 70 now I look back and ask myself what has given my life the most meaning and the greatest sense of love and fulfilment?  Work, sure, but at the heart of it are my sons and now my grandchildren.  The love and joy I feel when I am with them and hear their news, the pain I feel when they are struggling, is what, for me, life is all about.  Deep connection and care about what happens to them, their wives and their children.  This is far more important to me, at this stage of my life, than my own life.  They are the future.

Certainly I want to be around for them and to watch the grandchildren grow but I think there are many of my generation who do not want our children’s lives and livelihoods to be sabotaged by trying to shield us oldies.  The hardship that will occur if there are further lockdowns will be financial and emotional, both here and in the rest of the world, as we are all so inter-connected these days.

And if regulations prevent me from seeing my children and grandchildren, siblings, cousins and close friends, then what is life worth?  And for those poor souls who are sitting alone in care homes without their family to visit, without live entertainment to spark their minds and memories, what purpose each new day just for the sake of breathing and being a living entity if that living entity has no joy or purpose?

I am fed up with this “don’t kill Granny” thing.  I would rather be killed by spending an extra day with my grandchildren than live for months on end without them and, who knows, maybe die of something completely different in that time period anyway? There are no guarantees in life in this situation or any other.  I know a friend who doesn’t dare hug his young grandson in case that grandson gives him coronavirus and then has the burden of his grandfather’s death on his shoulders for the rest of his life.  Could we grandparents not write a letter to our children and grandchildren stating clearly that we are of sound mind, understand the risks and consequences, and choose to be with and hug our family on our own volition because life isn’t worth living if one cannot do so, therefore removing any potential guilt from those we love?

Yes, we are supposed to be protecting others and the NHS but perhaps we could also elect simply to stay to die at home?  That may sound brutal but a non-life may not be worth living.  Those who do feel vulnerable then could themselves just stay at home and keep out of harm’s way.  These are choices we need to consider.  The anti-social behaviours we then witness in people deliberately spitting or coughing on others should be punished harshly for that is intentionally seeking to harm another, which is quite different.

Some elderly people are making the point that this situation is worse than the war.  Although there were bombs dropping and one’s loved one might be away fighting, one could at least hug those who were there.  One could enjoy a laugh and a drink with friends or family.  Theatre and song carried on.  One didn’t have to view other people or one’s neighbours as potentially lethal company.

Is death itself so frightening if life loses its purpose?  I personally don’t think so.  I have now been with three people on the moment of death, my baby son, aged 9 weeks, who died of a cot death, my father, and my mother.  These transitions from life are extraordinary and I feel privileged to have been present in them, despite the pain they caused. In that moment, the person one knew leaves us and one is only left with the inanimate body, and one’s grief.  There are so many myths and religious narratives about life after death that we can become muddled I think, for no-one can prove what it will be like.  May it not just be a big sleep, perhaps, putting us out of pain, and therefore not so very bad? 

We are listening to endless ‘science’ and medical advice but the advice is polarised into those who argue that this virus is not such a dangerous disease for the majority of people and we should seek herd immunity and those who argue for a focus on risk, fear and lockdown, whatever the ‘collateral damage’.  Just as in many other areas of life, whether medical, legal, economic, the experts can differ in their analysis.   Doctors are human and there are fads and fashions in medicine as in any other area of life.  My baby son died for being on his stomach, which was the erroneous advice of the 1970s, based on research that had little to do with infants.  As soon as this was recognised and babies were put on their backs, the number of cot deaths reduced.  We need to heed the science but at the same time be aware that they can get things wrong.  There is far more uncertainty in this world than they like to let on.

Old age is full of conundrums.  We are supposed to be happy to do nothing in retirement, to rest after a lifetime’s toil.  But this isn’t always the answer.  My father was managing director of a cork company one day and retired the next.  Sadly he found little to exercise his mind and interest in retirement and died only a few years afterwards, as many others did in those circumstances.  Our immune systems respond to being engaged in life, and the sense of wellbeing and fulfilment this gives us.  Luckily today, men and women who retire are finding many areas of interest through part-time or voluntary work, or even jumping out of planes for charity, and these keep them alive.  Literally.  Yes, the pull towards activity, whether it is climbing a mountain, sailing the Atlantic solo, pot-holing and other risky endeavours is endemic in us.  If we became totally averse to risk, to the idea, as has been expressed, that ‘one death is a death too many’, then we would ban tobacco, alcohol, skiing, horse-riding, cars, bikes and more, and then one might well question what is the point of life?  We live with risk every day.  It’s a part of living.

We already know that there is a big increase in non-covid deaths.  There will be an increase in mental illness too if we insist on keeping people in fear and isolation, in care homes, mental institutions, hospitals and prisons.  There will be untold suffering if thousands of people become unemployed.  I doubt any one of us would wish to be the person making these difficult decisions but I hope that the men at the top of our government – and I still assert there are not enough women’s voices at the top – will think in broader terms and understand that humanity has been lacking from the policies and practices we have so far experienced, where young and old die without their families being there to hold their hand.

Listen, if you can, to Dear Life by Dr Rachel Clarke which is being serialised on BBC Radio 4 at 9.45 every morning this week, to hear about the essential nature of compassion and humanity needed within medical practice. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000msx0 . And read my nephew Dominic Cavendish’s moving article about the importance of live entertainment in care homes where those deprived of faculties and families nonetheless come to life when they can sing. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/what-to-see/live-music-can-save-care-homes/

When I look back on my life, some of the happiest times have been in doing the simplest things – playing French cricket in the garden, or Monopoly by the fire, with my parents and siblings, going for a walk with my sons and grandchildren, sitting watching tv as a family or, now, cosy nights watching box sets with David.  Yes, I had pleasure from travel, or (dangerous!) from galloping my horse across the New Forest, and huge fulfilment from my work as a coach and trainer but things outside the home – whether work or other activities, were never as enjoyable if there was discord or sadness within the home.  The harmony and connection I received within the family always coloured everything else I ever did, and still does.

We are social beings, our sense of self shaped by family and friends.  Deprived of touch, love and contact we wither.  We also need nature in its glory to remind us that life is worth living. People in care homes are currently potentially being denied all those.  So let’s adjust to uncertainty and risk, which is the true nature of life.  Let’s try to find a way to get through these next few months by being mindful of the health of others but at the same time maintaining contact with those we love, and by continuing to do the things we love, so we know the value of life and, at the same time, are not so fearful of death.

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  • Nicholas Kittoe on Sep 26, 2020 Reply

    Helen
    At a personal level I am totally agree with the idea that it is not just or loving for the old to try to live longer by requiring younger people to limit their lives. I love the idea of a “dear grandchildren” letter; I shall put pen to paper tomorrow.

    At a societal level however I feel we must recognise Government’s difficulty of dealing with this disease is made much greater by two of its features: first its infectivity in that it seems very easily caught and second, the period of asymptomatic infection which greatly accelerates spread and makes control specially difficult. These features mean that if infection were allowed to spread unbraked, many other aspects of life would be undermined for long enough to do widespread and permanent harm especially for poor people and others with little room to manoeuvre to recover. We must take account of potential damage to general healthcare systems, employment and the risk of consequent social unrest. So I say, less special pleading for grampa and more joined up thinking and frank discussion about the real vulnerable points in our society.

    • Helen Whitten on Sep 26, 2020 Reply

      Hi Nick, your point about the complexity of asymptomatic sufferers and carriers is a very important one, I feel, and one that is not discussed enough in the media. Everyone goes for track and trace but if people are asymptomatic they don’t get tested. And, in fact, the tests give only a snapshot in time as the infection does not follow a simple trajectory in each person. I agree that we need to consider how all these decisions impact the vulnerable and, for me, that means thinking far beyond our shores. Hope you and the family are keeping well. Thanks for the comment. Helenx

  • Anne Pearce on Sep 22, 2020 Reply

    Totally with you Helen! Of course we have to find a balance, and not worry the family out of their minds by reckless behaviour. But life is for living and without living properly we wither.

  • John B on Sep 22, 2020 Reply

    Brava Helen. Also Brave commentary. I totally am with you, being old and dare I say wise! But – big but – the young do care, and will feel responsible, and their feeling for you will make them super cautious. So how we deal with them surely needs to essentially help them to come to terms with the possibility of “killing gran”. Am I right?

    • Helen Whitten on Sep 22, 2020 Reply

      My feeling is that this is not a helpful narrative for anyone. Gran or grandpa could have caught the illness from any number of potential places – an online delivery, someone they passed by in a shop, etc – and so why try to pinpoint the culprit as some child or grandchild who absolutely doesn’t intend to pass an illness on to their grandparent. Even if it was one specific traceable contact I don’t see that it is helpful to ladle a loving relative with that guilt…

  • David Swinson on Sep 22, 2020 Reply

    I think the problem is that it’s not just life and death. The course of this disease can be protracted and there does seem to be significant disability for a proportion of survivors and this can mean the difference between independence and dependence.
    As ever Helen your thoughts are stimulating.
    As far as the hereafter is concerned one of the joys of my old age was to discover Socrates on the subject.

    • Helen Whitten on Sep 22, 2020 Reply

      yes, it is a horribly difficult situation. Will refer to Socrates! xx