Share Your Story
Hearing about others' experiences can be helpful when dealing with death and bereavement. Do you have a personal experience that you'd feel comfortable sharing with the campaign? If so, let us know...
Kathleen was four years old when her mother was called upon. "Mum needs to go and see Arthur," she was told. Arthur was an elderly neighbour who had not been seen for some days, raising concern. "Put your coat on and come along," her mother, Elizabeth said. Kathleen followed her down the road. They arrived at Arthur’s house to be confronted by a group of men outside and a ladder leaning up against the window. The men hung back while Elizabeth climbed the ladder, looked through the window and called out: “Yes, he’s dead. Must have died getting out of bed." Elizabeth stayed until the undertaker came, while Kathleen went home.
Born in 1931, Kathleen Evans from Derbyshire forged an unconventional relationship with death and dying at an early age. Her mother was fondly known amongst her peers as “The Undertaker’s Friend”. Living in a poor area of Derbyshire, Kathleen’s mother was a trusty friend and carer to many of her neighbours. Kathleen would make herself small, while her Mum sat with ill, frail people until they died, supporting not only the person but also the relatives. After the person died, Elizabeth would wash their face, make them look nice and dress them in a white shroud. She’d comb their hair and close their eyes. Sometimes Elizabeth would put pennies on the person’s eyelids so that they stayed closed. “Come and say goodbye," she would say, and Kathleen would obediently pat them on the cheek or stroke their hair. She would then go home and Elizabeth would wait until the undertakers arrived.
To a young person in 2010, this could sound like a morbid experience for a five-year-old. Kathleen, however, didn’t think anything of it and assumed it was what everyone did. It was not until she started at secondary school that she became aware that this was not the experience of her contemporaries. She became concerned that perhaps she had done something wrong.
Thoughts of this part of her life moved into the background when she trained as a secretary, began married life and started a family. However, this childhood experience surfaced when her husband’s mother died. Kathleen walked into the room and, without a second thought, closed her mother-in-law’s eyes. She knew that she had to do this because it wouldn’t have been pleasant for her husband to see her with her eyes open. “How did you know what to do?” asked her husband. At this point it occurred to Kathleen that she had experienced something very unusual and enriching through her mother’s role.
Kathleen followed in her mother’s footsteps, with people approaching her for help and support when loved ones were ill or had died. Some time ago, Kathleen saw an article by Sheila Payne in the Daily Mail entitled “The First Don of Departures”, in which Sheila explored the familiar wish of dying at home.
On reading this, it occurred to Kathleen that perhaps there were many who had not seen someone who had died, or been present as it had happened, in contrast to her own familiarity. While she knows the sadness and shock of people dying, she also sees death and dying as something natural and is not frightened by it, having shared in her mother’s work when she younger.
The Dying Matters Coalition is led by the National Council for Palliative Care,
the umbrella charity for end of life care in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Freephone 08000 21 44 66