Out of the Depths…


“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss and have found their way out of those depths.” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was in many ways the founder of the Hospice movement.  She was the drive behind this movement because she believed that euthanasia stopped people from completing their unfinished business.  She believed that we should heal those who were dying, support them to have a good death and enable their families to grieve properly.  It was revolutionary, and it was necessary.

When I was a jobbing writer, I secured a position at a Hospice – 2 days a week for 6 months and then 1 day a week for another 6 months.  It was an extraordinary time, and for a while I knew a lot of people who were near death.   Well, nearer death than me as it turned out – though of course we can never be certain about that.

My job was to work with patients in day care.  I mostly worked Tuesday and Thursday (although not always) and so I began to build relationships with a lot of people who were either in remission or who were well enough to still be at home but who came to day care to receive treatment, socialise or get out from under the feet of their loved ones.

There were many people over the course of the year that I got to know very well – initially there was some suspicion about who I was as I wandered round with my notebook as well as what I was trying to do but as time went on people spoke to me, told me their stories. Together we wrote poems and books, embroidered words into banners or other things made with love.

A number of people stick out in my memory – slivers of lives I got close enough to touch.

One man, I’ll call him Clive, sat alone by a window and always seemed sad. I chatted to him. In his younger days he’d been a grave digger, and he told of the process of burying a man. It was as if his insider knowledge weighed him down. Clive told me he’d never really had much but when he found he was going to die he gave it all away. I told him that was an amazing thing to do, “I won’t need it where I’m going,” he said. Weeks later he discovered he wasn’t dying at all but Clive was resigned nonetheless and never regretted the loss of all the things that would have made his life easier – like his TV, his record collection and his books.

Patients sat around in armchairs – some making rugs, some doing art, some staring into space. Others chatted to other patients as if they were old friends. The rules of friendship are changed in day care and the connections were often deep and heartfelt.

Volunteers supported the process every day: all vetted to make sure they weren’t morbid or moribund or nefarious in their need to be close to the dying.

Another patient, Claire, was younger than me although we’d had very different lives. She had four kids and was the youngest of five herself. Her cancer had started on her leg as a lump then grew like a banana from her thigh. “Have you ever noticed,” she said, “How they always describe lumps via fruit?” She laughed and then added, “It’ll be the size of a melon, or an orange, or a grape.” I smiled, nodded, “They use sports equipment too…”

“Ah yes, the size of football, a golf ball, a cricket ball. Although that wasn’t the case with my leg. It just grew like an inner-tube, a spur. I knew right away I was doomed.” And she was – all the time she had left she gave to her children, making memory boxes until she died – weakened by the drugs and treatment – of pneumonia, a common cause for those in end of life care.

Another person who sticks out in my mind was John – who looked so well. “People say that! I must have looked shocking before.” John was a lovely man, the sort you’d want as a father or a grandfather. But he was bitter, angry. “I’m the fourth person I know who worked for the Electricity board who have a cancer – is that coincidence? We used to shimmy up those poles, and without any protective clothing at all, get to work. Know the worse thing Mary? They can’t say what my primary cancer is. Know what the problem with that is Mary? I’ll tell you: they can only treat symptoms and not the source. So I’m dying but I can’t say what of, because they don’t know. I’m a man of mystery!”

The other reason John was bitter was that his grandchild was also dying. “I can’t even say take me, Mary, because they already are doing. But I’d give anything to save him.”

Another time he said,  “Mary the problem with children dying of a brain tumour  is that apart from that, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with him. He’s as fit as a fiddle. Apart from that, there’s nothing wrong and he’ll live for a long time.”

He did. John outlived his grandchild, and his pain was so deep and profound and palpable he’d no longer speak to me at all as though my writing it down would make it real. More real. But John stayed ramrod straight and dignified in his stoic acceptance of the terrible fate of his family. He would sit in the mini-chapel, not because he believed but because he was left in peace.

Overall, I was sometime chronicler, some part therapist or listener and some part a weaver of tales.

Even the volunteers spoke to me. “I wanted to be a help.” Dorothy confided one day, “When my boy Alex died I felt I needed to put something back. And I know how profoundly painful grief is and how it never passes completely.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”  I did not invite any kind of confession but she was quick to share. Her son, a bright able strapping young man went to bed one day and never woke up, dying of an undiagnosed heart condition: sudden adult death syndrome.

“I can’t tell you how I missed him Mary – for a long time we kept the rental on his flat and I’d go in and just feel him. I’d stand in the wardrobe and smell his smell and for those moments it was as if this terrible nightmare had never happened. And then the smell began to fade, and I realised that although it never passes – grief changes. In my dreams Alex lives a parallel life, marries, has children, gets to middle-age. I know he doesn’t but it’s a blessed comfort, and it means that I can live with the space where Alex should be, but isn’t. And coming here I know I can enrich these people’s lives and my own too. It’s more than I expected to feel and I’m grateful for that.”

Dorothy was so dignified and so alive. And practical – an extra pair of uncomplaining hands. She was one of the beautiful people who had suffered, and struggled but she had survived. She had found a path from deep, unremitting pain and was living again.

Author: Mary Brearley

I work in the charitable arts sector. I have worked all over the UK, and occasionally elsewhere.

41 thoughts on “Out of the Depths…”

  1. I admire your strength and courage to sit through their stories as they face death. Good thing you are doing…bringing them closure in a way as their stories are told and shared. Bless them all and you. May you continue to have the same strength and courage to help them tell their tale of life as they fight a dreadful disease. 🐾🐾💕💕

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a while since I did it to be fair – probably some 15 years ago. I’d love to still do it but I’d probably have to make the work, or do it as a volunteer… and time is tricky. But thank you for your comment. I really appreciate it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is so lovely!
    I had the privilege of typing out an elderly friend’s memoirs as he was dying. One of the best experiences I’ve ever had. He died before we finished, though. It was devastating. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it’s especially good with older people because we underestimate them so – often they look like nothing and yet they have lived so much and have much to say! And even if older people don’t I have found the fact that you are around to listen and record is very good too because you are saying: you have been here, and this is your story. Thanks for the comment!


  3. What a fascinating read Mary, so interesting, I could have read a book about your experiences. I used to sell advertising for Medical practices. I remember going into nursing homes and seeing a man with a stuff boarder collie dog beside him which he kept patting for comfort. Then I listen to a man repeat over and over to his wife that they had a son, I fill up just remembering it. Anyway, I loved your post kudos to you for doing it 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I cannot even imagine how you found the strength to give so much to those patients you met while working in the hospice. I struggled to give to both my father and mother in their last days ~ perhaps I am not as strong or as worthy as you.
    Thank you for this story. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think it required strength. I knew I was leaving at the end of the day and I felt privileged to hear their stories. I’m certainly no more strong or worthy than others – i am sure you gave your folks all that they needed 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. John sounds like a cool guy. It must have been hard to perform this job, though at the same doing any kind of artistic job AND one that helps people and gives them comfort is really amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. That must be tough. I completely agree with the fact that the best people have known everything upsetting, bad and terrible. One simply becomes extremely humane.
    I’ve never worked at a hospital, just had some shifts for my studies, but I experienced this side of life so to speak while I was on numerous and lengthy treatments. The hospital where I was for almost a year was for patients with extremely severe traumas, after all kinds of accidents and similar. Most people were young, there were especially many men after car, bike and work accidents. I witnessed lots and lots of deaths while at ICU after my many surgeries. I noticed that the nose tip became very sharp and one could notice the moment the soul leaves the body. It seemed like some hand swipes over the face a shadow and then the face changes, it sort falls together. The most severe case I saw was when the mother was asked to let the doctor know when to disconnect her 16 year old son from supportive devices. I heard how she said: he can hear us, look, tears are running down his cheeks. The small sister was crying, too. Every single person was crying whether half-awake or being there because of job duties. I passed out after a while, but when I woke up, the young buy was gone. It was a very insane time I spent at such hospitals, and I believe most people never actually realize how huge the suffering is. If they did, we wouldn’t have so much nonsense in this world.
    Your stories are so deep and so thought provoking, that I always read them with interest, but also feel like I am taken back to those years.
    I have actually deleted these memories. I don’t return to them often. That’s also the reason why I don’t want to write much about my own accident and very difficult following years and how the problems have returned after 25 years, and I needed more surgeries. I want to leave it to the past.
    Thanks for your very touching stories!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What an eloquent response Inga, thanks so much for sharing your experience – I so appreciate your words. It sounds as though you have lived through a horrific experience. Thank goodness you survived and are able to share your beautiful work.


  7. What an incredible and moving post. I appreciate your sharing of this experience. My experience with family and friends in these circumstances is that acceptance is there and they are looking for a peaceful transition in their death. A lot if that comes from faith and is part of the natural order of things if you will. The situations where someone is taken quickly (auto accident or the example you used of sudden adult death syndrome)….those situations create a much deeper and harder grieving process. Also the loss of a child…..again…thank you for sharing!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for your thoughts and, I agree, if we have time to prepare the blow is softened. To lose a son in the circumstances described here must be unbearable. I was very moved at the time and again in retrospect.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. It takes a special kind of person to be a volunteer in a hospice. Elizabeth made me welcome death as part of life. Good for you to have kept a journal. I did not when I was a volunteer. I sat and talked to most of the dying. Washed, feed or just beside them. I still remember the smell of death. I did not see them die but some made it known to me that the have left their body.

    Liked by 1 person

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