Friend to the End

The experience of a dying friend shows that nursing home staff can prove to be good friends in death

Hugh Curtiss

It’s many years since I was a monk and thus a professional in the death business. Back then, I felt quite strongly, almost pictorially, that heaven awaited those souls whose bodies had expired. I remain inclined to think death is a blessed release for many and should be celebrated as such.  

I still feel an obligation to my old community and spent last autumn helping out with the very old monks who now make up an awkward (though not resented) majority. For one old chap in particular, Brother Frank, I became an amicus mortis — “a friend in death” — and was a bit concerned that I wouldn’t be able to speed him on his way in the way I thought I should.

In his early nineties, Frank lost his legs and so became unmanageable in the monastery. He was moved to a commercial nursing home and for several years thrived there as a sort of exclaustrated monk. The people who looked after him — perhaps especially the Poles, Zimbabweans and Filipinos — seemed very easy around his informal religiosity. I think he slipped into a relaxed secularity, with his TV getting as much attention as his icons. 

In November, as death squirrelled away at Frank’s 95-year-old insides and mind, it was as though the whole of him was randomly on display. He would be, by turns, nine months old, and 19 and 90. The nursing staff mostly concerned themselves with his comfort and that involved lots of tranquillisers and painkillers. And yet the old boy kept rallying. 

“Ah, it’s not his time yet,” a sister would say, as he recovered sufficiently to face more discomfort and distress, though not at all to the extremes he would have faced without her patches and injections. Still, the sister’s platitude irritated me. 

This was a mark of how different my role was from theirs. Most of the home-grown senior staff at the home were secularists, yet they were using a fiction which is an overhang from a religious view. The name of Dr Harold Shipman is much invoked by nurses, who curse the cruelty occasionally imposed in the name of caution. But they are reluctant to play God, even if the law allows it. More than that, they need a narrative with which to go on cherishing their charges — and the life in them — until death declares itself the victor. 

Contrary to the gloom of much media commentary about institutionalised care, and my own prejudices, I am inclined to think that Frank was in professional hands which my presence did not much improve. I was probably some comfort to him but I was most useful when my vigils meant I could alert his carers to his needs. When they came, they seemed sound judges of his need of comfort rather than longevity. They were pretty good friends in death in their own conscientious right.

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