Thinking Anew – Strength for what lies ahead
“We need to recognise that the company of beloved people in our final years is an essential, as essential as food and water and shelter.” Photograph: Getty Images
A few weeks ago a local care home asked me to take Holy Communion to one of their residents, Edith, who was receiving palliative care. I arrived at the home, was ushered through the back gate so I did not have to walk through the main gathering areas, wore a mask, and sanitised my hands at least three times while I was there.
I remained two metres away from Edith, apart from the moment that I actually placed the host on her tongue. Her hands were too trembly to be able to receive the wafer and put it in her own mouth.
As I was leaving, I asked the manager of the home if I could come and visit Edith again. She replied that unfortunately this would not be possible. I had only been allowed in as a special dispensation because she was nearing the end of her life and she had requested a priest.
Yet Edith had told me that her own daughter had not been allowed to visit for months. I hope her daughter was allowed to be there at the very end – I don’t know if she was – but certainly for the last precious stretch of Edith’s life, they were separated. Yesterday morning I heard that Edith had died.
I have another old friend whose wife had advanced dementia and was cared for in a nursing home. He would visit her faithfully every day until lockdown happened, and then he was no longer allowed in.
His wife died within a few weeks and he never saw her again. I don’t think he will ever recover from the bleakness of the enforced separation from his beloved, bewildered wife in the last days of her life.
I remain heartbroken at stories like this. We have all encountered them over the last six months.
I am not going to share any others, because it’s all too painful.
The saddest situations that I have known are not directly due to Covid itself, but because of the measures we have had to take to contain the spread of the virus.
So I am viscerally relieved to hear that there are plans here in the UK to give close relatives “essential worker” status – access to regular Covid tests and full protective equipment – so that they can continue to be part of their loved one’s life despite the restrictions.
Surely, surely we need to recognise that the company of beloved people in our final years is an essential, as essential as food and water and shelter.
As we face yet another season of having to separate from one another in the name of public health, it is vital that we find ways to safely adjust the boundaries to truly protect our old and our frail from the deadly health risk that is loneliness and isolation.
If we fail in this, we can find ourselves jettisoning life in order to preserve life.
As Christians we believe that death is by no means the worst thing that can happen to us.
A good death is the most precious gift of all, both to the person who is dying and to those who are left behind to mourn. Due honour has to be given to this most significant transition, a transition which does not just happen in the last hours of life but in the final weeks, months, and even years.
I am hopeful that this next season of restrictions will regard this end-of-life journey as essential, and not to be compromised; any more than we would dream of compromising the way we welcome babies into the world with warmth and cuddles and milk and loving protection.
Of course we are all just doing our best, because what else can we do? In all this, too, Jesus has gone ahead of us. He himself did not have a “good death”, but a death filled with suffering and shame and a profound sense of abandonment.
He waits for us now beyond our darkest fears. He will carry us when it’s all too much. He will strengthen us for whatever lies ahead.