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Deaths remembered

The following memories detailing the deaths of friends, family and loved ones, are a selection of those contributed anonymously by visitors to Ars Moriendi and to the website.


The death was my father's. It was a good one in that it marked an end to years of suffering for him, both mental and physical. Something he'd been wishing for a long time. I buried him with one of his favourite films, Blazing Saddles, and a television remote control, just in case. It was a private joke, neither of us believing in an afterlife, but contemplating that if there was one, it would be unbearable should there be a television showing a lousy programme and nothing with which to change it.


I don't know, as I wasn't there. My sister and I were kept away from a lot of the parts of death of our dad, as family members thought us too young at 14 to be involved. I think it was relatively peaceful at the end, but the process had been horrible. Within 12 days of being diagnosed with cancer he died. My overriding memory is of holding his yellow, clammy hand, wondering what had happened to the person I knew. His personality and life seemed to leave his body days before he died, so that in the end, there was a sense of waiting for his body to stop, rather than waiting for him, as a person, to die. Afterwards I would dream occasionally that he hadn't really died at all, and that he'd just left and had been living elsewhere. I was angry at him for not telling us the truth. Over 15 years later, I still don't know if being more closely involved with his death would have been better or not.


I was not present when my grandmother died as it happened so quickly, but this is the account as told to me by my mother. My grandmother who was aged 83 and usually in good health (she rode a bike and even helped deliver meals for Help the Aged when most were a lot younger than herself). She lived with her youngest daughter - my aunty. On this particular day she came downstairs and into the living room where my aunty was and told her not to be afraid. She then lay on the settee and died.... just like that. Needless to say my aunty was distraught, but I take great comfort in the fact that she knew what was about to happen and she even had the ability to warn her daughter.


Once, one of my patients died, I was a junior doctor a the time, and it was early morning hours, maybe 5 or 6 o'clock, he was a lovely old gentleman, bit lonely though and he used to live on his own in a big house on the countryside, he died of old age aggravated by kidney failure and slept in peacefully, without much pain. He only had distant relatives who came to say their last goodbye. When I entered the room, the corpse looked very calm, the relatives greeted me and one of the nurses brought tea and biscuits. We all sat down and ate biscuits and drank from our cups of tea. I was telling them what I knew about this old departed man and they told me a story about him. He had been stone-deaf for years and living on his own, some burglars had taken advantage of this fact by entering his home and stealing some valuables. They even went into his bedroom were his was asleep but could not hear them. We all a sudden looked at him and started to giggle, maybe it was the early morning, the tiring nightshift, the strangeness of having tea and biscuits with a dead body next to us, but it was a warm and sympathising giggle, saying our last goodbye.


My grandmother. Every morning she would wake up facing the sun in her window. Take a bath, go to her worship room. Cook. Wait for her children and grandchildren to come back from the playground. Have conversations with her family and friends. Then she would sleep. No...none of this happened...but my grandmother thought that it did. She no longer remembered her children were old, her grandchildren were grown ups. Little clots of blood inside the blood vessels in her brain...had made a limited view of the world accessible to her. She was bed ridden. Had to be assisted for everything. I would clean her sores. My mother would feed her. Our helper would bathe her and dress her. But she was oblivious to her condition...and whenever she was awake...she would tell me with a smile… all the things she enjoyed in her ordinary day. A year later, she passed away in her sleep. 83 years old. A good life. A good death.


My father died suddenly aged only 48. My brother and I were young at the time and the memory lingers on of the police taking away his body in a bag. I found it all rather harsh and unfeeling behaviour on their part.


My mother died in 2009. She was recovering from illness but never regained consciousness. I do wonder if she had 'gone on' some place and just didn't want to come back. The hospital care was brilliant. We helped clean and lay out her body after she died which was some comfort. I still miss her terribly.


In the end it was a peaceful and good death but we, the family, had to negotiate with the medics in hospital to persuade them to stop trying to keep my father alive artificially for a few pathetic more minutes by insisting on rigging him up to uncomfortable and invasive tubes and pumps. What exactly they thought was the point is difficult to know, but it was the protocol.


I am trained in medicine. Two deaths in my family were the worst experiences in my life. my mother's death was sudden in New York. I was informed by the family and went there to be with the rest of the members of the family. I was asked to do the final rites which was traumatic and this still remains in my mind and I have not gone through the grieving process. The second was my brother who died of cardiac problem following a heart transplant. The post surgical recovery was slow and stormy. Following his death my mind is left with the feeling of despair on the ethics and moral aspects of organ transplant.


My father died just a few months after he was diagnosed with cancer. In those few months his illness took such a toll on our family as we cared for him - sometimes by just ensuring that someone else was always home with him - around the clock. In his last days someone asked him, my sister, I think, if he wanted to go home. We all knew he would be going home to die so what she was really asking was whether he wanted to die at home or in the hospital. My mother stood against us all and decided he should stay in the hospital because we, the living, would need a place of respite for ourselves. Her decision was unpopular but none of us wanted to battle her on it. Our energies were spent worrying over my father in his last few days. He passed away nearly 17 years ago. I was never angry at my mother for her decision; the grief of the immediate events overshadowed any capacity for that. Still, it took me about ten years to realize what a gift my mother gave us by sticking to her unpopular decision and how, ultimately, she was already preparing to continue her life by making decisions to care for the ones of us who would be left still living after my father's death. That she was able to do this through her own sorrow will always amaze me.


My father died in the Royal London Hospital nearly five years ago. He was suffering from a long term illness that had deteriorated his condition, requiring hospitalisation. During his stay he grew weaker and the day before he died he was starved for an investigation that never took place; this resulted in him being unable to drink or take food. He was very scared and thought he wouldn't survive the night. I thought he would be better once he had rested, I thought the hospital would take care of him and I would see him the next day. He died later that night, from a heart attack. I wasn't there but my younger brother was. I arrived too late to the hospital, I saw him dead. I had been out with a friend and had been having a nice time, I hadn't heard the mobile ring and missed my father's death. I let my father down, I let my younger brother down. I should have argued for better care, I should have been there with my younger brother when my father died.


As a GP the good death is to feel included in the patient and family's journey; to know everyone has had the chance to just do a little bit more than they ever expected. It's about being ready for it.


When I was about 16 my best friend's dad died. It was about 4am when she called me crying to tell me and I just kept on asking her, "But is he ok? Is he gonna be ok?" "No! He is DEAD!" she said. And in the funeral (the one and only I've ever been to) I saw him lying dead there and I kissed him goodbye 'cause I felt as if he was still alive and the whole thing just felt strange.


This was a death I didn't experience: my mother was dying and I had 3000 miles to travel to be with her. I didn't think the end was as close as it was. When I realised just how short time was, I had to cancel the flight I'd booked for weeks later and go immediately. I was about an hour too late. I came into the bedroom where she lay and I sat with her quietly for a while, and I said I was sorry. Sorry for not making it in time and sorry for lots of other things, too. Her body was taken away about two hours later. It was too quick.


My mother, who had a successful scientific career at a time when few married women did, had been in a nursing home for several months. She was increasingly troubled by dementia and physical weakness. Family visited her most days, often reading aloud as she had always loved books. Early on a Sunday morning I was woken by a phone call from the nursing home advising me to come quickly. I sat with my mother for about the last hour of her life, holding her hand, talking to her, and promising to tell her story to her great granddaughter, then a baby. I read to her from a favourite natural history book, and said the Lord's Prayer. She appeared neither conscious nor unconscious, so I did not know how much she registered of my presence. The moment of death was peaceful - I had to ask a nurse as I was not really sure it had happened. I had been due to lead a church service that morning, on the theme of remembrance. As part of this, I had already planned to distribute photographs of flowers, taken from my mother's photograph albums (there were so many that the family did not know how to use them). I gave these to the colleague who took over the service. I heard later that many people were moved by this and some kept the photo long afterwards.


Both of my parents were over 90 when they died, and I sat with each of them for their last hours. Each had a peaceful death, without pain or distress. Sadly, however, each had withdrawn from life gradually and increasingly over a period of months. Neither was a person any longer, and neither was the parent I had known.


My father is very ill and is being cared for palliatively. He suffers from dementia. It is the slowest death imaginable - he eats well, sleeps well, bathes regularly and takes some exercise, all as a result of my mum's full time care and the interventions of a small team of health and social workers. What's not taking care of is his mental health. Watching and talking to him, I think that he is ready to die, but, as frail as he is, he is too healthy, and too well-looked-after for this to happen soon. I love him very much.


My grandmother died the good death you describe of your neighbour's journey. She was very old, 94, in sound mind, yet her body decided it could work properly no longer and shut down, organ by organ. I'm grateful it left her mind until last in a way - she never did anything she didn't want to do so I like to think that she had the time to come to terms with her death in the last week or so of her life. I saw her two days before she died and at that point, even though she couldn't speak much, she could smile and laugh. How lovely that laughter can outlive words. She seemed to know she was leaving and she smiled her good-byes to us.


A customer at the wine shop where I worked would come in twice a day, at the start of a dog-walking ritual, to buy six cans of Stella Artois. It seemed like he wanted to share his downwards spiral with the staff of the shop. On Christmas Eve, during the busy peak of the day, he came into the shop, incomprehensibly drunk, bellowing of the death of his dog. He died later that evening, outside his house.


I suppose death is the direct result of the body failing, but I hadn't imagined death to be the direct result of a mind failing. A very good friend of mine (aged 21) thought her best bet was to put her body under so much chemical strain that it would fail. Her death was a result of depression, a bottle of vodka, and dozens of painkillers. It's an instinct to be afraid of death because we can't control its inevitability. She found comfort in controlling it by causing it. A sound body cannot withstand death without being coupled with a sound mind.


My mother was ill for 2.5 years but she was able to be at home until her last two days. If we knew in those last two days that she was dying, we would have kept her at home. We are grateful that my mother was able to spend her time at home, not in a nursing home, until she died at 91.


My father was admitted to hospital in Newcastle in acute pain, and after emergency surgery was diagnosed with metastatic bowel cancer. Immediately afterwards he suffered a stroke which deprived him of the power of speech, and affected his ability to write; this hitherto articulate man was suddenly almost entirely unable to communicate. He remained in hospital because of additional medical needs, but it was clear that he was terminally ill. During the next five weeks, my brother and I travelled from Scotland and London as often as possible, but it was obvious that attention to his needs was sketchy - my abiding memory is of sitting by his bed while he tried laboriously to write "I need a shave", while two nurses sat on the adjacent radiator discussing their Friday night out. We managed at last to get him moved to a hospital in Scotland, nearer my brother. He was in a room on his own, and treated with the utmost tenderness and compassion by all the staff there, though by this time he was comatose. Knowing his death was fast approaching, my brother and I sat with him. He had been shaved, and his hair combed; as I held his hand, I noticed that his fingernails had been cut. We were there when he died, quietly and peacefully. I felt privileged to have been there, and to have been able to say goodbye in a calm environment; above all I feel so grateful that he had ended his life in a place where people cared. His death could have been "better"; but unless we'd managed to relocate him it would, I know, have been infinitely worse.


My mother was a nurse in the 1930/40s (in Barts, Stowe School and as a wartime Sister at Hanwell Cottage Hospital). When on her deathbed in Ealing Hospital in October 1991 being made 'as comfortable as possible as she is dying' as they told me, I took in a photograph of her as a confident staff nurse at Barts in the 1930s and put it in the small ward for all the nurses to see. A few of days later she 'slipped away' whilst I had gone home quickly to collect the mail, only to return to find her personal nurse by my mother in tears. I comforted this nurse to say that she had died in the good hands of someone in her own profession before bearing my own grief.


I am 23 years old and the only death that I ever experienced one at which I was 8 years old. I remember it very clearly, seeing the body of my dead uncle in his coffin before his burial.


My mother, in a caring hospice - the cancer had returned after a six year remission. The year up to her death was hard for her and her family: a constant round of hospital - home - cottage hospital - home - home support with Marie Curie and Macmillan nurses - hospice respite - home and finally hospice final stay. She was well ready to die by this time but her body fought on. Moved from the ward to a single room the staff were sensitive and kind. She drifted in and out of consciousness. The last 24 hours myself my sister and younger brother were with her. Laboured breathing - is she in any pain or is she past that? - let's make sure. More medication. The gaps between breaths grew longer. We held ours in solidarity but couldn't last as long as her. Was that her last breath? No, another strangled gasp followed. And then a gap. A long gap which grew longer. Is this it? Yes it was. My phone rang. No time for reflection and quiet. Arrangements to be made.


My father died at home from extensive cancer started by prostate cancer. He and my mother decided he would not have chemo or radiotherapy but just let the disease take its course. He had three good years after diagnosis followed by about six months of increasing pain which was controlled by a morphine pump. He attended my sister's wedding and then took to his bed. He died three weeks later at home with my mother and I holding his hands and my sister on the phone. I think this was a good death. He was 77 years and 7 months old. He had survived 6 years fighting during WWII. He had five adult children and several grandchildren. We all had time to get used to the idea of his death and were ready when it came.


When my grandmother died my parents were having a party with our neighbours. She had been in an old people's home for a long time and I hardly remember the time when she was not ill. But I can still recall her brushing my hair when I was a little girl. I was about eleven years old when my aunt called to tell that she was about to die. Me and my father jumped into the car and went to see her. The journey was horrible: We were both silent, hoping to be there before she would pass away. By the time we arrived, she had died. I just couldn't believe she had gone without saying goodbye. My grandfather and my aunt were sitting in her room, my grandmother was lying in her bed, her eyes only half-closed, there was a towel under her chin, my father explained to me that it stopped her jaw from falling down. She looked scary and her hands were still a bit warm when I touched them. They got colder and colder with time. It was the first time I had seen a dead body and I just couldn't understand how there could be no life in it. Although the woman who brushed my hair and went to the playground with me ,who I loved and looked up to was lying right next to me she was gone and would never come back.


My husband did not have a good death, he fought it hard. He hated getting old, the stiffening of the joints, diabetes, high blood pressure et al. He was taken ill with end stage metastatic liver disease and died six months later having just celebrated his 80th birthday. At first it was the digestive system that packed up, he lost control of his bowels and couldn't eat what he wanted without throwing up, then the disease reduced his muscles to thin strips, making him housebound then bed bound. His fine engineer's mind failed him, he forgot telephone numbers. To him, the Hospice was a prison, he fought the end stages of life for three days. Nobody did anything wrong he had the best possible care from the NHS, the voluntary sector and friends and family. It never occurred to him once during his life that he would ever have to leave the stage, when his brainstem finally gave up all that was left was his body, the wonderful nurse, me and a powerful sense of outrage as something had imploded. I admire him for being himself to the end, I think I am too polite to do the same.


I believe that our perception of death is based upon our perception of life and whether the person dying has lived a fulfilling existence and reached old age. My grandfather died very suddenly when I was 13. He had not been ill, but was a heavy smoker and died of hardening of the heart arteries. He collapsed whilst making a cup of tea and his heart simply ceased to beat. He would have felt no pain or recognition, so this was considered a good way to end with no suffering. However, he was 66 and throughout my adult life I have mourned that he did not live to see me or my sister grow up, nor did I have the opportunity to have an adult conversation with him. By contrast his wife, my grandmother, lived until 89. She was very astute, with an avid zest for books, film and current affairs. When she died it seemed the natural conclusion to a wonderful existence. Sadly she died in terrible pain over a prolonged period, which was awful to witness, but when the end came it was as though she herself had given up on life. I felt blessed to have known her and felt that she truly understood and loved me too, as I was 42 at the time. My grandfather had a good death with no pain, but had a shortened life. My grandmother had a long time with her family, but an agonising end, so which one is the good death? I look at the joy that my grandmother had until the last two years and I think I wouldn't mind suffering at the end if the life in between was rich. I believe this more than ever now that my sister is battling cancer again. She has battled the disease for 20 years and life has been a constant rollercoaster of remission and return. If she were to die aged 49 I would feel truly robbed of all that she achieved and could have accomplished. Death young is never a good death, so ultimately I believe it is the age of the person that defines whether death is good or not.


My grandmum died when I was around 11. The memory I keep for the following 6 years is the one of my grandad living alone at their house. He used to smoke cigarettes the whole day while looking through the window and, although we went to visit him every week and worried a lot about his health or needs, he would always say with a smile in his face: "The only thing I would ask you is to bring my wife back, but I know this is impossible. I am perfectly fine and do not need anything." And this was true. He was looking so vigorous and healthy that my parents could hardly believe it. One day he would go to sleep not to wake up again. The previous day we had had seen him and he was perfect. No complaint. Smile on the face. Cigarette in the hand. The doctor said that he would have said he "died of old", but that was not a medical term any more. His heart simply stopped beating when he was 90 years. That is all. In the funeral my father was sad. But we were all happy inside because we knew he had had the best death any of us would have liked. No pain, no sorrow, no more things to live. Just a night to sleep.


2 deaths in December 2010. One expected and one unexpected and traumatic. A good death from whose perspective? Is there a good way to loose someone? What occurs to me about death is about the possible contrast between observer and observed in the process. What I have seen is the contraction of the dying person's world and the diminishing connection between inside and outside. Some of the images you are creating are very stark in their medicalisedness and I can only hope that the dying person can free themselves from these shackles that are all too apparent to the observer when circumstances dictate that this is a necessary part of someone's ending. In witnessing my friend's dying days I saw her struggle to avoid admission to a hospice and when she finally succumbed to it how it brought her relief and a feeling of "being Marilyn again". There was no ability to prepare for my ex-husband's death and the shock and horror of this has left all those who loved him stunned and gradually trying to piece together an understanding of what has happened with no possibility of ever really knowing the answer. Maybe a good death is about remaining as fully alive as possible in the time we each have and in remaining close and loving, as best we can, during the final letting go.


My uncle had died on New Year's Day, and he hadn't left a will other than saying he wanted to be buried with as little damage to the environment as possible. His family decided to give him a Humanist burial. One very cold foggy morning in February we all met on a hillside and buried him in a wicker basket. The place then planted a tree above him. It was a significant moment because it made me a) make a will and b) request a Humanist burial.


My nanna died of leukaemia when I was 7, she was in her 50s. We'd been very close, I was the only granddaughter she had in her lifetime (many more followed, and great-granddaughters too). She'd been in hospital for a long time but it was still a shock when she died. My parents picked us up from school and my mum got angry with my dad because the car overheated on the way and we didn't get there before she'd gone. We went to see her in the morgue, it didn't really look like her anymore and they'd wrapped her in pink, which was a colour she hated. My mum got them to change it for her favourite green tracksuit. I decided not to go to the funeral, which I regret now. I stayed with some neighbours who were looking after my youngest brother Aidan. He was 6 months old, and doesn't remember her at all. Afterwards everyone came back to the house and it shook me to see all the adults I'd relied on and assumed to be omnipotent looking bereft and vulnerable. I grew up a lot that day. Twenty years later, Aidan got leukaemia too, but that's another story.


I held the hand of my grandmother throughout the last night of her life. Was she sleeping, half conscious, aware of my presence? I could not tell. She constantly moved her arms in waves of what, to me, seemed agony. She moaned and I tried to sooth her by holding her hand lightly - moving with her; by sometimes saying something; also by making suggestions that it would be all right now. In the morning her arm movements had lessened. My parents were on their way. The doctor arrived and gave my grandmother more morphine - in her agreement to lessen her pain towards the end of her life. He did not explain much to me. Yet, when I said she had hardly slept he went into the corridor with me so that she would not be disturbed. More and more the movement of my grandmother subsided. When my parents arrived she was barely responding. Yet, she must have recognised her daughter and shortly after my mother had spoken to her and had caressed her, my grandmother let go completely and died.

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