This photo was extracted from Google Images. It’s a fungating breast tumor, the result of breast cancer left untreated. It’s identical to the growth on the breast of a hospice client I’m caring for, as big as a dinner plate, ugly, and very unpleasant on the nose. I’ve chosen to show you this image because it’s not something you’d ordinarily see. My daughter was horrified when I showed her, but it had the effect of promoting conversation. One of my interests is to demystify the often taboo subject of death. This is a provocative way of doing it. No apologies.
For nearly 15 years I’ve worked as a volunteer hospice carer with Byron Hospice a service that supports people with a terminal illness who choose to die at home. Each week, before I get out of the car at the home of my current client, I say a little prayer to help ground and centre myself and to seek guidance, put on my invisible hat of compassion and empathy, and go and sit. I’m not there to offer advice. I’m there to listen, hold a hand. When you speak, you’re often repeating what you already know, but when you listen, you may learn something new.
My client is my age. She’s single, has no family, and has been a very active community-minded advocate for healthy families. She’s scared and vulnerable and doesn’t want to die. Who does?
My clients are my greatest teachers. They teach me about death, but more particularly, they teach me how to live well. Am I doing enough to improve the lives of disadvantaged, marginalized and lonely people? Am I using the skills I was born with for the betterment of humans, our precious planet? Have I forgiven myself my indiscretions? Is there any unfinished business I need to attend to? Have I examined my regrets? Am I ticking items off my bucket list? Do I want to die with fear and confusion, or with dignity and grace? I know the answer to that last question. What about you?
‘The only thing that death teaches us is that it is urgent to love’ Eric Emmanuel Schmit