Good Goodbyes

Queen Victoria and her nine children. Princess Alice is on the left

In 1878 Queen Victoria’s daughter Alice was 35. In the lead up to Christmas most of her family in Darmstadt, Germany became ill as the brutal disease diphtheria raged through them. Alice was scrupulous about infection control. She was a nursing pioneer and Liberal thinker. Way ahead of her time. But she buckled when telling her little son Ernest that his young sister Marie had died and, against all of the rules, she held him close. Inevitably she succumbed to the disease and died a few days later.

Every Victorian would have known this sad tale and identified with it. But just a short month ago it would have sounded a bit mawkish and medieval to 21st century Western ears.

Unbelievably this story is now topical with the (rare) but tragic death of a young teenager at Kings’ College. His family, through no fault of their own, unable to be with him because of the infection risk to them and to others.

A Welsh GP’s surgery has been pilloried for asking people about end of life choices. This is wrong. Ventilation, intubation, resuscitation and even “simple” catheterisation are all invasive and potentially traumatic. Any or all of them are well worth the candle in many circumstances for many people. But not in all circumstances for all people. Most of us would want the medical “kitchen sink” thrown at the young but we have to face up now to difficult conversations about where dignity trumps longevity and whether death at home with loved ones might be better than death in a field hospital surrounded by busy strangers in spacesuits.

Few of us at this time will get the exact kind of goodbye we want. It is mighty hard but it can be a release rather than a burden to discuss end-of-life care and imperfect goodbyes are at least something. 23 years ago I said goodbye to my Dad on the telephone. His last words to me were a list of animals in his joint native tongue Romany. Those words have given me so much joy – reminding me of his love of the outdoors of flora and of fauna.

As humans we put so much effort into beginnings. Where we possibly can, especially now, let’s think about the endings too.

* Ruth Bright has been a councillor in Southwark and Parliamentary Candidate for Hampshire East

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