Dying twice

Portrait_002This year, and for the first time, the anniversary of my father’s death some years ago passed by without me remembering …

It had been a short drive to the nursing home my father had moved to eight days previously. My wife and I had been his primary carers for close to a decade but when, fourteen weeks earlier, he had fallen and broken his hip, his move away from his home and into the healthcare system sparked in him a serious decline. There was also a touch of guilt at the freedoms his move was affording to us.

As we neared the care home, an ambulance on an emergency call passed us. A minute later we drew up behind it and a paramedic vehicle already parked at the home. My wife said to me, ‘It’s for your father.’ I winced; I felt her to be right.

As we strode down the corridor of the second floor suite in which my father had taken residency, a member of staff addressed us: ‘Are you here to see Brian?’

‘Yes,’ we both smiled.

There was already a temporal shift occurring – odd, I thought, no one has addressed us in such a way before. A nurse blocked our path to my father’s room: ‘You’re Brian’s relatives?’ Somehow, in a moment, we were all in her office. My wife looked pale: ‘You’d better sit down Mrs Stafford.’ But there was a dreadful tension and confusion in the space. With my psychotherapist’s hat on I honed in on the emotion – there was huge anxiety being broadcast from this experienced nurse. After a few words she left us saying, ‘I’ll just check on your father’s condition.’ It hit my wife and me at the same moment and we rushed along the corridor.

Bundling into my father’s room we saw a paramedic ‘shouting’ at the prone and half naked figure: ‘Come on Brian … stay with us.’ My father’s chest heaved in physical distress as a bag covered his mouth and another medic prepared to shock him. His skin had the waxy hue and paleness I’d seen on my mother as she passed away.

In the small living space that had become my father’s whole world the paraphernalia of modern emergency support was strewn all around. My wife was first to enunciate her horror: ‘What are you doing this for?!’

For several weeks in three separate medical establishments my father, despite his communication difficulties caused by a stroke some years earlier, had made himself understood – he wanted to die. For the long years before he broke his hip my wife and I had cared for my father, it had been difficult to watch his almost daily decline; he had been a proud, principled and independent man, a teacher and an artist. At eighty, long overdue, he become a published poet. Difficult as it was to watch, we respected that this was a man fading out at his own request. And yet here we were, thrust into the most terrible of moments – a man who wanted to die being forced back into a world he no longer had an interest in. Our protestations that my father be allowed to pass away brought yet more tension into the room. The ‘shouting’ stopped, but our fourteen weeks of frustrations at the NHS care system were too much for me and my wife.

In counterpoint we made our cases aloud to the six medics about respect and civilised treatment. But apparently, my father’s DNR (do not resuscitate) wishes had not been recorded in the requisite manner. Procedure and regulation were in the way of care and welfare, and overrode my father’s desires.

For his entire adult life, my father voted for a system that respected people, treated them well; a welfare state, a national health service, free at the point of need – one of the marks of a civilised and mature society. Those entrusted to administer NHS continuing healthcare had already attempted piracy with his rights and, now, these paramedics were clearly having to apply procedure rather than the human care they so obviously wished to dispense.

My father was being denied his wish to die peacefully and with respect. This was a system seeking to revive him so that it might take him back to a hospital he had already refused to be taken to, in order that he could ‘die’ once more, probably on a trolly in a corridor in A&E.

Before all was lost, the senior paramedic took control and through several different stages and conversations that involved myself and my father’s GP the paramedics were allowed to ‘withdraw’. And then the room was quiet and my father once more calm. His beloved Radio could be heard in the corner of his room and death once more began to claim his body. Peacefully and with us as comforters for his passage he was able to complete his life, with respect and dignity.

Duncan suggests …

… reading the book ‘Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death‘ by Irvine D. Yalom,

 

All rights reserved © Copyright Duncan E. Stafford 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

 

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Mother Nature

Portrait_002It’s pretty snug in the back of the café on the high street. Soft fried eggs are being popped by chips on most tables, washed down with builders’ strength teas while unapologetic white bread – spread with margarine – is busy mopping up baked bean sauce.

Across the aisle, to my right, a table of five sit talking – three young women in their mid-twenties, a giant of a man (probably thirty) and an angelic blonde child of about fifteen months who is sat in a high chair with her back towards me.

I’m not quite sure what first draws my attention to the group but I’m suddenly aware of something completely chilling. The woman closest to the child (who appears to be her mother) displays open anger and disgust, for no apparent reason, towards the child, who is finger feeding herself.

I am so tightly aligned with the mother’s eyes that I can’t believe she hasn’t seen me looking directly at their dyad. I’m unsettled. Here in the friendly atmosphere of my favourite greasy spoon, where I have never heard cross words spoken or seen tension displayed. Here in this friendly high street enclave I am deeply disconcerted at some momentary flashed expressions.

And now I’m no longer enjoying the acidic bite of the tinned tomatoes that accompany my eggs, chips and beans. My human ability to read two of the six universal emotions purported by Ekman and Friesen* have seen to that.

Mother is looking blankly at the child. Across the table engaged with her friends and partner she appears inconsistent: sometimes smiling and engaging but then turning to her child with poison and what I see as resentment. Father strokes the child’s head for a moment. Mother, checking to see the others are engaged away from her, flashes more disgust at her child. Mother’s upper lip is raised, the bridge of her nose wrinkles and her cheeks are high.

I think I raise my right hand to my mouth to try to cover the words I’d like to shout across the room. I want to stand up in the back of the café and address my fellow regular patrons. ‘Am I the only one who can see this?’ I’d shout. I want to race across the room and ask what is wrong with this friendship group that they do not challenge this mother, their friend. Why do they not want to protect the Angel from this storm?

I’ve lost my hunger and I am left in a universe of uncertainty. Did my own mother feel these emotions towards me when I was a child?

Angel, who has been so calm and contained for one this young, reaches over her plastic feeding bar and attempts to get to more food. Her father strokes her head gently once more. Mother stretches to the food, breaks off a crust of toast and drives it in the air past her daughter’s eyes to her own mouth, and drops it in. Every gesture aimed at Angel says, ‘I hate you; you disgust me.’

I deploy my inner therapist as my own referee against demonising this young mother.

Thankfully, mother and friends are ahead in their meals and don’t look as though they will sit and talk after they finish. Dad produces hand wipes for mum to clean Angel’s hands. The three engage, and Angel is allowed to witness and absorb more of her mother’s bile. Mother’s eyes dart around her friends and partner. She places the first wipe, now dirty, on Angel’s head; it looks like she wants to humiliate Angel, turn her into a rubbish dump. She begins to roughly clean her other hand. Father’s long arm reaches over and removes the wipe from Angel’s head and places it on the table. Mother smiles at her partner in a sarcastically petulant manner, then turns a disgusted face once more towards Angel – dismissing her.

My inner therapist has decided he is watching the acting out of an envious attack from mother to the child who has stolen her lover. It is dangerous, raw and uncomfortable to see. How have I been able to be this voyeur? How have I not been seen watching in plain sight?

Father rises from the table, stoops and picks up Angel from her chair. He holds her lovingly in an embrace and I see, as they twist around, the brightest of faces, a smile and a giggle. Now moments later mother is manoeuvring the empty pushchair through the café. She looks depressed, abandoned, weighted by the world.

The observation is over. I am unsettled: ‘What could I have done?’

I so hope I will not read of a mother and child killed on the nearby railway crossing or of Angel battered and abused, then removed into care.

This breakfast has left me feeling empty; I’ll not forget it for a long time yet.

* Ekman, P. and Friesen, W.V. (1971). Constants across cultures in the face and emotion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 17(2), 124–129.

Duncan suggests …

… reading D. W. Winnicott’s classic text on this subject area – Babies and Their Mothers.

 

All rights reserved © Copyright Duncan E. Stafford 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

You know the answer

Portrait_002In June 2018 my dream book came of age. During ‘our’ journey together over the last twenty-one years I have discovered a rich, individual and personal internal language of signs and symbols – from good-willed kingfishers to impossible Escheresque staircases leading to the summit of the world.

There is a humorous statement in traditional psychotherapy that says people in Freudian therapy have Freudian dreams and those in Jungian therapy have Jungian ones. While this brings a smile to my face it’s good to notice that Jung never claimed, as Freud did in 1895, that he had ‘discovered the secret of the dream’.* In fact Jung stated he wasn’t sure that his way of dealing with dreams should be called a method at all.**

Humankind has sought to understand dreams for many millennia – the psych professions are just one of the most recent to get involved. Dreams have been of interest throughout various civilisations including Indian, Chinese and ancient Egyptian cultures. Dreams were seen as important in Babylonian and Assyrian texts and, in early Mesopotamia, there where comprehensive and sophisticated explanations for dreams.

If we move away from the ancient or exalted views of dreams, what is left? A succession of internal pictures, feelings, sensations? Simple, individual stories that happen to us and us alone when we close our eyes? Or, perhaps a defence against our own awareness or fear of the aloneness at the centre of all human existence?

Neurobiology brings more concrete information about brains while dreaming. For instance, brain activity during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep – when the majority of dreaming occurs – is most like waking brain activity. But, when science leads us towards a reductionist view, we don’t often gain much succour.

Over the twenty-one years I’ve been taking an interest in my own dream life I have come to realise there really is a personal exposition going on. When I ignore my dreams, I am switching off from a health-creating audit.

I used to cycle along a quiet riverbank, lined with trees, twice a week to get to my therapist’s office. Over the years I did this, I often noticed an amazing turquoise flash of feathers as a kingfisher worked the bank and stream. Over time I began to associate seeing the bird (or not) as a sign of what was to come in my session.

In a quite revelatory dream about a big decision I needed to make, the kingfisher began to show me the way along a very difficult route. He would temporarily perch and wait for me to reach him. Then, he dipped his head as if to acknowledge me and flew on. Repeating the process many times together we ascended a stony wooded rise. As we neared the end of the tree cover, he settled on an old stump and knocked his beak like a woodpecker. To my amazement the tree stirred into the form of a wise old Jewish man who ‘smiled’ but said nothing while radiating an exceptional and acceptable warmth.

I make no secret of the fact that depression first brought me into my own therapy. What I have rarely spoken about is the way that depression lifted. From the moment I realised that the kingfisher was an individual, personal symbol for my wellness, showing me the way forward, twenty years of depression began to lift.

During a long running series of dreams spanning almost two years, the kingfisher delivered me to a series of places where the old Jewish man could be found; very often the old man, in turn, led me to a shining pearl that I would pick, like a berry from a tree.

During the final dream of the series the bird delivered me to a complex house set over five storeys. On the top storey a wooden machine of cogs and levers was shown to me. Disappointed that I hadn’t found one of my pearls, I began to wind the wheels with the help of the Jewish man. As the light poured in through the opening roof it became darker in the attic. Once fully open I looked up into the now dark sky just at the moment that the aurora borealis began. Instantaneously I understood the symbol of the pearls. Since that dream I have never again experienced proper depression.

The kingfisher began to visit my dreams again recently. He tapped out in Morse code a German phrase, Du kennst die Antwort (You know the answer) … I expect that exciting times are just ahead.

* Freud, S. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Words of Sigmund Freud, Vol. IV, First part, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900).

** Jung, C.G. (trans. 1966) The Practice of Psychotherapy, from Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Vol. 16.

Duncan recommends

To reach your inner dream world and begin finding your own answers, you might like to read Carl G. Jung’s Man and His Symbols widely available online and in book stores.

 

All rights reserved © Copyright Duncan E. Stafford 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.