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Let death teach you about life

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VOL: 98, ISSUE: 03, PAGE NO: 33

Phil Barker, PhD, RN

These days, I find myself attending more funerals than weddings. Obituary columns offer fleeting glimpses of my lost youth and I hear echoes of lives lived.

These days, I find myself attending more funerals than weddings. Obituary columns offer fleeting glimpses of my lost youth and I hear echoes of lives lived.

The small bird flitting around my shoulder whistles a snatch of the Rolling Stones' classic: 'This could be the last time'. Every day we get coded messages, from birdsong to rustling leaves. They poke our souls, tired by the exertions of ambition and the pursuit of happiness. They ask: 'What are you striving for?' It is scarily obvious, today may well be the day.

In the past year the day arrived for my mother, Phyllis, and for Frank, the best man at our wedding more than 36 years ago. They slipped their mortal coils within hours of one another. For each the exit was slow and painful, but marked with dignity.

They joined Steve Baldwin and David Brandon, two men known in the world as professors - of psychology and community care - but known to me and my wife as men of character and resolve.

Both were difficult men, academic troublemakers, who made people, including us, feel uncomfortable.

They were joined, just before the year's close, by the grande dame of gentle troublemaking - Annie Altschul. Fearlessly resisting pleas from her treatment team, Annie sat back to await her death as she had always hoped she would.

By enacting her own voluntary euthanasia, she brought a living light to the often sterile ethical debates in nursing about life and death, caring and relating.

For nurses working with the gravely ill or the dying, death represents the core of their everyday reality. I wonder what they make of our promises of genetic engineering and the new technologies that will keep us younger for longer and, for the disgustingly rich, might postpone death.

Each day they have the chance to hold the hand of a dying person and to gaze into the face of a Frank or a Phyllis, a Steve or a David. They can sit with the likes of Annie and face the inevitable.

The passing of friends and loved ones brings us heartache, as well as the refreshment of wisdom. What should we fear in death? We return to the nothingness we came from, or we go somewhere else, or come back and repeat our mistakes.

Death is the point of life, not the end point. Our loss reminds us that we should commit ourselves to life and the living, sharing happiness and misery. It is almost the only thing worth caring about.

- Next week Phil Barker examines Annie Altschul's impact on modern nursing and we consider the future for mental health nursing.

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