The Certain Uncertainty of Death

Something I’ve noticed recently is how quickly time is moving for me. It feels like I blink and a month has gone, the days go fast and the seasons change quicker than I realise. I’m barely used to winter and it already feels like spring is on its way. Thinking about this made me realise some things I’d like to share. Some random thoughts about why we fear death so much and how we can recognise this in ourselves and other people.

One aspect of the modern world I find amazing is how long we all expect to live. People who die at 70 are considered to die young, whereas a several decades ago that would have been an achievement. Medicine progresses to cure more and more, so it feels like we’d only be happy to die of old age at 110 in our sleep. Sadly, very few of us will actually experience that and the truth of the matter is that we could die at any age. It’s the uncertain certainty, death will happen but rarely can we be sure of how and when until time is running out.

In this sense, the modern world prepares us to die at a ripe old age. We are advised to invest in pensions pots and plan for our retirements even though the pension age gets higher and higher. The world expects to live for a longer and longer time each year. This can only add to the sense of being robbed of this liberty when somebody dies young. I’ve noticed a large number of people dying in their 40s for example, for a range of reasons or illnesses. This is only about ten years older than I am now but the prospect of only having ten years remaining seems grossly unfair. Yet it could happen.

Once the fear of this creeps in, it’s hard to shift that thought and appreciate life in the way we think we should. The contradiction of living each day like it’s your last but saving money because you’ll grow old is around us everywhere. You can see in the same magazine two different articles about why we need to eat a healthier diet and then later on why we should just eat the damn cupcake. In a practical sense, we somehow have to accept that life is finite and varied in length, but in reality this is not a thought that comes easy. I remember learning once something like that a thousand years ago living past 35 could be deemed old age. These things change and develop through time and I wonder if their thoughts would have been any different or the same just on a much shorter timescale. Religion has had and does have a lot to say on accepting your time and the will of higher beings, but I think in a modern world where people rely less and less on religion we will of course question these things instead.

I do hope that this is thought provoking and not depressing as it could be interpreted. What I am trying to emphasise is that fearing something unknown will ultimately not lead to any good. Learning to accept the unknown and know it exists is key, and by understanding that you can see through the fear to some extent. I’m not saying that I am not afraid of death, or that I am not sad when those around me die. It doesn’t make grief or bereavement necessarily any easier, but it does make living with the inevitability of death a lot easier.

MG x

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead

If you speak to me, or see me recently you have probably heard me say I’m tired, or thought I look rough. Truth is, I feel it! Between mystery pain and insomnia, my brain is in overdrive and it’s a really busy time of year in the death industry. I’m really proud of my team and of being a part of it this week. We’ve pulled together through some tough situations, just got on with it when we’ve been pushed to our limits and all our strength is gone. When I say strength, although you might think mental I actually mean both mental and physical. There’s been moments when my arms just don’t want to do what I need them to.

What a lot of people don’t realise is, mortuary work is very physical especially when it’s busy. You might find yourself cleaning, moving patients around or just running about trying to keep on top of phones ringing, doorbells going off and people being released to funeral directors. When I quite Archaeology I didn’t think a physical job would be part of my life again, because it felt like most jobs now are office based. Sometimes I now get time to sit at a desk and those times I relish, whereas previously the prospect of a desk job really did not appeal to me whatsoever.

In the hospital world, there is what is known as ‘Winter Pressures’. The wards feel it with meetings about beds and spaces, the emergency areas feel it with huge increases in footfall through their doors and the mortuaries feel it with constant new patients and community members arriving. It’s slightly different every year, in that the issues caused by this are different but largely space related. The other difference is that the time of year when it is at it’s worst is never predictable. It can coincide with dips in weather and temperature but it can also appear to be utterly random.

A lot goes on, some I’m aware of and some I’m sure I’m not, behind the scenes to ensure we are best prepared for these times and can cope in one way or another. It may mean just using our extra storage. It might mean transferring people to our surplus storage in an external company. The worst I’ve seen in my time at the mortuary is a concern that places are getting very full, and that even extra storage is not enough. However, there are plans, upon plans, upon plans to ensure that there is always a way to cope. This doesn’t make it any less stressful for those involved but it should calm any concerns from the public who might believe there is a problem.

February Death Cafe is coming up soon!

I do wonder if I’ll ever get used to this time of year, and not find it completely tiring. The lack of sunlight doesn’t help me and drains energy. I’m hoping for sunnier, calmer days ahead. Looking ahead, it’s not long now before I head up North to start my training officially! However, before then we have our February Death Cafe coming up on the 19th at our usual lovely venue at the usual time. Hope you can make it!

MG x

Back at the Old Operating Theatre

On Thursday night I had the pleasure of returning to one of my favourite places in London for a fabulous evening of wine and Victorian surgery. Rachel had asked me if, instead of exchanging Christmas presents last year, we bought tickets to an event she had found online through a friend. It was a great idea and I jumped at the chance to introduce her to a place I love.

The Herb Garrett is in the attic space around the Operating Theatre and is a lovely collection of objects and fascinating things.m

That’s how I ended up back at the Old Operating Theatre at the Herb Garrett site on St. Thomas’ Street. Another friend came with us who, due to an unfortunate injury, was able to try out the newly installed lift at the museum. Previously, the museum has only been accessible via a very small and unnervingly narrow spiral staircase that scares me somewhat. It’s handy to know, and I’m pleased to broadcast that in future, if you need disabled access to this museum it is available upon request with a valid reason.

The Operating Theatre with original operating table on the left and reproduction on the right

Another thing I’m pleased to say is that the museum have invested in some further cushions for the wooden steps! Previous visits had made me recommend to friends to take at least a rolled up jumper to sit on because after and hour sat on the wooden floor made for a very numb bum and achey hip joints. However, handy seat pads are now provided which is excellent!

Rachel did not appreciate the smell of the soap bars being passed around

I won’t spoil the content of the Victorian Surgery Demonstration talk for those who will be attending in future, it’s often on during normal museum opening hours and also some are available after hours. It is a fabulous talk and the speaker is very knowledgeable in the subject matter. Objects are passed around and you can really get a feel for what surgery would have been like in the past, particularly pre the introduction of anaesthetic.

In depth demonstrations upon a willing volunteer

Sadly I tore myself away at the end, partly because I needed to empty my bladder so badly but also because I always feel a huge spend up coming on when in their wonderful gift shop. I cannot recommend a visit to this delightful museum enough and think it is one of the best hidden sites in London. One thing I had been curious about was how this theatre had survived, the lady told me that the whole area had been boarded up and not accessed for a long time and almost been forgotten about. It makes me wonder how many roof spaces of old buildings are hiding little treasures like this!

MG x

My Heart’s Still Beating

It’s been a slow start to the year but I do feel fully back in the swing of things and much better with my mental state! Still having the odd blip but that can only be expected.

This week we’ve been really quite busy, which comes with the unfortunate task of often having to not be able to give families what they always want. By that I mean, I think a lot of families believe they can either show up at any time or see their relative whenever they want. While this is something that in a perfect world would be possible, with our staffing, workload and space limitations we are very limited on the times we can offer. Viewings can be very time consuming if we have to take a lot of time to prepare the person, depending on what condition they are in, and we cannot give the amount of time demanded from us towards them. Sadly I’ve had to speak to family members on the phone and tell them they cannot come and see their relative either right at that minute, or recommend that they wait until their family member has gone to the funeral directors.

It’s one of the hardest parts of my job in all honesty, you want to be able to give people what they want but you end up some days being overwhelmed by the demands and unable to not be annoyed at some expectations. I can only recommend for anyone who thinks they would visit their family member in hospital that you call as early as possible to ensure you have better chances of getting an appointment (a bit like the GP surgery!). However, something I always do recommend is that it is better in many people’s minds to visit loved ones at the funeral directors where a lot more can be done and a lot more time dedicated. I often feel like our viewings can be very clinical and not always the best for families even though we try our best with what we have. I’m sure this could be different in other hospitals but some may agree with me. I would be interested to find out!

I had the opportunity yesterday to go into the post-mortem room with the other trainee and work together which was fantastic. We really work well and help each other with the bits we both struggle with. I’m so glad that we can share the stuff we know and I hope we can get some other occasions where we can do this going forward. I’ve really noticed recently that my confidence has grown again and come back to where it was before. I feel like the weaker points I was struggling with are becoming easier too. Really bodes well for starting my official training in a month’s time!

Finally, today I had to go for an ultrasound scan on my abdomen due to some right upper quadrant pain I’d been having which was suspected gall bladder issues. I’m pleased to say my gallbladder is fine, but now just concerned about what the pain actually could be. One funny thing however, when the man performing the scan showed me the screen I think I said ‘WOW’ a little too loudly. He went on the describe my gallbladder and what it does, and then my kidney and I had to interrupt him to explain what I do and why it was so cool to see my own. He smiled and sat back and said ‘Well you see all that movement, that your blood pumping around and you don’t get that’ which really made me laugh. Good to know my heart is in fine working order too hopefully!

Tomorrow night I’m off to an event in the city which I’m excited about. Then I have a long weekend to recover. I’ll let you all know about the event and some upcoming stuff in my next post. Hope you’re all having a good week!

MG x

The Importance of Talking About Death

You might have already seen that my very exciting news last week was that I was approached by a BBC Radio producer to appear on a Radio 1xtra show about death on Sunday night. I was incredibly apprehensive but knew it was too good of an opportunity to refuse so anxiously I went along. Originally, crossed wires meant I was on air a lot longer than I thought I would be, I was not the only guest as I thought and that it was broadcast live! At first I thought it was recorded to be broadcast later and that the documentary parts of the show were the main bulk of it. As terrifying as it was, the team there made me feel really relaxed and even though I sound nervous at the start and at one point my mic wasn’t switched on and I was talking, I really enjoyed the whole experience! If you would like to listen, it is available online here. We discuss how Death Cafe’s work, how they help people and what is involved.

The host Reece Parkinson, the other guest Angel and myself in the studio after the show.

This week I have managed to finally sort out my workspace at home and I’m really pleased with the result. I needed an area where I could work on my course and also any other computer work I needed to do, but somewhere quiet and where I could concentrate. Luckily one of the reasons we bought our house was a really neat little feature of a mezzanine loft extension area which I’ve now decked out with a place to relax and folding desk with chair for my work. There’s even a little heater for when it’s cold and space for all my folders and books. I’m so chuffed and happy it’s completed before I start my course at the end of February.

My little safe space to retreat to!

Wednesday evening there were two important death related shows that I can thoroughly recommend. On BBC Radio 4 at 8pm, We Need To Talk About Death about the role of the Coroner in unexpected deaths that a Death Cafe attendee pointed me in the direction of. This is a topic that was recently raised at our Death Cafe and something I think requires a greater clarity for people. Then at 9pm on BBC 2 a Horizon programme called We Need To Talk About Death with Dr. Kevin Fong which mainly explored the relationship between palliative care and traditional medicinal care for patients nearing the end of their life. I can thoroughly recommend both, the first because I learnt a bit more about how families may feel for our community cases that we receive, and the latter because I never knew how palliative care worked or how it is used so effectively. I also found the hospice scenes absolutely fascinating. Have a listen/watch and let me know what you think. They can be found on BBC Sounds and IPlayer respectively.

An interesting radio show highlighting the emotional reaction and the Coronial reaction to sudden deaths.

A brilliant documentary about the importance of planning and thinking about the kinds of care we receive towards the end of our lives.

Finally, this week I have been starting to make plans for Dying Matters Week 2019! This year it runs between the 13th-19th May and I’ve been planning some ideas for myself and discussing some potential activities at work at the hospital. I’m hoping to make the most of the week and get everyone I know talking and thinking about death, I’ll use any excuse really. If you would like to get involved in any way please let me know.

MG x

Disaster Mortuary

One thing I am very used to is a quiet mortuary. Generally there’s only a few of us working about, either on our own work or in groups. It only ever gets loud if there is music playing or when we do training with the nurses, but we have control over the scenarios and what is happening. On Thursday, it felt very chaotic even though it was a very organised exercise being performed, it was just not being performed by our team. We had a big group of police staff and members of the UK DVI team descend on the mortuary for an exercise in disaster management. Let me explain further!

UK DVI are the UK Disaster Victims Identification team. As you might expect, they work to identify the victims of any incident considered a disaster, such recent examples in this country would be the Grenfell Tower fire and the London Bridge terrorist attacks. Not only do they work on disasters in the UK, but they also work alongside or with teams from other countries around the world when disasters occur, particularly when UK nationals are involved.

An excerpt from the UK DVI website explaining themselves in their own words which can be found here

The police staff were divided into teams and worked in these groups to practice recording details and taking evidence from the deceased of a mock incident. This involved not only the staff wearing full protective equipment as in they had shoe covers, Tyvek suits, face masks and gloves taped to the sleeves, but they also set up our post-mortem room in the style that they would use with individual stations set up for each victim.

A glimpse of our post-mortem room where you can see three of our four stations and the observation gallery at the back of the room

From my perspective, which was observing the entire thing and giving assistance where it was needed, the most odd thing about the whole exercise was that the victims of the mock incident were alive actors who were fully dressed, placed in a body bag with a couple of blankets to lay on and were examined. It is very odd, noted by all the mortuary staff, to see someone lying on a post-mortem table and observe their chest rising and falling as they breathe. One even had a coughing fit at one point!

The teams practiced taking the evidence they needed, in this case taking photographs of the victims and removing their belongings and clothes to be placed in evidence bags. They also went through the paperwork they would need to fill out, the team split into ‘clean’ members who were completing the paperwork side of things and the ‘dirty’ members who were handling the tools and the victims themselves.

I feel very lucky to have been able to witness this exercise being completed and I hope I have taken away correct information to describe the above! In the event of a disaster near to our location, we would become the disaster mortuary for this purpose. Both the other trainee and myself agree that while it would be horrible and we don’t want anyone to go through it, it would be fascinating to see an incident in progress from the mortuary side of things.

One very odd thing, in all honesty when all the police staff were dressed up in their protective gear it really reminded me of that scene at the beginning of Hot Fuzz where Simon Pegg’s character is trying to find his SOCO (Scene of Crime Officer) girlfriend in a sea of people dressed the same. While laughing at this comparison in my head I recognised a pair of eyes peeking through below the hood of a Tyvek suit. Turns out it was a friend from a long time ago that I haven’t seen for about a decade! We had a great catch up afterwards and it was brilliant to see them, it’s so funny how life plays out sometimes.

Aforementioned scene from shot Fuzz, the girlfriend or ex-girlfriend actually played by Cate Blanchett in a little known cameo!

Still one very exciting thing to happen this week that I am also very nervous about. I will announce what is happening once it’s complete and I’m happy to share. If you have any questions about the above, please do get in touch!

MG x

Death Anxiety

I finally feel back in full swing and like I can handle the year ahead whatever it may throw in my direction. It’s only taken me over two weeks to get that New Year feeling. As promised, I would like to update you all on the goings on for the first half of this week, especially when there are some more exciting things left to happen.

On Sunday, Rachel and I hosted an event which I originally called ‘Death In The Afternoon’ but I may have to change due to a very popular podcast of the same name having been released since I decided on it. This has been a while in the making, trying to host an event similar to Death Cafe but at the weekend and in a much more relaxed style. It was at my house and all I asked was that attendees supplied the cake and I would supply the tea. I trialled this with some close friends and we played the Death Deck game that I have mentioned before. I think it was an absolute success and I hope those who came would agree, we laughed and had some excellent discussions about various aspects of death. I learnt some very insightful things about my friends too!

 

Improvising necessary when you only get two of some of your letters with your lightbox

Amazing cakes including the gravestones made by my friend Alison!

Yesterday was our monthly Death Cafe at The Sweet Rose Cakery in Upminster. I expected the numbers to be low due to the weather and the time of the year, however we also had the added factor of half the town being closed for gas works and all the buses on divert! All of that aside, we had a small but very cheery group of people get together and although we certainly went off on far more tangents than normal we had some interesting topics. Rather poignantly, the topic of death anxiety came up and I thought it was something to discuss further.

We talked about death anxiety, originally in relation to our own worrying about loved ones and imagining their deaths when we rationally know that’s not what has happened. I know I am guilty of this myself, my other half goes to work on a motorbike every day and if he hasn’t text me by midday I do start to get quite panicky that something has happened. My Mum made a very good point that this is a symptom of having a mobile phone, when she and Dad were first together they didn’t have them and he went to work with most days no contact until he came home. I guess the constant contact we have with people can be problematic in many ways but this is a big one.

In general, those that attended who were younger then went on to a conversation about Facebook and social media. It was clear that we are of a generation where communication comes very easy when we want it, but it comes with many disadvantages too. We might panic when we think we are being ignored, we could be the victim of trolls, and we worry about what has happened when communication doesn’t happen. We discussed worrying about our own deaths, our loved ones deaths and general anxiety around this. I can’t comment for everyone but I know that I have worried, even before I had my job it is important to note, on numerous occasions about death. I’m prone to worrying about my own death if I feel unwell, or at least it does cross my mind. Part of my reasoning for doing and liking my job is it’s almost like an immersion therapy. Surround yourself with something you’re naturally scared of and it becomes familiar and less scary.

A delightful bitmoji image I found once!

Something that also came from the (probably soon to be renamed) Death In The Afternoon was the comment from one friend that ‘Well, Death is just so final’. We all laughed in the obvious nature of this, but actually I think that’s the main reason for the anxiety around it. There’s no going back. There’s often nothing that can be done. It’s understandable why it’s scary and causes anxiety because it removes any control we have, and I think most of us do like to have control. Maybe by working in death I feel like I’m regaining some of that control.

Big day tomorrow and an interesting weekend coming up. I’m glad I could get this in today and hope you’re all having a good week so far!

MG x

2019 (Attempt Number Three)

Those keeping up with my life, and I don’t blame you if you haven’t because it’s fairly boring at the moment, will know that I spent all of the last week in bed after waking up in the early hours of Monday morning with the winter vomiting virus that seems to be doing the rounds at the moment. I won’t go on about it for long, only that I learnt something very interesting while googling from my sick bed. Having a form of vomiting bug can make you lactose intolerant for a period of up to three days due to the imbalance of bacteria in your stomach. I discovered this the hard way when craving a cup of tea and it made me sick again, tried switching to soya milk and it worked a treat. Basically, a virus wiping out your whole system can end up causing your stomach to be unable to process dairy, hence why they always say you should have dry toast or similar to start with. Or a good way to inadvertently try Veganuary without realising.

As the only things that visited me while sick, an incredible amount of cat photos were taken in the last week. Also googled ‘can cats catch norovirus’ to which the answer is no!

However I am now feeling more human, stronger and more positive than I have done in a while. It’s only taken me 11 days into the new year to sort myself out. Just as well really, when next week there’s a few things going on that I really don’t want to miss.

To start with, this weekend I am trialling a new concept for an idea I had last year which I will update you all on soon. Tuesday next week (15th January) is the first Upminster Death Cafe of 2019 which I am very much looking forward to and, although I fear it will be a little quieter than normal owing to the time of year, I can’t wait to see all the familiar faces or any new faces that might appear.

Next Thursday at work we have an exciting day lined up which I will also be blogging about once it has happened, then next weekend I have something hugely exciting hopefully happening that I can’t wait to tell you all about. So, for now, apologies for being so secretive but I cannot guarantee everything will either happen, go to plan or that I will describe it effectively until I know more. Rest assured I am blocking out the following week, primarily to rest and recover from my busy week, but secondly to blog about it all.

That’s all from me this week unfortunately. It’s hard to stomach going from such a quiet week to an incredibly busy one (no pun intended) but bear with me. I hope you’ve all had a much more successful 2019 than me so far!

MG x

New Year Burn Out

I won’t dwell on this for long, but I decided to check in with everyone to just say Happy New Year and I hope all is going well so far for 2019. Personally, not had the best start I could hope for but I’m feeling a lot better than I did on New Year’s Day evening luckily.

New Year’s Day had a wonderful sunset however!

I think a combination of festive pressures put upon me partly by other people but mainly myself, contributed towards a bit of a hopeless feeling. I experienced a massive bout of insomnia which affected my work, which mutated into a fear of not sleeping, that then became the reason why I wasn’t sleeping. I had a couple of major things in my life go awry towards the end of last year that I thought I could cope with. It just turns out that while I was coping with the big stuff, I was not coping with a lot of the smaller things like managing a social diary or, very simply, keeping on top of my washing (having clean clothes was a big worry for me at 3am for some strange reason).

I stumbled across this Moomin cartoon which made me smile, too often I am like Pimple (but not about jam)

Sometimes the pressures and strains of life can get too much. I think this is why things like ‘Self Care’ and ‘Mindfulness’ are so popular now. I worry that they are seen as trendy and just a bandwagon to be jumped on, but I never for one second think that. I honestly believe that taking time for yourself is almost more important than eating the right foods and doing exercise, or at least should be the priority. Mainly because if your mental state isn’t in the best place, nothing else will really work out.

Without getting too bogged down in non-mortuary related things, I can honestly say that due to not being at work there isn’t much else to say! I worked a few hours today, the opportunity came up and my manager asked if I would like to go in. I was pleased to be asked, I find going back after a bout of illness, especially poor mental health, incredibly daunting. I would probably end up back in a pattern of not sleeping and worrying. The fact I went in today and saw some colleagues, did some work and it all went fine, has relieved a huge pressure in my mind about tomorrow morning.

We can so easily burn ourselves out it’s unreal. However always remember we’re only human. We’re only flesh and blood and the things that make us who we are. Burning out, or not being able to cope, is nothing to be ashamed of or afraid of. By talking about it openly, I help myself and I hope I help others who may be going through a similar situation.

MG x

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