“Our final Christmas with mum was extra special”

Categories: Care, Featured, and People & Places.

A family cared for by St Catherine’s Hospice in West Sussex share how the hospice allowed them to spend a treasured, final Christmas together.

Our Mum Maureen was a typical Irish mum. She loved to host people at home, and with our dad Ted, she raised five children – us three, our brother Eddie and sister Anne. So our house in Horley was always busy It was a really happy home. Mum used to call everybody ‘darling’ too, even the nurses who visited her when she was unwell.

Family meant everything to her. Even as we got older we’d still come together at mum and dad’s on birthdays, anniversaries and at Christmas, and we have very happy memories of family Christmasses together. They always included a traditional Christmas dinner, a massive tea and homemade games.

In October 2017 Mum was diagnosed with bowel cancer. It was devastating, but independent as ever, she was determined to stay at home. Shortly after, a St Catherine’s Hospice nurse visited us to tell us about the things that could help mum. They arranged a hospital bed that we could move up and down, and for the hospice’s Occupational Therapist to visit. They sorted out a commode and walking frame to help mum get around her house more easily.

A physio also visited to help her with her breathing. The hospice team helped us discuss mum’s wishes with her too, and she told us that she didn’t want to be resuscitated. Having their support was a huge relief.

Living locally, we’d heard about St Catherine’s before Mum was referred, but we thought it was a building where people went right at the end of their lives. We had no idea that the hospice could offer support to families like ours at home. And it was support that was vital. Without it mum would have ended up in hospital as there would have come a time that we could no longer care for her at home.

As well as helping with practical equipment, St Catherine’s arranged for Lisa, the hospice’s Spiritual Care and Chaplaincy Lead, to visit mum at home too. Mum was a devout Catholic and her faith was important to her so Lisa’s visits meant a lot. Lisa started visiting in the lead up to Christmas and would sit with mum asking questions and saying prayers. They liked to chat about Songs of Praise too!

Mum always attended a Christmas Carol Service, and as Christmas approached she was desperate to attend as usual. But she became less well, and we realised she wasn’t going to be able to leave her house. It was so disappointing for us all but especially for mum.

So we were overwhelmed when Lisa offered to hold a personal carol service in mum’s lounge instead. When we told mum her face lit up, she was absolutely thrilled.

In the lead up to the service mum hadn’t been feeling too well but she perked up that weekend. It was like she knew she had a special event ahead. On the morning of the service Sheila, who’s a hairdresser, styled her hair and we made sure she was wearing her favourite lipstick.

Mum was always proud of how she looked so she picked out her favourite red jumper too, because she wanted to look smart for her carols. All of our family including her grandchildren arrived, and before we knew it mum’s lounge was full of people chattering and passing round song sheets. It must have been lovely for her to have a full house again.

We’d been doing an Advent family Christmas for her. Every day we’d been giving mum a handmade bauble to represent a different family member. We’d planned the last one as a photograph of our dad on a star for the top of her tree. But we ended up giving her the baubles early for her carol service. There were photographs of family members who couldn’t be at her service on the tree too, including her own mum and dad, and brother. And our dad sat on the top of her tree on a glittering gold star.

Mum’s service went on for about an hour and a half and we sung ‘Away in a Manger’, (mum’s favourite), ‘Silent Night’, and ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’. We laughed a lot over our questionable tuning too! Lisa told the nativity story and did some readings, and mum loved it all. She kept smiling contentedly as she sang. Snuggled up in her recliner chair, safe and warm, with her Christmas tree twinkling next to her, she took everything in. Seeing her so happy meant the world to us.

After the service we enjoyed a spread of mince pies and tea. It seemed fitting as traditionally Mum was always the one who fed and hosted everyone.

That day was the last time our family were all together, and the final time mum sung carols, so it’s a really treasured memory that we still talk about today.

A few weeks later we managed to enjoy Christmas Day with her. She wore her Christmas jumper and hat but she was becoming more poorly and we were struggling with managing her pain. Even though it was Christmas we called the hospice phone line to ask the nurses for advice. They suggested trying a morphine patch to help with her pain.

By February her breathing was becoming rattly too so they recommended that she go into a nursing home for respite. We weren’t sure whether to send her at first, but the nurses explained that they would be able to help relieve her rattling breath and support us too, so we agreed.

St Catherine’s still supported us by arranging an ambulance for mum. It was the first time she’d been out in a long time and it happened to be snowing. Snuggled up with a hot water bottle, she enjoyed the drive, looking out of the ambulance window at the pretty snow.

Sadly three days later mum passed away. It was an incredibly difficult time but we’re so grateful that during her last Christmas, thanks to St Catherine’s, we were able to make her wish of singing carols come true.

Thanks to the hospice our final Christmas with mum was extra special. Every family deserves that. It doesn’t seem possible that we’re now facing a second Christmas without mum. She was the centre of our family and things haven’t ever been the same, but we do our best to enjoy Christmas like she would have wanted. Every year, we donate money to St Catherine’s instead of buying gifts, in her honour. And we think of her often, especially when we sing carols.

More information

Dying Matters is a campaign run by Hospice UK that works to create an open culture that talks about death, dying and bereavement.

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