When her husband died at St Catherine’s Hospice in West Sussex last year, Liz felt like her and her family were at home. Here she shares how the hospice helped them enjoy one final Christmas together.
Christmas is a time to be together with the people you love, laughing and showing how much you care for each other. The last Christmas you spend with your loved one shouldn’t be any different.
So when my husband Rodney passed away on Christmas Day five years ago, it meant the world to me that his final Christmas included our whole family gathered around his bedside at St Catherine’s Hospice.
Rodney was a character. He was a writer, a painter, and a bit of an old hippy! We’d been together for 22 years when he was diagnosed with cancer. As you can imagine, I was devastated. I wanted to care for him, but I didn’t know how. I was desperately upset and I didn’t know who to turn to for help.
I felt very scared and very alone. Caring for my husband, and knowing that he was going to die, was very frightening and I was struggling to cope. But all that changed when we were referred to St Catherine’s.
The first time we went to the hospice, I found it difficult to even walk through the door. I remember thinking how awful it all was. But once I’d stepped inside the sense of relief was enormous. Everyone was smiling and I knew then that things would be okay. St Catherine’s promised to help Rodney and I make sense of everything, and to support us as individuals, as a couple, and as a family. In the months that followed, that’s exactly what they did.
At first, St Catherine’s community nurses visited Rodney at home. The nurses got to know him and were kind, generous and supportive. By the 20 December, Rodney’s health was deteriorating and things were getting more difficult to manage at home. When I phoned St Catherine’s for advice, it was decided the best thing would be to move him into the hospice. I moved in right along with him. And for a while St Catherine’s became our home.
The hospice team was fantastic. They made Rodney comfortable and provided him with such dignified care. They always made sure he was washed and shaved, and they put a makeshift bed in his room for me. Being able to continue to sleep alongside one another made his last few days so much better.
Our final days and nights at the hospice could so easily have been a time of intense stress and anxiety. But Rodney had all the expert care he needed, so the two of us could focus on the important things like telling one another how much we loved each other. Saying goodbye to 22 years of love and happiness wasn’t easy. But St Catherine’s gave us space to share our memories, reflect on our life together, and to express our most intimate and tender feelings. Of course we shed tears, but we laughed a lot too.
Even now I don’t think that would have been possible anywhere else. At home I would have been too anxious, and in hospital I would have had to leave Rodney each evening to go home alone. Without St Catherine’s, we wouldn’t have had the support to allow us to spend every precious minute together.
I still remember one night when I couldn’t sleep. It was about 2am when I went for a walk around the hospice. They have this wonderful glass ceiling near their entrance, and I could see all the stars shining bright in the winter’s sky. Everything was so quiet and tranquil. Gazing at the beauty of those stars, I remember thinking what an extraordinary place the hospice was and how safe, comfortable and peaceful I felt there.
Being at St Catherine’s at Christmas time felt like being part of a community. It was nice to hear carols being sung and to enjoy a chocolate from the treat table in the hospice lounge. Hearing people doing the things you do at Christmas was important as it gave us a sense of normality.
Rodney died at St Catherine’s on Christmas Day. Our whole family was there and it felt just like being at home. On Christmas morning, we gathered around Rodney’s bed. He had his eyes closed, but we knew he could hear us. We were sharing stories and telling silly jokes like we always do when we’re together as a family. Everyone was smiling and laughing. We forgot our sadness. We forgot we were in a hospice. We forgot that we were saying goodbye. In those moments, everything felt just as it should be at Christmas.
The nurses were nearby if we needed them, but they gave us space to be together. I was so grateful for that. Because I knew I didn’t have to face Rodney’s death alone, our last day together was the best Christmas Day it could possibly be.
Rodney died surrounded by love. The nurses even let me stay with him for as long as I wanted to afterwards. It really helped that I had space and time to say goodbye.
The way I see it, St Catherine’s helps people live through dying. Their support and care, their staff’s generosity and kindness, and the whole ethos makes it possible for people to die with dignity, for relationships to be honoured and cherished, and for the dying to live on as life continues.
Since Rodney died, I’ve started volunteering at St Catherine’s. On Christmas Day, the anniversary of his death, there is nowhere I want to be more. I volunteer in the kitchen and then help serve a traditional Christmas lunch to everyone staying in the hospice.
Walking around the wards, chatting to people and serving them their food, reminds me how much a smiling face meant to me while I was on the ward with Rodney. The smiles and friendly conversations I experienced let me know we were cared for. Now I get a lot from knowing I can do the same for someone else. If I can help someone feel less alone during awful, extreme and testing circumstances, circumstances where their life is going to change – and change irrevocably, it’s important I do that.
I’m so grateful that on our last Christmas Day, Rodney, I and his children were able to be together at St Catherine’s. The memories we made then have kept us all going through the Christmases without him since. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by our grief and sadness, we draw strength from the final, beautiful memories of our last Christmas together. I can’t stress enough how important those memories are.
For more information visit St Catherine’s