My dad Fred passed away earlier this month, but this is not a eulogy. This is about my dad’s end of life.
Watching an adored family member slowly fade away is never easy, but the end for my father, after three weeks of goodbyes at Launceston General Hospital was dignified and peaceful. Dad died his way.
That’s the key, which is why I applaud the Royal Australasian College of Physicians’ Congress for calling for more open discussions between patients and medical professionals about end-of-life care.
The key here is to include families. They need to know the wishes of a loved one to ensure they are carried out and also to prepare for the emotional roller coaster that goes with it. That takes not only frank conversations about death, but also the support of an experienced clinical team.
When our journey began we didn’t realise dad was dying. He had been admitted to hospital lucid, but fragile, like a few times before. We naïvely thought this funny, loving 87-year-old great grandfather would do what he always did: rally and get back to the love of his life, our mum.
But this time there were clues; clues which we initially ignored because dad was, at times, so alert. Even when he refused his medication and ripped the drip from his bruised hand, not once, but three times, we still didn’t get that he was saying: “enough”.
Even when he sang to us: ‘Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye’. That brought tears to our eyes, but still no one mentioned death.
When at last we were all gathered around his bed, dad rallied and was again joking with his sons, singing with his daughters and fretting over mum. He spent time with each of us, what a treasured gift that has become.
This was his way of saying goodbye.
It still came as a shock when palliative care specialist Associate Professor Terry Hannan from LGH educated us about what was really going on with dad. How he did that will remain for me one of life’s most profound lessons.
Associate Professor Hannan arrived at dad’s bedside with a group of young and impressionable medical students. They looked as terrified as we felt. How he did that was both compassionate and pure genius.
Associate Professor Hannan gently urged a young student forward and used her encounter to teach us all.
She seemed so vulnerable that we instinctively became protective of her as Associate Professor Hannan cajoled her to provide us with answers, that our dad was dying and telling us so, in his own way. The surprising thing was that the news, when it finally hit home, was not as traumatic as I had expected.
Associate Professor Hannan thanked us for helping to educate these soon-to-be doctors. In truth, we owed him a debt of gratitude. It was a patient and family-centred experience every one deserves.
Finally we understood that this was how dad wanted to die, as was his right.
There is now a national campaign called Death Over Dinner that encourages us all to have frank conversations about the end of life. Don’t be afraid to join in.
Although we didn’t have that discussion with dad, we were lucky enough to meet a passionate palliative care campaigner who guided us.
Dad taught us how to live and love life; Associate Professor Hannan taught us how to accept death.
Robyn Riley is a former journalist at The Examiner. Her father Fred died in early May and was a Tasmanian racing Hall of Fame inductee.