Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Lynda Bellingham : Dignity in Death

On a particularly busy day at this year's LibDem Conference, I asked questions to Danny Alexander, Tim Farron and our leader Nick Clegg. It's the question to Nick that means most to me, however. In his Q&A I asked him if he would fight to ensure that parliamentary time would be put aside to debate assisted dying. He, to his credit told me that he would, but that he wasn't yet convinced of the arguments in favour of the issue - that's a kind of honesty that I like.

I care about assisted dying for a number of reasons. The main one is that my Mum has worked in caring roles with the elderly for most of my life. Growing up, it was quite normal for me to visit my Mum's place of work and play piano for her residents, or to speak to them about their lives - it's something that can really help those in the early stages of Alzheimer's. What that also meant was that I became quite used to the fact that every now and again my Mum would come home and tell me that a lady who I'd often spoken with had died. And here's the thing, I've also been fully aware that death isn't very often like falling asleep. Sometimes it is, but just as often somebody who dies has been manhandled awfully because paramedics tried of resuscitate, or they died in a way that will have removed almost all sense of dignity.

Almost worse than the dying, is the people that have to live with no sense of dignity. I've met enough people in my life whose existences became almost intolerable, all because we have a narrow health system and narrow attitude that would rather leave people to suffer than to give them help and support.

In this sense, the way that Lynda Bellingham dealt with the final stages of her life are a breath of fresh air. Her final interview, broadcast on Loose Women today was actually almost joyful to watch. Yes, it was sad, because she made it very clear that she intended to live until Christmas and spend time with her family, but it was also joyous because she was still absolutely herself. She was still the glamourous actress who talked on a daily basis about 'Mr Spain', she looked fantastic and she clearly was happy to spend such a touching time with women that she cared so much about.

She was also open about the fact that she'd been given a 'way out' - the option of taking pain-relieving medication that would probably end her life. She had taken ownership of that decision.

I'd like to see more movement on the issue of Assisted Dying, because I think whilst Lynda will have been able to help herself, many people aren't in that position. I understand the arguments and the need for safeguards, but I also understand the massive suffering that people go through because the law won't afford them another way. I'm glad that Nick agrees with me that it should be debated.

I hope that Lynda becomes a role model of how to deal with death. Rather than taking to her bed, or writing a 'bucket list', Lynda wrote letters to her children, she wrote a will and she made plans for the near future that seemed attainable. Those are pragmatic and dignified things to do - small measures that can be taken that say quite openly, death might be on it's way, but it'll be on my terms.

Lynda Bellingham was a wonderful woman. She became a household name through her acting roles - Oxo Mum or anything else - and she became a friend to people up and down the country who welcomed her into their homes every lunchtime. But to me, her real legacy could be a change in attitude toward death that allows us to talk about it all, and discuss things properly. In that case, Lynda's life will have been effervescent, but her passing will have made a lasting and meaningful mark too.

I don't know Lynda Bellingham's views on actual assisted dying, and wouldn't profess to, but you can get more information from Dignity in Dying by clicking here.

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