On the night that Peggy Mitchell's funeral aired on EastEnders, my mother-in-law Eileen found herself unable to lift herself off the floor to turn it over. After a lifetime of successfully keeping the idea of death at bay, she was forced to confront it on her hands and knees, terrified, as a Victorian-style horse-drawn hearse loudly trotted through her own living room. It felt unreal, almost like an out-of-body experience perhaps. She might as well have been the one in the coffin herself.
A few hours later we realised that we hadn't had her regular phone call to wish us goodnight. When we went round to Eileen’s house and peered through the window, we saw her there, exhausted and distressed, struggling on the floor like a bee in a jam jar. Both doors were locked from the inside with the key in the latch, and we had to call the police to break in with a battering ram. Over the next few years, after a succession of further falls and life-threatening illnesses, Eileen eventually ended up in a care home but that day, the day of Peggy Mitchell’s funeral, was the turning point for me. Nothing was ever the same after that.
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Working as I do in resettlement support for a local authority, I know that homelessness is an idea that takes root long before the roof over someone's head goes missing. It's about not feeling safe in your own home, not feeling like you belong in the community anymore, sometimes not even trusting the feeling of being in your own skin.
Going into a care home is a special kind of homelessness. I remember after my dad’s admission to a residential setting that a time came when he started looking me in the eyes and telling me that he wanted to go home. It took me a while to realise that he was talking about Home, with a capital ‘H’. You know, home-home, home to his personal place of rest, the kind of spiritual homelessness for which there is no alternative placement.
In Eileen's case, as with so many others, going into care started out as a temporary arrangement. She wasn't going to be staying, so there was no point in getting to know the other residents, or bringing in her own things. She’d seen on the news that there was this new illness sweeping the world, and as soon as that was over she would be able to see her daughter again. When she felt strong enough they could arrange for her to go home with carers.
We didn’t know that navigating care home restrictions during the time of Covid would eventually become harder than arranging legal representation in Guantánamo Bay. Throughout most of that long 18 months, Eileen pressed the redial button on her mobile phone to call us 20 times a day to say how unhappy and isolated she felt. We became reluctant experts in both Department of Health visiting guidance and writing formal letters of complaint.
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When Eileen eventually died in the early hours of the morning, I was attempting to sleep in the car in the care home car park. The night shift rang us to say that she wasn't well and we were only finally allowed in to see her after they had confirmed that she had stopped breathing.
Fortunately, she never knew that the care home had issued her with notice to leave months earlier due to our complaints about lack of visiting, or that any of the other care homes in the district had said that her needs were too high for them. Eileen was 96 and lived through four monarchs – I thought she deserved much more respect than that.
Eileen's death was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a 'good death’, and there is much about it that remained unresolved.
Sooner or later I knew I was going to have to go back there. But how do you navigate such a hostile, grief-scarred landscape? How to make right what feels like it will forever be wrong?
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I always say to colleagues that doing support work in circumstances where we are dealing with personal traumas that resonate with those of the people we are supporting leaves us vulnerable to feeling what our clients feel, and that our personal wounds run the risk of bleeding out into the unprocessed sea of collective trauma.
In local authority homelessness work, trying to overcome barriers to accessing accommodation, benefits and mental health support, you will appreciate that there is never a shortage of systemic injustices to be angry about. On a daily basis, I found myself triggered at my working-from-home desk, surrounded by Eileen’s unpacked possessions recovered from the care home. A suitcase of her unworn day clothes, hastily packed at the start of the pandemic eighteen months earlier, is a surprisingly tolerant companion to some of the most out of character shouting at my computer screen or swearing into thin air.
Just like in Eileen’s placement though, almost everything of importance happens in this room now. My work, my social life structured around online Zoom meetings, and, when I can clear a space on the floor, my spiritual integration practices. It was here, lying down with my eyes closed within the last month, that Eileen's death happened for a second time in my own body.
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Grief is a very physical process. It's there in my breathing, the knot in my stomach, the tightness in my chest, and it doesn't take much inward focusing for it to return to the surface. I know from past experience that the details of deaths I haven't been present at continue to work away in my imagination many years afterwards in an attempt to find a resolution. I always wonder ‘what was it like at the end, what did they feel?’
It's no surprise to me then that when I started turning my attention internally I was right back there at Eileen's bedside in a dreamlike fashion. I felt so cold. The nurse that she was frightened of was there, and Eileen was panicking, drowning in air. I was drowning in the emotion myself, trapped in the car in the care home car park, unable to reach her. I had a friend who had died tragically driving home through a flash flood on a country road in Ireland and read in the coroner's report in the newspaper that a bystander opened the boot and his body just drifted out. There was relief in that thought, the idea that death could be as easy as floating away. Eileen had a taste for grisly thriller novels, and in my imagination, I shared the story with her.
She was a corpse, like the ones in the murder mysteries, and there was anxiety that the police would break the door down again to take her away. I told her that she was home now, and no one could ever make her leave her there again. She didn't have to rush anymore, we had all the time in the world to do this properly.
In memory, we travelled together back to her old house, filled with light like one of those summer days when she always liked to photograph the tree in blossom from her window. The funeral procession was passing by, and her roof was decked with bunting like people had used to celebrate the end of the Great War, although I fancied they looked like Tibetan prayer flags.
In my mind’s eye, Eileen took her time to say goodbye to each room, before walking out of the best front door, the one that was only ever used for weddings and christenings, with head held high. She made her way to the front and walked at the head of the coffin, without a single walking aid, and several generations of her ancestors followed behind her, dancing. That house had never seen such a party.
Opening my eyes and reaching for the tissues, I knew that I had beheld a virtual funeral procession of my own and the world would be forever changed.
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When my wife and I returned to Eileen’s old house, there was an empty chair, much as there is in many homes. It felt like a royal throne, carrying the weight of history. We tried, but neither of us had the strength or hubris to truly inhabit it, to witness and feel all that the owner of it had felt. When I sat in that empty throne I couldn't bear it, but the view over the horizon, even briefly, was sublime.
I thought of Scrooge pleading with the Ghost of Christmas Past that Tiny Tim's chair should not remain empty. But sometimes the throne passes without an heir to take over, and the ruler must die unavenged.
Sometimes, the ending is just that – an ending. And that’s OK.
By John Ablett