Shortly before his death, the poet Ferreira Gullar asked his wife, Claudia Ahimsa, to prevent him from being intubated and taken to an ICU, and that, in the name of love, she should be careful in order to let him “die in peace”. The report by Gullar’s widow inspired the journalist Claudia Colucci, specialized in health, to tell, at her online column in Folha de S. Paulo, her experience with the death of her own mother who had also been sick, who was also against any radical procedure to prolong life.
In a text published on December 6, the journalist says that the purpose of the last hospitalization of the mother, who had an advanced stage of liver cancer, was to promote palliative care and prevent her from suffering. In her last minutes, however, the family, who gathered affectionately around her bed, was invited by the nursing staff to leave the room for the “exchange of medication.” Claudia, her father and sister insisted on staying, but were prevented. They were crying outside the bedroom door when they were informed of her passing. They had their suffering aggravated by not being able to have been by her side in her final sighs.
The poet’s expressed desire to “die in peace” and Claudia’s text spoke sweetly and directly to my heart, since I followed the last moments of my father, who died at home two weeks ago. In peace.
My father was 90 years old and had lymphoma. His age did not allow him to undergo the more aggressive chemotherapy that could combat the disease and from the outset of the disease, the medical team that took care of him was willing to contain the tumor’s progress and to provide the highest quality of life for the longest time possible. It was 8 months of a process that had ups and downs, good and bad moments. Small victories, recovery periods, but also shocks, relapses and hospitalizations.
It was difficult for him, one of those strong men in good health, we think will live forever. It was difficult for the family that witnessed his physical decline. But it was also a powerful experience. He allowed all of us, my mother, his children and grandchildren, his dearest relatives and friends to come very close to him in this farewell year. At the last appointment with the oncologist, I heard from the doctor the wise decision not to admit him again. At home, surrounded by intensive care, he would have access to everything that could bring comfort in the final moments. It was two difficult days watching his delirious state of semi-consciousness. It led, at least me, to a coward secret temptation to take him back to the hospital. Fortunately, that did not happen.
In my last conversation with the doctor (Dr Jorge Sabbaga, thank you!), I reported his respiratory distress and he asked me to call the palliative care team at the Sírio Libanês Hospital. I asked if they would not threaten to take him to the ICU and he assured me that he would not go. The staff did not have time to arrive. My father died before. His doctor made the last visit to give the death certificate, and little by little all the dearest people came to his house: his sons, his daughters-in-law, his son-in-law, all his grandchildren, and his granddaughters with their wives and husbands. My father’s last hours at home were an intimate and touching viewing, different from the public viewing that would follow. There, around his bed, in the room so familiar to all who were there, the physical presence of the husband, father, father-in-law, and a dear grandfather, inspired conversations, stories, laughter, tears and tenderness. Watching this last touching scene with my son sitting on the floor, his cousins and uncles around my father’s bed, I thought it was a special blessing to have this moving final moment with the whole family.
I thought it was that way in the past, and how wise it was from families to mourn and weep their dead at home. At some point in our times, the dead were expelled from the domestic space. Modern culture has taught us to flee from death and avoid its face. “We can strive to throw death in a corner, storing bodies behind stainless steel doors and shoving the sick and dying in hospital rooms. We hide death so skillfully that we would believe that we are the first generation of immortals. But we are not, “wrote Caitlin Doughty in her book “Confessions of the Crematorium”, which I have already recommended here.
By avoiding “looking directly into the eyes of mortality,” as the author says, or insisting on prolonging lives that can no longer be prolonged, we set the final scene of our loved ones in a frightening setting: between tubes and cold, surrounded by well-meaning but strange professionals who can even alienate the family in the last breath of their loved one.
I understand that the situation of death at home is not always possible or welcome. Often, it can and should happen in a hospital. But even there, we have the right to ask, as did the poet Ferreira Gullar, to die in peace.