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Howard's way: planning for death could ease our fear of it


Howard's way: planning for death could ease our fear of it

My friend, Howard Knight, as I write this, is dying – and I’ve just returned from his end-of-life party

How would you like to be remembered?’ It’s a question we must imagine ourselves dead to answer and hope our life amounted to something.

But what if we want to be remembered – and to remember – while we’re alive? When we’re dying.

We often hear people say it’s a pity the dead can’t hear what’s said at funerals – that we should tell people how much they mean to us now. And sometimes we do, in hushed tones, in private. But a party – with fizz, even balloons?

My friend, Howard Knight, as I write this, is dying – and I’ve just returned from his end-of-life party.

Three months ago, he was diagnosed with cancer. Right from the off, cure looked optimistic. Perhaps it always does.

But this was to be no drawn-out affair. Not a Clive James journey. Howard was being fast-tracked.

The only thing that’s changed since is the quickening pace. A few weeks ago, he sent us all a WhatsApp message. The cancer was inoperable, the prognosis poor. Three to four months at best; weeks at worst.

But as ever, Howard was planning. First, a weekend away with family, then a party for everyone who could make it.

The message floored me. I marvelled at his presence of mind. And I told him as much.

As February ended, another message. Life could be a matter of days now. The party was being brought forward.

And in no time at all, we were in Sheffield. Relations, colleagues, comrades and neighbours. From the next street, across the city and far beyond. Hearts in mouths.

There were no euphemisms. This was a send-off. Howard was leaving.

Not Howard’s way, nor his end. He flung the doors open and beckoned us in.

But for the moment, he was very much there. In a wheelchair at the centre of a sun-filled room on a crisp March afternoon.

Kathryn Mannix, the author of With the End in Mind and a campaigner for better public understanding of death, said in an interview with Holyrood magazine’s editor, Mandy Rhodes, last October, that as with so much in life, people can use denial as a way of dealing with death.

“It can be a way of maintaining emotional calm,” she said. “But the difficulty with that is it shuts people out of the moment.”

Not Howard’s way, nor his end. He flung the doors open and beckoned us in.

The room was suffused with joy and grief. We were there to celebrate a life ebbing away but still being lived – and to say goodbye.

His physical state was undeniably shocking. I know the hollow-cheeked frailty of impending death well. But even I had to steel myself before I approached.

And as I reached him, I was confronted with something else. Jaundice had discoloured his already translucent skin. Even his eyes radiated chrome yellow. Otherworldly, but still in this one.

Of course, I remembered. It was in his liver.

“Chris,” he said looking up as I stretched out my hand. But he wanted a hug. Not something we’d ever done before. Dying leaves no room for inhibition

Had I been in any doubt, his embrace left me in none about why we were there. Love. His for life – and for all of us. “Death,” said the poet Mark Doty, “is what makes love possible.”

Then came speeches from lifelong friends including David Blunkett and Clive Betts. The kind of stuff we hear at the best funerals and the wakes that follow – choked with grief.

Except he was there, held fast by his family. To listen – even answer back.

If it all sounds unbearably sentimental, think again. Sure, we heard about the best of Howard. But it was warts and all, too.

Howard the pedant, the aficionado of the cheapest clothes anyone had ever known, even to the chagrin of his children.

But, oh, the courage.

Howard’s, of course. His family’s and close friends’. But that of so many who’d travelled to be there, too. The place was bursting with it. 

Looking across the room through tearful laughter, it wasn’t hard to see why eschewing death might be attractive.

Meeting it face on – with a smile – takes a certain grit.

It was also a reminder of something else that was precious. Howard’s was a life steeped in politics. There was even a message from Tony Blair. But in the end, the best of what we have is kinship and friendship. We weren’t in a community centre for nothing.

An end-of-life party may not be on everyone’s bucket list. But it’s one way of doing something Kathryn Mannix thinks we all need to do better – to ‘narrate dying.’ To plan for death and ease our fear of it, something, she thinks, that is a major public health issue.

Like the writer, Richard Holloway, Mannix is concerned we’ve medicalised death so much we’ve forgotten what normal dying looks like. 

It’s a luxury we can ill-afford, not least because it’s coming our way too.

Death, says the novelist, Julian Barnes, is the one appalling fact which defines life. Unless we are constantly aware of it, we cannot begin to understand what life is about.

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