Walking a Friend Home

It’s a situation that many of us face at some point… It’s one that no one wants, but one that requires a choice: to turn away or to step forward.

When someone whom we know well is facing their death, what do we do?

Pembrokeshire.Online’s intrepid feature writer and commissioning editor Kitty Parsons (without whom this online magazine would not be functioning) recently had to make this choice and, as a result, went through a momentous and often challenging experience.

Several months after  the death of that friend seemed the right time to ask her about what happened.

“I first met my friend 20 years ago,” she told me. “We actually met when we were going into a silent retreat. We did 10 days of silence, both of us finding the experience really hard at times but we stuck it out so we wouldn’t lose the little connection we had made. It was so intense.”

After that she and her new acquaintance, from Cardiff, remained good friends and in regular contact. “She was the one who recommended Pembrokeshire to me,” said Kitty. “She brought me here and helped me find my house in Goodwick.

“But then, four years ago, she stopped answering my calls. I didn’t know why. But I was very unwell at the time and I let it go.

“Then, the Christmas before last, I was in Tesco and she touched me as I walked past. We just fell into each other’s arms sobbing, much to the bemusement of Christmas shoppers… She told me she had cancer. She had had surgery and chemotherapy – and she wasn’t going to have any more chemotherapy.”

She was also now living in  to Pembrokeshire

“I had felt quite hurt by her going out of my life,” said Kitty. “But I realise now that she was probably overwhelmed with what was going on in her life.”

After that chance meeting in the supermarket, their friendship was renewed. “But in February 2019 she felt that the cancer had spread,” said Kitty. “And she didn’t want to go on. Apart from her wonderful family, children and grandchildren, whom she adored, she was disappointed and exhausted with life.  One day she said to me: ‘I thought I would die in the arms of someone who loved me.’ There was nothing to do or say but hold her while we cried.

“I could not be the lover, husband, partner. We were both straight women, but I seem to have made the decision then to try to love her as best as I could to ease the loneliness and disappointment. 

“The first time I helped my friend have a shower I realised I had never looked after an adult human being like that. As time went on, personal care needs became more personal and it could be exhausting, But I learned a lot about love. There was a holiness in those times together, a deep connection. We would laugh at the fact that at the hospital we felt we were seen as a couple – as if the only way people could be there for each other was if they were the family or lovers.”

Kitty wanted to make it clear that the family were very present with her friend and did everything for her, loving her fiercely and with great tenderness, and it was they who organised much of her extra care as time went on, and negotiated the  minefield of medication.

“I was the one who would make a lot of bad jokes, which sometimes only we found funny. We laughed a lot. We watched endless medical dramas on TV (her choice, not mine) and also talked a lot about spiritual stuff and meditated. I do metatronic healing and that really resonated with her.

“Then, one or two weeks before she died, she decided that she wanted to live. My first thought: ‘Help! I’m trapped for life!’ All that love I felt and all that horror sort of collided. The pain she had was at times terrible and she couldn’t move the lower half of her body, so she was trapped in bed, but she suddenly wanted to go on, so everyone gathered and brought their love and healing.”

Things  changed quickly after that. “A week before her death, she started to talk about the funeral arrangements and she finally agreed that she wanted to be comfortable and not in pain any more, so stronger medication could be used.”

She died in March 2020 just before her 61st birthday. 

Kitty said: “Her lovely  family were there when she died. I had been there the day before and she was unconscious. I didn’t need to be there for her death. I felt that our connection was part of something eternal and nothing to do with her broken body.

“She died peacefully at about 3am. Her youngest daughter phoned me and I went the next day. My friend had gone from the world. And now life carried on around her.”

Kitty admitted: “Since then it’s felt inappropriate to grieve. I felt she was still around – in fact, she always said she was going to haunt me!

“We can have that feeling of dead people being available to us – but I think the stronger the sense of loss, the less the dead will communicate with us.

“But then, grief is partly – or hugely – for ourselves. My friend was free. It felt wrong to grieve that.

“A week after she died, I was feeling quite down and then I had a feeling that someone had poked me and said: ‘For goodness’ sake!’ And I laughed.”

Now things have moved on.

“A few weeks ago, three months after she died, I  found I missed her. I had some tears but  I think I had needed time to recover from how intense that whole thing had been.

The horror of someone like my friend, who was so strong and independent being in such pain, and dependent on people for everything… I don’t know whether I shut it off but I needed to recover.

“People talk about the traditional stages of grief. I think we shouldn’t constrain ourselves with rules about how or what we are supposed to do, unless that is helpful to us as individuals. I think of getting older as being enveloped in great big overcoat with the pockets stuffed with experiences. It can be overwhelming and can drag you down and sometimes you have to find a way to take it off and put it aside and just breathe.”

And how does she think of her friend now?

“If she still exists in some form, she’s fine. And it feels like what happened was meant to be… that I should meet her at that silent retreat and again at Tesco. ‘We met so you could do this,’ she said to me once when I was looking after her.” I think we met that way so that we could serve each other. As Ram Daas’s well-known saying goes: ‘We are all just walking each other home.”

Kitty said the experience was stressful and painful: “But what a gift I had from it – being of service to another person. It was an honour.”

Has it changed her? 

“It is like taking on some of my friend’s personality. She was greatly loved but she didn’t put up with any nonsense and could be pretty fierce. Another friend said to me the other day: ‘You know you can be quite scary, don’t you?’ and my first thought was: ‘Finally! Thank God for that!”. And we both laughed.

“I’m doing less of what I don’t want to do, being more honest about my feelings… without expectation that that will bring anything to me. Being true and kind is one of those loving gifts that allows others to be free to choose too.

“My time with my friend  was an incredible gift… a profound and challenging experience of loving and being loved. I have a different view of love now – my  function has always been to try to be a source of love and healing, but I have always also feared being trapped. I have failed many times in my intention, but now I give credit to the fact that I keep trying.

“I want to say that I don’t want this to suggest other people should feel what I feel. We are all struggling with something as we jostle along, demanding, annoying, fearful, complaining, wary. We do the best we can, but if  there is one thing I would wish everyone, it is this: that when your  time comes, someone will recognise the gift in walking you home.” 

Nigel Summerley

Nigel Summerley retired from The Oldie magazine to return to freelance journalism. He previously held executive staff jobs at the London Evening Standard, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph and the Daily Express before freelancing for 20 years for newspapers including The Times, The Sunday Times, The Independent, The Guardian and the ‘i’ paper, plus a wide range of magazines. He continues to write about music, travel and health, and blogs at www.nigel-summerley.blogspot.com.

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