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Jean Kittson is dying to talk

Jean Kittson's end-of-life wishes include having a big bed, so loved ones can lay down and chat, read or eat chocolate with her.

Performer, entertainer and author, Jean Kittson, is patron of Palliative Care Nurses Australia. Below, Ms Kittson answers questions from the Dying to Talk Discussion Starter, launched yesterday by Health Minister Sussan Ley.

For support in discussing end-of-life wishes with your loved ones, download it from www.dyingtotalk.org.au

If you had a condition that you could not recover from, what would be important to you, towards the end of your life?

Firstly, that my will was stitched up as tight as possible so that no one could take anything from my family.

Secondly, that I was not in any pain or even discomfort. Discomfort is a term many doctors like to use, as in “You may experience some slight discomfort”, while they thrust a horse needle into your thigh. Never buy shoes from a doctor.

Thirdly, if I was in pain, or even discomfort, I would want control of my pain management. I should not have to argue with anyone about how much I should take. This is not an endorsement of euthanasia. It is the insistence of someone who is an adult and who does not like pain.

I have had pethidine in the past and it really is very effective. I have not then rushed out into the street looking for a peth’ dealer.

Pethidine, morphine, whatever. If we are talking about end of life, there will not be enough time to become an addict, and addiction is the very least of the problems available. If pain relief causes constipation and the doctors then need a jackhammer for my stools – so be it. My pain, my choice.

And if I am not suffering then my loved ones will also not suffer. Grief is acceptable, grief is part of life, but avoidable and unnecessary suffering makes no sense to me.

Finally, given the fact that I will not be the first person to die of whatever it is that is killing me, I would like a palliative care nurse to explain to my loved ones, and to me, what the journey will look like.

Actually, let’s call it dying. I am no longer keen on the word journey. Many people I know who have terminal illnesses loathe other people referring to their dying as a journey. Journeys have voluntary destinations. You do not set off on a train journey if you know that the train will plunge into a canyon. End of life is dying. Call it.

That is why I would like a palliative care nurse to be with me and my family to explain clearly and honestly what is going to happen.

Are there any pets that you would like to see or be with you, if this is possible?

I have no pets at the moment, unless you count my daughters’ boyfriends. I am very fond of them, but probably wouldn’t want to put them through any more grief. They can support my daughters outside the room.

Having said that, I would like loved ones to be able to lie down with me on the bed and chat or read out loud or eat chocolate and watch TV, or whatever is going on, so I would like my last bed to be a big bed, with many pillows. Not a single bed.

Would you prefer a quiet environment or do you prefer activity and chatter around you?

I would prefer my home environment, which has both quiet times and noisy times.

The quiet times are often my husband and I watching House with a cup of tea and block of chocolate. We like House. They are always talking about dying. In fact that’s all they do on House. They talk about dying, about preventing dying, or about being unable to prevent dying. What is especially satisfactory about House is that not only are there always four or five doctors to each patient, who has their undivided attention and unlimited time and state-of-the-art resources, but only in about one episode out of 26 does someone actually die. And in that episode, they tell the patient what is going on. “I’m sorry. It’s incurable.” “How long have I got, doc?” “Oh, about 15 minutes.”

And I would also like to know and feel that other people’s lives are going on as usual. Gossip, rushing about, arguments about who has the hair straightener, family jokes, tales of love and hope and today at the office and last night’s party, and the party planned tomorrow. I don’t want everything to stop, out of respect, just because I am about to stop altogether.

Would you like music to be playing and if so, what style or what music?

I imagine I would like familiar songs with uplifting lyrics from the ’60s and ’70s, some of my favourite modern songs from my daughters’ playlist, and some evocative classical music. Anything but rainforest music or meditation music or any of the music that is played while you are getting a facial or being waxed. And please don’t play the same thing over and over again, even if from all outside evidence I have lost my reason.

If possible would it be important to you to have time outside?

Good point, and yes, absolutely. I would be very happy to be wheeled under a tree by the sea. If that is impractical, then in the sun by a window. Preferably with a view of the sea.

Would you prefer to be surrounded by lots of family and friends, or would you prefer one or two closest people to be with you?

I may be dying but I am still living, so I imagine I would like to do the same things as I do throughout life. Conditions apply, of course. A coma is not the best venue for a party. If my pain is managed and my hearing aids are working, then I would think that lots of people having a few wines and a few laughs would be pleasant, sometimes. At other times, just one on one, quietly being, holding hands.

Are there any cultural or religious practices you would like to observe?

Good question. Not just at the moment, but I will bear in mind the last words of the writer Voltaire when he was on his death bed. A priest came to him and said, “Do you renounce the Devil and all his works?” Voltaire responded, “This is no time to be making new enemies.”

Then there was W C Fields, whose friends were said to be surprised to see him on his deathbed, reading a Bible. “What are you doing?” “Looking for loopholes.”

My father, who was raised a Catholic, but who was excommunicated when he married my non-believing mother, has recently let his wishes be known. He wants a full Catholic mass and to be buried in consecrated grounds. I am hoping that the Catholic Church has become more compassionate and less exclusive in the years since their marriage

My non-believing mother wants to be cremated and her ashes scattered out to sea, accompanied by a lone piper, who presumably then has to swim back to shore. Interestingly, she isn’t the slightest bit Scottish. She just likes a piper. Luckily, she doesn’t have a thing for brass bands.

I shall probably observe my usual cultural practice of having as much fun as possible. I will make sure that I have a whoopee cushion on the visitors’ chair. Especially if a hopeful priest drops by.

Is there anyone particular you would like to see or talk to?

A concierge. In the newspapers recently was a story about the success a hospital is having after changing its working mindset from whatever it was – medium security prison perhaps – to hospitality. This can only be an excellent thing for families and patients.

We need someone warm and friendly and obliging who makes sure we have everything we need to have a comfortable stay. Including feather pillows and masseurs.

Is there anything else you can think of that you would like?

If you are dying you can’t be expected to plan everything.

When the late, great Bob Hope turned 100, his wife asked where he wanted to be buried he said: “Surprise me”.

Also, I would like people to read to me – novels, poetry, short stories, news items – just nothing by Dan Brown, please.

Massage would also be lovely. Just hands and feet would be fine.

What is on your bucket list of things you would like to do or achieve before you die?

Too many things to write down, some nostalgic, some new. If I am bedridden, some online auction bidding would be highly acceptable. Especially if I am medicated.

How did you feel during the process of completing this form? Was there anything about the process that interested or surprised you?

I thought the form had interesting details, or talking points that I think will help my family in the event that I lose the power of speech or reason.

I find that not knowing what the dying person wants and likes can further upset those around them.

A list like this could be stuck above the bed with a chart indicating what music was played yesterday, or where we were up to with Stephen Fry’s audiobook reading of the Harry Potter story.


Comments

  • Beautifully said Jean Kittson, always loved your work

    - Jeanette Wilson
  • Absolutely true to herself and her ideas. I hope that we have Jean with us for many years yet though. Palliative care is vital and life affirming, it not just assisting a person with a life limiting illness, it provides so much more that the general population don't realise. PC staff are absolutely the best. Thank you for sharing this post.

    - Kath Watkinson
  • Reasons I love Jean Kitson. 1) Because she does wonderful things like this. 2) There are many more all to do with being a classy funny lady.

    - Ruth Healy
  • Jean you are simply marvelous. - I deal with death every day as a palliative care nurse, and it is often difficult to talk to non palliative care friends and family about what it is that we do and it can seem so very serious but I just laughed out loud on the ferry coming to work and I wished I could share your thoughts with the entire ferry load of people!! (Such a captive audience!!!!) I will suffice, however, with forwarding this to colleagues, friends and family!! Hehehe! We have some very similar end of life care wishes! Thank you Jean.

    - Robyn
  • Jean, Unfortunately was not able to attend the latest conference , however have heard you on two other occasions. Your stories and insight is amazing, such an inspiration to us all. The ACP allows individuals to do it their way then get on with life. You lift the heavy veil of the death conversation and add humor and lightness to the subject. Many tears of laughter are shed amongst my colleagues in Palliative Care, Many thanks again. Absolutely love the red dress!! Judy Clinical Nurse Consultant Pal/Care

    - Judy Miatke
  • Great an a honest talk about end of life and how it should be.

    - Vicki Glennon
  • Jean. I work in palliative care social work. I try to encorage lots of laughter. Not the "cheere up and don't mention death" sort of laughter, but the genuine belly laughs that come from a black shade of humour that death calls for. My dying people (dont like patients or clients) often lament that there loved ones try not to laugh with them as they feel disrespectful. I have lots of conversations about being real around death, warts an all. I really enjoyed reading your response and thoughts about dying.

    - Kate Carlin
  • the way you write is honest, serious, and comes from your heart. This is the way to go.

    - Astrid MCCORMICK

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