‘Dorothy was very organised and prepared for her end of life – she’s even left me a list of things she wants me to do, and what I’ve not to do!’
Derek Smith’s beloved wife Dorothy didn’t shy away from speaking about her end-of-life wishes and how she felt about living with cancer.
From making funeral arrangements and putting her affairs in order, to leaving a list of instructions for her husband to take care of himself and make the most of life – Dorothy’s plans helped the couple come to terms with her illness and enjoy quality time together before she died.
One of Dorothy’s wishes was to die at home, and with the help of the St Catherine’s Hospice Clinical Nurse Specialists (CNS), she was able to spend her final days in the comfort of her own home with Derek by her side.
Derek, a retired plasterer and great-grandfather, is sharing their experience this Dying Matters Awareness Week – a national campaign which focuses on the importance of opening up to family and health care professionals about death, bereavement and planning for the end of life.
“Dorothy and I could talk about anything together,” he says. “It was always very important for us to be able to talk about everything, and we began these conversations as soon as she was diagnosed with lung cancer three years ago.
“She spoke to the whole family about how she was feeling and what she wanted, and it really helped us all. She knew she wanted to die at home, she chose the funeral directors and decided that she wanted to be cremated. She chose her funeral songs – Bob Marley and Snow Patrol – and she wanted donations to St Catherine’s Hospice instead of flowers, because the charity did everything they could to make life easier for her, enabling her to carry on doing the things she enjoyed, which meant a lot to Dorothy.
“They helped with her pain management, and she had everything she needed – like wheelchairs and a scooter – to stay at home and carrying on doing the things she loved. It meant we could still go on short breaks in our touring caravan, and we were visited a lot by our sons and grandchildren, all of which was really important to Dorothy.”
Derek, 82, from Penwortham, adds: “She liked making lists, so she had it all planned out; she was very organised. Although it was hard to accept what was happening at times, it meant that everything was in place when the time came and I knew we were doing right by her, so it made a difficult time a little easier.
“She’s even left me a list of ‘do’s and don’ts’ which makes me laugh – and she knew I will do as she says. She says I need to make sure to carry on caravanning, and visit our friends in Spain and Germany. And I need to look after myself and carry on cooking nice meals; I make a good chicken curry!
“But I’m not allowed to buy a motorbike again! She says I can’t act daft. She’s always been right.”
Dorothy, a mother-of-three who enjoyed painting and had various retail jobs throughout her working life, was diagnosed with lung cancer after experiencing bad coughs. She underwent chemotherapy and radiotherapy as she was determined to fight the illness, but Derek says she soon came to terms with how her life was changing.
“She’d been to Royal Preston Hospital for a PET scan, which found she had a small lump on her lung,” he explains. “They called us when we were away in Keswick in the caravan, and asked us to come straight in. We drove back to Keswick that afternoon after the appointment and talked it all through.
“She was a fighter, and she went through it all with a smile on her face. She lost her hair twice because of the treatment, but she didn’t let it bother her, she accepted it. She never let the cancer stop us from doing what we loved – we went away in the caravan twice a month and Dorothy also loved coach trips.
“Chelle, Annie and Kirsty from the St Catherine’s CNS team helped us get organised and put things in place so that Dorothy could make the most of her time. We already had our wills written because we spent seven years living in Spain when we retired, so we had a will for England and one for Spain. But the St Catherine’s team talked to us about a range of things and really helped us to be prepared for what was coming. They were always on the end of the phone if we needed them, and were there for us every step of the way. They were marvellous.
“Dorothy felt really lucky to have that support. They helped her live the best life she could under the circumstances. They still get in touch now to see how I am.”
As well as helping Dorothy with pain management, the St Catherine’s community team taught her breathing techniques to help manage her breathlessness, and offered advice on how to be more comfortable in bed.
At the time, Dorothy described the support as “very personal” and said: “It is helping me to be more independent – something which is really important to me.”
Derek adds: “Initially, Dorothy spoke about the possibility of spending her final days in the hospice, but about six months ago she changed her mind and realised she wanted to be at home. I wanted her to stay at home too, but it was her decision, and we were together when she died.”
Dorothy – who met Derek when she was just 12-years-old when they used to go ‘spud picking’ in Whitestake near Lostock Hall as children – died aged 77 on April 21.
“We’ve had a really good life together,” Derek says. “We lived in Malaga for a few years and made some lifelong friends – we just packed up and drove our motorbike from Penwortham to Spain in the early nineties when we retired. Dorothy took up a course at Malaga University to learn Spanish.
“I also worked in Germany for a while, and we’ve visited America, so we’ve seen quite a few places. We came back from Spain when the grandchildren were born as we wanted to be closer to family.
“Dorothy has been through a lot, but everybody always commented on how she was always smiling, no matter what. That’s how she was all her life.
“I’m still coming to terms with it all, but my plans now are to carry out Dorothy’s wishes and visit places in Scotland I’ve always wanted to see; take a steam train from London to Dorset along the coast; and to take a trip to Spain and Germany to see our friends.”