Parting is such sweet sorrow… how do you write the perfect death scene?

I’m in a hurry to finish my current novel as I have a couple of important (and rather exciting!) parties wanting to read it.

At the same time, I’m not.

When I set out on this journey with the heroines and heroes in this story, I always knew that it was going to be a bittersweet ending; one of my characters was never destined to survive to ‘The end’.  However, she is destined to survive to the end of her journey.  She is Clara, the Grandmother of the family, mothering her motherless granddaughters.  She’s a matriarch and a septuagenarian glamourpuss.  Her journey – without giving too much away – is to battle cancer and to not let it get the better of her until she is ready as she has some crucial family matters to resolve before she faces death.  Clara is a feisty, independent and ambitious individual who wouldn’t want anyone to know her real weakness; how afraid she is of dying.

Of course, me being me, I have ignored all writing pearls of wisdom from my published writerly friends and put myself in the story.  It is something that’s cost me dearly in the past – rewriting an entire novel – however, it’s different this time, it’s indirect; it’s not me.  Clara, although named after my Great Grandmother, is very much formed both physically and in personality on my memories of my own Nana, Wyn.

Sadly, Wyn died in 1995 when I was just 15.  She was the strongest female influence in my formative years.  I was regularly picked up on my posture, told how to sit, stand, speak like a lady and I was always fascinated by the array of clothing and shoes she had for every occasion with lipsticks and eyeshadows to match.  She was a man’s woman, she knew her own mind and her parting from this world ripped through our family and my broke my Grandfather’s heart.

I will never forget the day my father stood at the bottom of the field after school waiting for me, completely out of character for the 8 – 5 working week he kept.  My friend was walking with me and I spent the rest of the way home making idle chit-chat, whilst making bargains with God in my head that if my nan was seriously ill I’d try better at school, I’d start going to church, anything for him to make her better and not to take her away from me.  Sadly, my worst fears were confirmed; she had passed away that morning.  She had been taken into hospital the night before and if I have one regret in this life it’s that I hadn’t argued harder with my Aunt who wouldn’t let me go to visit Nan that evening, that my Mum and I could wait until the following evening after she’d had a blood transfusion.  She had been in pain on and off for months and for the two weeks before she passed away had stayed in bed, in constant pain, refusing to let me see her without her make-up on.  The doctors didn’t know what was wrong so they started with a bone marrow test.  The consultant tried her pelvis but it was too painful for her to move so they settled on her sternum (breast bone).  Foolishly, the doctor didn’t wait for a nurse to assist him.  The needle hit Nan’s chest, she went into cardiac arrest and some bright spark decided acupuncture on her heart was the best way to resuscitate her.   She died alone, with no family around her, quickly covered up with a sheet on the ward where my Mum found her as no-one had spared the time to remove Nan to the hospital mortuary.  The inquest, six months later, on my 16th birthday, returned an open verdict.  There were three holes in Nan’s heart but it wasn’t determinable whether the first needle the doctor had inserted had caused her to bleed to death or the ones from the acupuncture.  I’ll leave you to make your own mind up; mine already is.  I really hated that doctor for a very long time.  That’s the thing about time though; it’s a cliché, it patronising but it really is the best healer.  Now, I can only reflect that had Nan not died that day she would have been diagnosed with bone cancer, endured 4 – 6 months of intolerable pain, nauseating treatments, and for what? A dignified death, a chance for her family to all say goodbye properly.  At least she did not suffer the way she died, at least her pain was minimal.

The sub-conscious is a canny thing; it’s caught me out this time for sure.  When I set out to give Clara bone cancer it was mere coincidence, or so I thought.  Now I see it’s provided me to play the ‘what if’ game; what if Nan had lived?  What would her slow decline from multiple myeloma actually have been like?  What if I had actually had got the chance to say goodbye properly? So, I guess that’s what I’m doing; writing it.  Saying goodbye the way I would have like to, only life and death have no dress rehearsal.  But as Clara’s death draws nearer I am finding it harder and harder to say goodbye.  Clara is a caricature of Wyn, she’s a character in her own right and I’ve really grown quite fond of her.  I’ve experienced sudden death and I’ve experienced my Grandfather dying of cancer over a period of months so I should be able to write a tender, tasteful and authentic scene and yet my characters are evading me; no-one wants Clara to die.

So how do you write the perfect death scene? Answers on a postcard please – I’ll tell you how it goes when I’ve reached the other side *sob*

NannyWyn & Jim at their 25th Wedding Anniversary in 1974



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