Home Lifestyle I help people have the deaths they want — everyone is different

I help people have the deaths they want — everyone is different


Everybody wants a different kind of death (Picture: Getty/Metro.co.uk)

‘When people come into the hospice, they can’t believe how many people are smiling,’ Sharon Fleming shares.

The 62-year-old has always found fulfilment in making tangible differences in people’s lives, as part of her job as a palliative social worker.

‘Being able to help people when they’ve got a terminal diagnosis and to help pull their affairs in order, allows them to be in the moment and live rather than constantly thinking about their fears,’ she tells Metro.co.uk.

‘We’re there to help [people] have a good death. We do a lot of planning with babies coming into this world, like birth plans – in palliative care, we actually talk about death plans.

‘It’s about giving them the freedom [to know] that they’ve done everything that they possibly can and that they’ve left messages where they need to, and they can just be at peace with themselves.’

After initially being drawn to adoption and youth services two decades ago because she herself was adopted, in 2010, mum-of-two Sharon began helping those towards the end of their lives.

Sharon works in palliative care (Picture: Sharon Fleming)

From facilitating honest conversations between loved ones with limited time left together, to advocating for patients’ dying wishes, Sharon works with people and their families during their most challenging moments.

And now, Sharon is working with Social Work England on their new campaign, Change The Script, which follows the release of two new pieces of YouGov research that explore the perceptions of social work in society and how social workers themselves feel perceived by the public. Just one in 10 social workers believe the profession is well respected. 

Sharon likens being a palliative worker to being a spectator in the final stretch of a race. ‘Being at the finishing line with someone, helping them and cheering them on and supporting their family after, so they know they can leave this world with the freedom of knowing that they did all they could,’ she says.

Over the years, she’s helped many people. Sharon remembers one man, who had Motor neurone disease, who had a very specific wish. ‘He was said, “I want to hear what people are going to say about me”.

So, Sharon helped organising his ‘living wake’. ‘It was so lovely, and the family were able to say their goodbyes before that time came where it might be too difficult for people to have those conversations,’ she says.

Sharon has also helped couples regain romance, with one profound case involving a man with pancreatic cancer, who missed the intimacy he shared with his wife.

Both were in their early 50s when they met Sharon. ‘What I managed to understand was what intimacy meant to the two of them. For them, it was a bath with nice candles and music, because when he was in water, he felt less pain.

‘When I saw the couple the next time, they told me they had this bath and they were able to be with each other where he wasn’t in pain.’

What is a lasting power of attorney?

If a person knows their capacity to consent may be affected in the future, they can draw up a living will.

This sets out the procedures and treatments that a person refuses to undergo, as well as assigning any financial matters and general decision making.

You can also choose to formally arrange for someone, often a close family member, to have lasting power of attorney (LPA) to make important decisions at a later stage.

Someone with LPA can make decisions about your health on your behalf, although you can choose to specify in advance certain treatments you’d like them to refuse, like in a living will.

If you lose mental capacity and haven’t got a Power of Attorney in place, someone will need to apply to The Court of Protection to become your Deputy and take control of your finances to help you and act on your behalf.

Sharon warns. ‘I always tell people to get the legal documentation to protect themselves.

‘Identify attorneys and speak to them about what it is you want and don’t want.’

Sharon says there isn’t one specific dying wish everyone has, because each person wants to pass away differently. Sharon has lengthy conversations with the individual and their families about how they want to go: should it be at home, at a hospice or in the hospital? Do they want their pets around? Have they sorted all of their legal duties?

‘We’d do anything that we needed to,’ she says. ‘Whatever they want, we will try to facilitate it. We even have weddings when people are on their deathbed.’

Sharon adds that a lot of families want to be there when their loved one takes their last breath – but after almost 15 years in palliative care, she knows not everyone wants to die this way.

‘There would sometimes be people with vigils around the bed, so I send the families out for lunch because some people want to die on their own terms and sure enough, that person would go when they’ve gone for lunch.

‘It’s allowing the families to know that’s okay and it’s taking away that guilt feeling.

One of the most profound takeaways Sharon has from her job is the way people seem to look content after they die.

‘It’s seeing how peaceful they look when they’ve had the death they wanted, or when they’ve waited for somebody to arrive,’ she says.

‘You can see all the pain they’ve been having disappear and you see a serenity in their face. That’s when I know they are okay. That was the most surprising part for me’.

It should probably come as no surprise that Sharon herself isn’t afraid of death.

‘It’s like how we talk about the seasons, like when the trees lose their leaves – it’s just life. When your day’s up, your day’s up.

‘I live every day, not like it’s my last, but by making it an important day because it’s another day I’ve woken up and I’ve been able to participate in the world.’

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