I recently came across a book called Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End and felt compelled to read it.
The author is a surgeon and his opening statement was that, as a society, we have handed over how we spend our last years to the medical profession, whose main aim is to prolong life.
He presented cases of terminally ill people and how the survival instinct often brought them to undergo traumatic treatment, which often did not prolong their life significantly, but drastically reduced their quality of life through extended suffering.
He recognises that medicine is well equipped to treat illness, or at least make it manageable. It is totally unprepared to help patients go through the ageing and dying process.
Mortality is not something we are comfortable discussing, which is why so many are caught out without a will, organ donation arrangements are not discussed, and even funeral preferences are left unsaid.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that superhero films and vampire stories, the most successful immortals, are so popular.
Dr Gawande displays a touching interest for his patients’ spiritual lives, for what gives their life meaning and the compromises they are willing to make in order to feel, not just be, alive.
This is where medical staff within the palliative care sector offer unique support. They help the patient focus on what will make their life better now, not in weeks to come.
However, this can only be achieved through recognising that life is drawing to a close and there is no magic pill which can change that.
It means asking difficult questions out loud, and it forces patients, their families and doctors to confront their mortality, sometimes for the first time.
Anna Dallavalle is a counsellor working with individuals and couples and has a private practice in Morpeth. For information visit www.steppingstonesne.co.uk