As Eileen Pugh spoke about the deepening love between her and her husband in the months before his death, Ray D'Arcy was on the point of tears and it’s hard to imagine the listeners were far behind. In August 2019, Derek Pugh had come to the end of the road in his treatment for bowel cancer. Since his diagnosis around 10 months previously, Eileen and Derek savoured the time they had together and said goodbye to the people, places and experiences they loved and shared as a couple. With the end in sight, Eileen says things moved on to a different plane entirely:
"That is the most intimate journey I think any couple can go through. More than birth and I’ve had four births. I think that is just... To me that is possibly the highlight of living, and that might sound crazy. "
Eileen’s husband Derek died at home in April 2020, surrounded by his family, including a brand-new grandchild, who Eileen says he made sure he got a chance to hold, and in view of his beloved garden. His 18-month journey from diagnosis to death was one which he embraced fully. As Eileen says:
"He wanted to squeeze every last juice out of it."
From the start, Derek wanted to know what the end of his life would look like. Eileen says he wanted know everything; to plan as much as possible and to enjoy the time they had left as a couple. It wasn't easy, she says, but Derek was determined:
"We researched everything. Derek asked. He was one of those people who analysed everything; had his clipboard and wanted to know 'How will I die? What happens?’ And we couldn’t get those answers. We thought we were getting them but in reality we weren’t."
Many things are out of your control as a sick person or family member, Eileen explains, to say nothing of the intrusion of the pandemic, which just became an issue in the weeks before Derek’s death. The couple pushed on, enjoying life and growing together in ways that are only possible when one of them is about to die, Eileen says:
"There’s a huge transformation takes place if a person’s open. I can’t explain it. You have to journey it."
She agrees when Ray chimes in, wondering if "liberation" might work to describe it?
"Yes, It’s a soul-friend depth; it’s a very deep experience of sadness. And joy."
In Derek’s final months, Eileen says their intimacy intensified, the closer he came to death:
"It is a love beyond all knowing. I remember saying to him, you know I thought I loved you, but this is just like... and he was reciprocating, you know, with, 'love is eternal, love lives on. Our love will never die.’"
Ray’s other interviewee, death doula Melissa Murphy, was also deeply moved listening to Eileen and Derek’s story. A former hospice worker, Melissa now spends her time as a companion and a facilitator for people who are about to die and their families. It’s basically the opposite of a birth doula; Melissa says she helps people leave this world rather than enter it, and also supports those who are left behind:
"It’s more than sitting at the bedside with someone who is dying. A doula is a guide, an advocate, a resource. A doula provides education; a doula asks difficult questions and holds difficult conversations. It’s about slowing down and being present to what is. For me and for other doulas, it’s about following the lead of the people we serve."
Melissa says in her experience, people have a great desire to talk about death on a one-to-one basis, even if they don’t do so publicly. Eileen Pugh is now training as a death doula, partly inspired by her experiences preparing for the death of her husband. She says she and Derek found great comfort in facing death head-on and facing it together, no matter how strange it felt at first:
"It just gives you courage. It gives you a great bravery to go and do the research. How bizarre to be researching when a person is alive, how will, what we want to happen?"
Eileen speaks further about the time leading up to Derek’s death and the hours and days immediately afterwards and Melissa shares more of her professional experiences as a hospice worker and a doula in the full chat with Ray, which you can listen back to here.