Many people think of the hospice as a place where people with cancer go to die. Back in 2014, when I frequently walked past the Otago Community Hospice building in Dunedin’s North East Valley on my way home, that was my impression. What a sad place that must be to work, I thought. Although I practically lived on its doorstep, I had only ventured into this daunting place once. My partner had asked me to drop off a gift to a friend who was a hospice inpatient. I agreed, but only to leave it at reception. I didn’t want to go any further, in case I encountered dying people.
Like most people, despite ‘bearing witness’ to thousands upon thousands of deaths (both real and imagined) through images in the news and in film and television, my exposure to the reality of death and the dying process was minimal. When I went to the funeral home to view my father’s body in 2003, I was so uncomfortable about real death that I could only manage to look at him for a matter of seconds. When my mother had a serious stroke a few years later, I spent time with her as she slowly deteriorated, surrounded by her children, grandchildren and extended family. I was not present when she died, but when asked if I wanted to see her body, I declined, remembering how traumatic I had found trying to view my father’s body years earlier.