A beautiful death

My mother, Joy Cooke, died last Wednesday, 24th May, at the age of eighty-seven. It was a peaceful end. Beautiful, in a way.

Mum had been ill for a long time. She had vascular dementia, triggered by an accidental morphine overdose after an orthopaedic operation in 2013. She also had COPD, brought on by a lifetime of smoking. For the first year of her slide into the oblivion of dementia, she was cared for by my father. But in August 2014, after she became doubly incontinent and both physically and mentally frail, he had to admit that her care was too much for him. She went into a nursing home that specialised in the care of those with dementia. There she remained until her death.

I wasn't there when she died. But I had been to see her earlier that day, along with my father and my youngest brother, Tim. She was very weak: though she reached out to each of us in turn to hold our hands, her grip was feeble. Sadly, she who had smiled so much during the last four years had lost her ability to smile.....Her head would fall to one side and her eyelids droop, then she would force her head up, open her eyes and reach for one of us again. It was as if she needed to know we were there.

I told her the names of those who were present, and added that my eldest brother, Simon, would be along later.

My father and I stayed for about half an hour, then I took him home, leaving Tim with my mother. Simon and his wife arrived about mid-afternoon and spent some time with my father before setting out for Mum's nursing home.

Mum passed away just after Simon and his wife arrived. It was as if she was waiting for them. Perhaps she had heard what I said.

There was no pain, no distress. She did not need the high dose of morphine prescribed for her to relieve the crisis of death. She just....stopped breathing. Death came quietly, and she went with him willingly.

This surely is how life should end, without fear or pain. When Death comes as a dearly beloved and long-awaited friend, it is beautiful, not just for the dying but for the living. For death brings hope, and the freedom to grieve.

Dementia is the cruellest of illnesses. It destroys the personality. The woman in the nursing home was not my mother. This strange new "Mum" was sweet, gentle, lovely.....she said little, but smiled at everyone. She was utterly charming, but not much like the clever, energetic, opinionated woman that I knew. It was as if my mother had died and been replaced by someone else, someone who did not know who I was, but who nevertheless greeted me with a huge smile and clung to my hand. I could not grieve for the mother I had lost, because there was this new, needy "Mum", whom I had to get to know.

For four years, my family has not really talked about our memories of Mum. How could we talk of the past, when she was still present but but tragically transformed? How could we grieve for her passing, when this strange new person was living in that nursing home? We were in limbo. Frozen. Numb.

Her death has sprung this trap of grief. Death came, not with a scythe but with a mithril sword, clearing the webs of horror in which we have been suspended, freeing our sleeping beauty from her prison. Now we are free to remember, and to grieve. The day after Mum's death, we talked for hours, sharing our memories of her. Death truly is a beautiful thing.

Strangely, we grieve now for two people - for the woman who died four years ago, and for the creature who replaced her. Dementia ends in a double bereavement, and a double grief.

And it also ends with dislocation. Even when Death comes as a friend, he leaves a trail of chaos. We had been waiting for four years for my mother's death, and yet when Death came, we were completely unprepared. It was as if, after years of appeals, we had been released from prison. Suddenly, we are free - but now what will we do?

Of course, there are things to do. A funeral to arrange. People to inform. Personal effects to dispose of. My mother was one of the most ecologically-friendly people that ever walked this earth, so the funeral is complicated, though organising a green burial now is considerably easier than it would have been thirty years ago when she first told me that was what she wanted. Green burials are fairly common now, but back then, no-one had ever heard of such a thing. "What do you mean, you want to be buried under a tree, with no coffin and no headstone?" Well, she will have a coffin, because they do biodegradable ones these days. But there will be no headstone, and her grave eventually will be marked only by the trees and plants around it. As was her wish, gardener that she was, her body will become compost.

But when all the organising is done, and we have laid her to rest in her quiet green grave, what then? Four years of winter is gone, and Spring returns, and with it, sorrow.
All suddenly the wind comes soft,
And Spring is here again;
And the hawthorn quickens with buds of green
And my heart with buds of pain.
My heart all Winter lay so numb,
The earth so dead and frore,
That I never thought the Spring would come,
Or my heart wake any more. 
But Winter's broken and earth has woken
And the small birds cry again,
And the hawthorn hedge puts forth its buds,
And my heart puts forth its pain.
Life goes on, and so must we. And my forthright mother would not have it otherwise. "Go and dig the garden", she would say. Sow some seeds. Make new friends. Create something beautiful. Bring joy to someone's life.

As she did, during her lifetime. Mum brought joy to many people. To the old people at the Melvin Hall Day Centre in Penge that she ran for many years; to those who walked in the beautiful gardens she created; to her friends and family; and at the last, to the staff and residents of her nursing home. She truly lived up to her name. Joy, to the world.

Rest in peace, Mum.

Related reading: 

Broken windows, broken lives
Reflections on death and immortality

Image at the head of this post is part of the garden that my mother created in Minster, Isle of Sheppey, photographed by me. The poem is by Rupert Brooke. 

My mother spent many years developing and running services for the elderly. Her legacy sadly died before her, with the closure of Melvin Hall Day Centre in August 2016. But the need for services for the elderly is greater than ever. In her memory, therefore, we have set up a site where those who wish may make a donation to Age UK. The link is here: https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/joycooke

Below is my mother's obituary notice, written by my eldest brother, Simon Cooke.


  1. Blessed you for your love and blessed her for the daughter.

  2. Respect and peace. My condolences to you and your family.

    The text rang many bells, as last summer my dementia-ridden mother passed away. In a way, reading this helped me. Thank you.

  3. I'm so sorry to hear this, Frances - although somehow expected, it's a surprise and a shock... I, too, have lost a mother to dementia. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.
    Thank you for all your thoughtful and informative blogs over the years.

  4. Frances, I am sending you some love and a modicum of understanding without intruding upon your grief. Grief is personal.
    I have a mother who seems similar to yours. She has the same disease. I am noticing things in her that fit your description. I wish you the best.

  5. I understand this post perfectly, since a little over a year ago my father passed away, having been suffering from vascular dementia for years (brought on by steadily worsening prostate cancer).

    After his death, I learned several things. First of all, however expected a death is, it always comes as a shock. Grief will from time to time overwhelm you over the next days and weeks; let the feelings flow through you and pass. Time heals this, but you'll remember always.

    The funeral system is, like much else, designed to separate you from your money. No, you do not need to have a funeral procession from home to burial, simply meeting the undertakers at the grave will do, and numerous other little expenses are unnecessary.

    Get several certified copies of all paperwork associated with a death; half a dozen death certificates, and a similar number of copies of the Grant of Probate. Lawyers at this time will flock like vultures asking you to do the difficult work with papers then expecting to be paid for form-filling, but obtaining a Grant of Probate is not difficult to accomplish by yourself.

    Expect various financial institutions to behave as though they have never before even considered the concept that their customers might die; expect them to produce documentation of obscure form and great length, then when it is completed lose it or sit on it. A Letter of Instruction signed by the executors stating information and telling them what to do, together with a certified Grant of Probate often works just as well.

    Remember that the grief will subside into memory, and life goes on.

  6. Thank you for sharing this Frances it will bring comfort to many. bill40

  7. Beautifully written Frances

  8. I'm so sorry. I'm glad it was a good death, and I hope the period you're entering now is as easy as it can be. Look after yourself.

  9. May she rest in peace... and may your family have the inner strength to bear this loss.

  10. Genuinely moving - thoughts with you

  11. My very deep and sincere sympathy,

  12. I'm so sorry. I'm glad it was a good death, and I hope the period you're entering now is as easy as it can be. Look after yourself.


  13. I'm very sorry for your loss, Frances. And what a beautiful piece you have written. My mother nearly passed this year, a woman unrecognizable in almost every way from who he she had been all her life. Many things you have written resonate deeply and I am thankful for your words as they help me and others in similar situations process our thoughts and emotions too. I wish you strength and peace.

  14. A lovely piece Frances, much sympathy to you and your Family x

  15. A lovely piece Frances, much sympathy to you and your Family x

  16. Deepest sympathy. I hope sharing this helped.

  17. I'm sorry your lost Mrs. Coppola. My condolences to you and your family.


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