“And then, suddenly, it wasn’t.”
- We had made a mistake. All of our energy had been thrown into life: how to minimise pain, how to make her comfortable. What we didn’t realise was that a single piece of bureaucracy would transform the time in the immediate aftermath of her death from one of private adjustment into a distressing wrangle for which neither of us had the emotional budget.
- What you need to know is this: if a person has not seen their GP in the 14 days preceding their death, or is not seen by them immediately afterwards, the case must be referred to the coroner.
- That “immediately afterwards” bit is important. If the death happens outside surgery hours – in the night, say, or at the weekend – and you reach for the phone and find yourself visited by a different doctor, even one from the same practice, the case will go to the coroner. Even if the death was entirely expected.
- “It is really to make sure, if the person is not seen by a doctor who has cared for them as a patient, that the correct cause of death is entered on the death certificate,” explains a Home Office spokesman.
- But when that happens, your private moment of grief is hijacked by the relentless machinery of the state, which can be incredibly distressing.
- My grandma, Myra, was 90 when she died. She had been almost impossibly well her entire life, despite a diet heavy in purple Silk Cut, but fell ill just before Christmas. What we had hoped was flu turned into something much worse. She was admitted to hospital for the first time in her life and when she came out, in mid-February, three weeks before she died, she had a big box of pills, an oxygen machine and a thick file of medical notes. These chronicled several life-threatening conditions, including pulmonary fibrosis (scarring of the lung tissue, which is a progressive disease), COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, another chronic lung condition), and heart problems.
- We were almost demented with tiredness. I’d been up all night at my grandma’s bedside. Mum had barely slept for days. We wanted now some quiet time in the house, hanging out with Grandma, to collect ourselves.
- Instead, shortly after 7am, a policewoman arrived. She had been notified by the duty doctor. She wanted to ask questions about how Grandma had died, which we dealt with easily enough. Then she explained that she must now call the duty undertakers (not, note, the undertakers of our choice), who would come immediately to cart my grandma off to the morgue at the local hospital awaiting the coroner’s decision – at which point all hell broke loose.
When I cared for a dying relative, I requested an autopsy. The coroner office took over an almost a week later told me that they weren’t going to do it. :(