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My rage against the dying of the light - Basia Briggs

Blog | By Basia Briggs | Jul 18, 2022

Richard Briggs (1944-2021), the late owner of Hyde Park Stables, and Basia

After her husband’s death at home, Basia Briggs went through a bureaucratic nightmare. She wishes he’d died in hospital

My husband died at home in London on Friday 3rd September, aged 76.

His breathing became erratic and laboured in the night and, at 5am, he vomited a large gush of blood. At 10am, I heard the death rattle. So I told him I was going to ring for an ambulance.

The 999 operator asked me to describe his breathing with more accuracy. I returned to his room and found him lying dead: a terrible sight – red-faced, eyes and mouth open.

‘Oh poor man, poor man,’ I cried to the operator, who asked me if I had a defibrillator in the house. I didn’t.

‘Just send the paramedics quick and stop asking silly questions,’ I said, desperately carrying out CPR. The three-man ambulance crew arrived soon after and placed him on the floor. They attached electrodes to him to administer violent electric shocks, put a drainage tube down his throat and removed a pint of bloody mucus from his lungs and stomach.

I sat and watched with horror, listening to the machines bleeping and my husband convulsing. They valiantly worked non-stop for nearly an hour. But at 11.50 that morning, they pronounced him dead. He was still warm as I stroked his face and told him I loved him.

The medics returned to their vehicle, but I did not leave him. I had never experienced such desolate, despairing, lonely moments as in those hours alone with his body. I had spent nearly all my life with him.

If a death occurs unexpectedly at home without a doctor present, I was told, the police must be called immediately. They inform the coroner and an autopsy is necessary. The paramedics said they would stay in their ambulance until the police arrived.

This took over two hours, thanks to confusion over police shifts. Several times, one of the paramedics suggested I go into another room. But I insisted it was my duty as a wife to sit with my husband.

Two police officers finally arrived, apologising repeatedly. They were kind and courteous but the one taking my statement said he was dyslexic. It took a long time for him to write by hand. He asked me the same questions again and again until I exclaimed, ‘Do I really have to be put through all this?’ My husband was still lying there, dead on the floor.

At 6.30pm, the solemn undertakers came in their private ambulance and removed his body.

As the pathologist didn’t work at weekends, the postmortem would happen on Monday. On Monday morning, an official from the Coroner’s Court rang to say there was a backlog of bodies. He added that pathologists work on a rota system and they were very busy with trainees. During the pandemic, I was told, most experienced coroner’s officers ‘work from home’. ‘If the pathologist turns up on Wednesday,’ I was told, they would do it then.

Until there was a cause-of-death certificate, I couldn’t register the death and arrange the funeral.

By Friday, my husband had been dead for a week and nothing had been resolved. I had this emotional need to see him again but was told viewing was discouraged as he hadn’t been embalmed. I insisted.

Once I got there, on that Friday, I was ushered into a cubicle where I could view my husband through a glass partition. I gazed mournfully at his dead face and took some final photographs. His hair was dishevelled and the plastic drainage mechanism was still attached to his mouth.

Afterwards, in much distress, I stood in the hallway with three staff members and begged them to do his postmortem the following Monday. They promised they would put him ‘first on the list’.

On Monday, I was telephoned to be told that ALL autopsies had been cancelled because, on Friday night, there had been a power cut. I was told I was ‘lucky’ to have viewed my husband on Friday; it would not have been possible now. The man went into some detail about health and safety and the dangers of decomposition.

The undertaker managed to persuade a superior officer to have the autopsy done as soon as possible. The funeral took place seamlessly two weeks after the death. The following week, I collected the ashes from the undertaker.

To my horror, there was too much ash to fit into the urn! It had a beautiful brass plaque with his name – yet in addition I was given a cardboard box, out of which my husband’s remaining grey ashes rose, in a clear plastic bag tied with a knot.

My legs gave way. I asked, ‘Why was there so much ash that it couldn’t fit?’

‘It was the bones,’ they said.

Surely they could have provided a bigger urn.

Most people would like to die in their own beds, far from the clinical impersonality of a hospital.

But dying in a hospital – ideally in a comfortable room, with the family present – is preferable to the distressing chaos and officialdom that follow an unexpected death at home.