Yesterday I lost a dear friend, Mary Butterwick. At 91-years-old you could say that she had a good long life, and you’d be right. She certainly lived every one of those years to the full and her enthusiasm for life never waned. I will miss her and her love for life. Perhaps that’s why she never seemed old to me. Wise – yes, but never old.
We last spoke a couple of weeks ago and she was reminding me I needed to eat more. ‘It’s not hard,’ she told me, ‘All you have to do is lift the fork to your mouth. If I can do it in here (meaning the hospice) you can do it. Just get some Weetabix and a banana, that’s not hard to eat.’
She was worried about me because I’d lost some weight recently. Since we met 16 years ago she has always looked out for me – I’ll miss her straight-talking kindness.
It is hard to talk about someone you love in the past tense, when you’ve barely taken in that they’ve gone. I’m not going to try to do that. Mary’s work in founding the Butterwick Hospice which carries her name, was the catalyst for how we met all those years ago. Below I’ve pasted an article I wrote for the Sunday Sun newspaper in 2012 which explains a bit more.
Mary Butterwick pioneered hospice care in the north east as we know it today.
Carmel Thomason looks back on her extraordinary achievement.
HOW many times have you said: ‘This is terrible’, ranted for a few minutes and then forgotten all about it the next day?
If you’re anything like me you’ve probably lost count. It’s easy to feel momentarily outraged while reading a newspaper or watching the news.
Sometimes, however, there are times when we all genuinely wish that things could be different yet feel helpless to do anything about it.
So often I’ve told myself, if only I had more money, power, knowledge or influential friends, then I’d do something about whatever it is I think could be better.
And that is why I find Mary Butterwick so extraordinary. At the time when she started campaigning for better palliative care in the north east, Mary was a 54-year-old widow who worked part-time in a tea factory. She had no formal education, no medical background or influential friends. But she believed in the power of love, recognised the importance of our smallest actions and had the strength to speak her mind to take action against injustice.
Mary stood up against the status quo of the time and said: “This is wrong – we should try to change it.” Her belief in something better and her passion to make it happen sowed the seeds of hospice care as we know it today in the region to the benefit of thousands of families.
I first met Mary when I was asked to interview her while working as a feature writer for the Evening Gazette in Middlesbrough. Her story struck an instant chord with me because my grandmother had died following a very short illness, aged 52, in the same month that Mary lost her husband, John.
It was at opposite ends of the country, but the lack of care in the hospitals during that bitter cold winter of 1979 and the hurt this caused were exactly the same.
Of course it was a shock to lose someone so close, almost without warning, but it was the careless words, the lack of dignity and respect for life that created even deeper wounds that were so hard to heal.
If we both had experienced this, then I knew that there must be hundreds, if not thousands, of others who felt the same.
Many years later, my grandfather died at St Ann’s Hospice in Manchester. The contrast in care, while it didn’t make the loss any less, meant that we were able to spend his last days enjoying our time together. As a family we all felt loved and cared for in a time of vulnerability.
The care we experienced was the type of care that Mary had longed for and I knew first hand that what she had worked so hard to achieve had made a difference to people’s lives.
It was clear that John’s death had changed Mary’s outlook on life irrevocably. They were war time sweethearts and had just celebrated their 33rd wedding anniversary. Then within two weeks Mary’s life was shattered when John took ill and died, a loss that was magnified by careless words from some hospital staff and the fact that he had fallen several times while in hospital.
Mary firmly believed that there had to be a better way to care for people than this. However, her dream didn’t happen quickly or easily.
Bereavement can be a self-pitying time, as Mary discovered, and she admits there were times when she contemplated ending it all. She believed no-one knew the depth of grief she felt and that her life would never be the same again. After such a personal loss, it was obvious that the life she was left with was going to be vastly different from the one she knew. But she realised in time that, as life becomes different, so you can make it into something good, something special again.
It was through volunteering with a community group for people with disabilities that Mary began to laugh again. Being part of the group stopped her focusing on herself and her own pain. Of course it didn’t take the pain away completely, but it gave her a diversion, helping her to turn a corner in her grief and start seeing the outside world again.
To move Mary realised that she needed to forgive not only the medical staff who made careless comments but herself too. She had tortured herself with ‘what if’s? Should she have been able to see earlier that John had cancer?
However, forgiving and forgetting are two very different things. What Mary could never forget was the unnecessary pain caused to John by neglect, be it intentional or not. She couldn’t accept the inability of some people to treat others as human beings, and that meant everyone, even those who had been diagnosed as being terminally ill. Whatever that meant in real terms, and she still didn’t fully understand it, she knew it didn’t mean that these people were any less alive than anyone else.
The important part, in her eyes, was to get on with living and to make the most of opportunities. To care for one another and to let those closest to us know how much we love and value them – simple things, which cost so little in monetary terms, but which can mean so much. It was these simple things which she felt had been denied to John at the end.
If a person couldn’t be made physically better, then there should be somewhere where they could spend time and leave feeling healthier in mind and spirit.
Today such end of life care is something we often take for granted. Now, with at least 14 hospices in the north east, it is hard to imagine why Mary felt that there was no option but to sell her house to set up the region’s first. However, it’s more astonishing how someone near retiring age would not only have the courage but also the energy to do it.
Selling her home was a bold move. It was saying I’ve put my money where my mouth is, now will you join me?
The people of the north east did join her and today Butterwick Hospice has grown into two purpose-built hospices and outreach services, caring for up to 200 patients and their families each day.
Aged 86, Mary is still a regular volunteer and as passionate about helping others as ever. In 2002 she was awarded an OBE for services to the hospice movement, she has an honorary Master of Science at Teesside University and was given Freedom of the Borough of Stockton.
Mary’s story demonstrates how the smallest of our actions can make a difference for the better or worse. There are things we can do nothing about, but so often our perceived helplessness means that we do nothing about those things that we can change. The big question is always, what can I do?
If we are to make every moment count then we need to do what we can instead of worrying about what we can’t.
Every Moment Counts: A Life of Mary Butterwick is published by Darton, Longman & Todd, £10.99.