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Sleeping Goodbye

You never know when your time will come. Or so we often say. But it isn’t always true. Sometimes people do know when their time will come, because they’re diagnosed with a fatal condition and doctors can estimate how long they have left. The estimate isn’t always accurate, of course. Some people outlive it or even recover completely.

Wendy Davison of Derby outlived her diagnosis. She was given six months to live after her cervical cancer worsened earlier this decade, but in fact she had three more years to share with her loving family. She passed away painlessly at home in 2017, held in the arms of her husband Russell and her son Dylan, and comforted by the family dog Elvis. She was only fifty, but that age of passing isn’t so unusual: even in the twenty-first century and in a rich country like Britain, medicine can’t ensure that everyone reaches their three-score years and ten.

What was unusual was what happened next. Wendy Davison wasn’t taken to a hospital mortuary, where she would have been surrounded by people who, however caring and professional, were strangers to her and her family. Instead, her grieving widower Russell kept her body at home and in bed. He sit beside her by day and slept beside her at night for nearly a week, talking to her, touching her and kissing her. Her friends and family came to see her, talk to her and light candles and incense on the altar that had been set up to celebrate her life.

This isn’t what we usually do to the dead. That’s why the story has made headlines all around the world. Television and radio stations got in touch with Russell Davison, requesting interviews about his wife’s passing. He didn’t turn the requests down, because he wanted to describe what he called a “beautiful and comforting experience” not just for himself, but also for his sons and everyone else who knew and loved his wife.

And he wanted to try and change our attitudes to death. He knew that the story has raised very interesting and important questions. Many people who heard or read about what he did must have reacted with discomfort or even disgust at first. Who would want to sleep beside a dead body for a minute, let alone six days? But to Russell Davison it wasn’t simply a dead body: it was the house in which his wife had lived for fifty years. Now she had left and the house was empty. It was going to crumble, break apart and fall into ruin, but there was a little time left in which he could say goodbye to it and remember the laughing and loving spirit that had lived there.

And perhaps he was also reminding himself of how lucky he had been. Some loving couples are separated without warning, when one partner is killed in an accident – a car-crash, a fall, a drowning or random encounter with a violent robber. Other couples are separated when one partner begins to slide into dementia, losing both their memories and their individuality. And some loving couples, alas, don’t make the best of their love or of their time together. They let busy lives and active careers come between them.

That didn’t happen to the Davisons. They knew they had only a short time left together and they made the most of it. That’s why they bought a caravan after her final, fatal diagnosis, and toured Europe together, wanting to “live in the now” and savour every remaining moment of each other’s company. The diagnosis brought them together and made their marriage even more precious. That helps explain why Russell Davison couldn’t bear to say goodbye to his wife too soon.

It’s a touching story. And more than that, because some of the millions who hear about it will think again about their own lives and relationships. Make the most of every moment you have, because one day you won’t have any moments left.