BMJ 01 September 2001 Cite this as: BMJ 2001;323:521
One of our most solemn duties is to confirm that life has fled away into the darkness and can no longer claim any pension entitlements. Sometimes this can be easy, like when there’s no head, but sometimes it can be a tough call…….
I had known Jimmy many years ago, so when I saw his widow I went over to pay my respects. I was embarrassed that I hadn’t attended the wake (de rigueur in Ireland), so I over-compensated a tad. I talked about how much I missed Jimmy and what great friends we’d been and all the divilment we used to get up to. The widow seemed rather cool, which I presumed was because of my non-appearance at the wake, so, digging myself deeper, I became even more frenzied in my protestations.
Then, in the middle of an apocryphal story about tying a sheep to a racing car, who should I see coming up the road but Jimmy himself, very much alive. Fortunately I hadn’t yet used any definitive phrases to denote that I thought he was actually dead, such as “I heard it was a gigantic funeral,” but at this stage the horses were running away with me and I was so steeped in gore t’was more bloody to go back than to go o’er, and I found myself helplessly continuing the charade.
“Jimmy,” I cried, running up and giving him a comradely pummelling and a big hug. Jimmy was palpably mystified, but we men are simple creatures and my false bonhomie was infectious and irresistible; he gamely responded and we performed a joyous little pas de deux in the middle of the street while the townsfolk gazed on in wild and bewildered surmise.
But we learn; we’ve all been in that kitchen, dispensing tea and pastries and sympathy, when someone rushes in and shouts, “Granny’s still breathing.”
The smart move here is to be dead cool. Keep your nerve and finish your cup of tea in an unhurried, seen-it-all-before manner. Give yourself some breathing space, so to speak. Reassure them that after death the body doesn’t just stop immediately; it winds down slowly, and involuntary movements can occur, one last chest heave, one last abdominal gurgle. However, just before you take your leave, return to the corpse (to pay your respects) and confirm death discreetly.
By clandestine use of a pastry fork, perhaps.