One year on: Key worker families
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Suzanne Bentley’s father, Richard, died just days after country first entered lockdown.
Richard, who was 80, had been diagnosed with oesophageal cancer six months previously. He had been a fit and healthy farmer and his illness stunned the family.
As Richard’s condition sadly deteriorated, the announcement of lockdown restrictions presented a whole new set of challenges.
With hospices unable to accept any new patients, Suzanne moved out of the house she shares with her husband, Church of England vicar Rev Mark Payne, and his daughter Caitlin, to support her parents in their final days together.
“In the December, Dad stopped the chemotherapy and we’d started to discuss hospice care,” said Suzanne, who works as a recruitment assistant for Essex Police. “He was doing this more for my mum’s benefit as he didn’t think she’d be able to cope emotionally. I think he would have chosen to be at home.
“We went into lockdown and the following Thursday he took a turn and contracted Sepsis. We were told that hospices had all closed and we would have to care for him. We had no choice. All we had was one district nurse a day coming in to load drugs into his syringe driver, but nothing else.
“We had a 24-hour phone line number to the hospice, but we had to do all of his care – things that you don’t think you’ll ever have to do. It was the hardest eight days.
“It was desperate. If you haven’t experienced being in front of someone when they’ve passed away, it’s really tough both physically and emotionally. We had hugely intimate moments you never thought you’d have, but it was so hard as we’re such a close family.
“But thank god we had him at home because there were so many people who died of Covid in hospital where the family couldn’t visit them and faced with the same choice I would do it all over again.”
Richard served in the RAF but plans for a military guard of honour at his funeral had to be cancelled. Only Suzanne, her mum Beryl, her brother, Mark and another vicar were able to attend. Suzanne’s sister and her husband and their daughter weren’t allowed to travel over from the Isle of Man.
“You get left with the feeling you haven’t done things properly or the way you should have. It makes me angry it’s had that effect but there’s nothing we could have done.
“Mum’s finding it really tough – her and Dad were married for 56 years. I’m trying to support her the best I can, but she can only see me or Mark, she can’t get any other comfort. She is desperate to see my sister and her granddaughter.”
For vicar Mark, the pandemic has brought considerable changes. As well as supporting Suzanne and her family, he also had his parishioners in the villages of Earls Colne, White Colne and Colne Engaine to stay in touch with during a time when churches have been closed for long spells.
Mark said: “In the first stages of lockdown, we live in an area where there wasn’t much of the virus so there wasn’t much of an impact in terms of people dying. What we started to see was how the communities were pulling together to make sure people could get their prescriptions and their shopping, and we were part of that as a church.
“That was good to see and all through the year of lockdowns I’ve continued to see that.
"It’s heartening when you see people being human to one another and helping each other.”
However, the second wave of the virus in the late autumn and winter tragically did bring an increasing number of deaths, particularly in local care homes. Mark and his colleagues were on hand to support families and staff throughout the bereavements.
“We’ve had many more funerals, and on occasion have had to resort to saying Prayers for the Dying over WhatsApp,” Mark said.
One positive for Mark has been how quickly the church adapted to using technology.
“Online church happened overnight. Providing for people’s spiritual needs online has been awakening. I’ve had to learn an awful lot about delivering online services, and the tech you need, but we’ve managed with a tripod and an iPhone and it’s reached many people.”
Despite the sadness of the past 12 months, both Mark and Suzanne have remained positive, and said the time they’ve been able to spend together has been a benefit.
Once restrictions are lifted Suzanne is eager to see the rest of her family again, with Mark looking forward to a pint in his local pub.
“If you’ve had a bereavement, your Covid experience is different to other people,” said Suzanne.
“We’ve stuck together, and we’re just thankful that we’ve still got jobs and are working. There are always people who are worse off.”