Writing about palliative care within a romantic comedy – is it possible to love and laugh in the face of death?

With Love Life due to launch next week I thought now might be a good time to share my thoughts as regards my choice of setting. Please note – this article was first featured on the fabulous Women Writers website http://booksbywomen.org/ in August 2021.

When I started writing Love Life as a romantic comedy, I knew immediately that I wanted to set it in a hospice – a cathedral of powerful human emotions and the perfect place to observe a whole range of relationships. We are used to seeing romance and humour at the other end of life’s spectrum. So many television dramas, family sagas and epic tales of passion involve an unexpected pregnancy or a trip to the maternity unit, multiple stories focussing on the start of life. The new beginning heralded by a baby’s arrival into the world is a catalyst for an explosion of feeling, tears, joy, laughter and ultimately, love.  And yet we rarely see the end of life portrayed in such terms. It strikes me that this is an enormous oversight.

Reaching the end of a person’s life should be a celebration, a chance to reflect on all that has gone before, to acknowledge that although our time on this planet is fleeting, we will have inevitably touched the lives of others in ways we cannot fathom. And it is obviously something that will happen to every single one of us. Yet, dying is so often hidden away and referred to in hushed tones. We rarely use the worth death, having created a wealth of euphemisms that we are more comfortable with. We remove the dying from their homes and tidy them away in a hospital where their decline is managed in a manner acceptable to us as a society. We no longer bear witness to dying because we simply assume that we can’t bear it.

I’m not sure how we have reached this position in such a short space of time, only two or three generations ago it was expected that you would die at home with your family around you. Young children grew up knowing and understanding about death and dying. But with medical advances there is now a sense that dying is somehow a failure, a fault in our modern technology. We’ve forgotten that this process is normal, and that death is part of life. Part of this collective forgetting relates to the fact that ordinary dying has fallen off the radar of popular culture.

There are many beautifully written non-fiction books and memoirs on the subject of palliative care and similarly, attempts have been made by fiction writers to address the end of life. Many a tragic, compelling tale has been composed to pull on the heart-strings and leave the reader feeling wrung out with grief. However, it’s fair to say that there aren’t many romantic comedies that feature death and dying as a central component of the story.

It may appear to be an odd choice for a debut author to choose a hospice as a setting for a Rom-Com but I’ve been a doctor for many years now and a particular interest of mine has always been the care of the terminally ill. I have worked closely with hospices and palliative care teams and have always felt it an enormous privilege to be with patients and their families when they are considering their options and deciding what is important to them. But so often people die without having even mentioned their wishes to loved ones, they are reluctant, embarrassed, and ashamed to speak of their fears, and as a result these terribly important discussions never take place.

If we are to open up the conversation about dying, we need to bring it out into the public domain, drag it into popular culture and make it a feature of our films, television, radio and books. My way of addressing the elephant in the room was simply to write a story about that elephant, a story that wasn’t sad. A story where people make fun of each other and fall in love and swear a lot and get drunk and have sex and get on with living in the midst of death.

Love Life features a heroine, Tess, who is a hospice doctor with a history of poor choices in men, and a hero, Edward, who is in denial about his mother’s terminal illness. Predictably they dislike each other in the beginning. Predictably they grow to understand each other during the course of the novel (it’s a Rom-Com – you know what you’re getting). Less predictably the story also features a daytime television host, a Jane Austen narrator, a gay ex-boyfriend, a problem with binge-eating, a blind date with an estate agent, a veterinary emergency, and quite a lot of inappropriate shagging. And this really is my point. Death shouldn’t be a taboo. It should be regarded as much a part of our modern cultural fodder as Love Island or I’m a Celebrity or Bake-Off. We need to view dying as part of the normal messy funny old business of being alive. That way we can stop being fearful of it.

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