Acceptance and understanding bring light to couple in their darkest time
“It was a safe place during a dark time. Somewhere we could be ourselves and spend precious time together.”
When someone is nearing the end of their life, it matters more than ever that they should be with those dearest to them, but – as revealed by research carried out by the Care Quality Commission* – for some LGBTQ+ people with terminal illness the reality is that they encounter discrimination and lack of understanding at a time when they most need acceptance and support. This Hospice Care Week (4 – 8 October), a Plymouth man is sharing his story to demonstrate what high-calibre hospice care looks like when you are part of a gay couple, and the important difference it makes.
When retail manager Pete Richards met accountant Richard Shaw in 2012, their instant connection saw the two quickly become inseparable, moving in together, enjoying holidays in far-flung destinations and relishing time spent with friends and family, including their two young nephews, aged 6 and 4.
The couple’s active lifestyle included regular walks along the coast and in the countryside, plus daily visits to the gym for health-conscious Richard, who Pete describes as ‘the perfect gentleman – always impeccably turned out’.
Then, at Easter 2019, came devastating news that changed everything, when tests revealed that Richard aged 36 had a brain tumour. A gruelling regime of medical treatment followed, including chemotherapy, but could not halt the growth of the tumour and eventually, Richard made the difficult decision not to undergo further treatment.
Pete said: “Our focus was on making things easier, ensuring he was comfortable and being able to enjoy the time we had left together – that’s why getting him into St Luke’s specialist unit at Turnchapel made sense. Not only are the doctors and nurses experts in end of life care, it’s local so it was really easy for me and our family and friends to visit. Rich was such a sociable person and he loved having us all around him.
“It was such a relief to find that the hospice was not at all like the dark place I’d been expecting. There was a feeling of great warmth, and Rich had a lovely big room with spectacular views of the Hoe.
“What really meant so much to us both was that we didn’t have to hide our sexuality. Even though this is the 21st century, I was anxious I might have to pretend to be Richard’s friend instead of his partner, but we were immediately accepted as a couple and received nothing but kindness and support from everyone at St Luke’s. I could lie next to Richard and cuddle him without worrying what anyone was thinking.”
Importantly, too, Turnchapel was a place Richard and Pete felt comfortable for their nephews Charlie and Matthew to visit – not only because of the playroom full of toys and the space for them to run around but because through our Patches scheme, providing bespoke, age-appropriate support for young children facing the loss of someone close. Our Family and Children’s Support Worker Lisa was there to involve the boys in fun activities as well as gently preparing them for the changes they would see in their uncle.
Pete said: “Rich adored watching the boys play and just seeing them be happy, and Lisa was amazing all the way through. She helped Charlie and Matthew process what was happening, and even after Rich died she visited them at home.
“The other staff were really kind, too, wheeling Rich’s bed into the garden on sunny days and making us cups of tea. One nurse in particular, Anca, stood out to me. She would give Rich these hand massages that would put him to sleep. Little touches like that made such a difference.
“Rich was at St Luke’s about four weeks and I’m forever grateful that when he died it was with the people he loved most in the world around him. We were all there, holding his hands.
“Losing my partner, who was such a lovely, lovely guy, has been heart-breaking, but everything St Luke’s did for us made that final chapter a little bit easier. From day one, Rich and I were welcomed, loved and respected by the team just as much as anyone else and that compassion never wavered. They were even there in the church for Rich’s funeral, supporting us.
“Everybody, regardless of background or circumstances, deserves to die with dignity surrounded by those they love and that’s why I feel I owe St Luke’s a debt for helping Rich, me and our family, bringing light to us in our darkest time.”
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*A Different Ending: Addressing Inequalities in End of Life Care 2016
Other useful documents, Hospice UK Equality in hospice and end of life care: challenges and change