It's a matter of life and death

Someone had told me Jimmy had died, and I had known him many years ago, so, when I saw his widow I went over to pay my respects.

I was embarrassed that I had somehow missed the wake (attendance at wakes is 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 devilment we used to get up to.  

The widow seemed rather cool, which I presumed was due to my non-appearance at the wake. So digging myself deeper, I became even more vigorous and frenzied in my protestations of undying friendship.  

Then, in the middle of an apocryphal story about tying a confused sheep to a racing car, who should I see coming up the road but Jimmy himself, very much alive; reports of his demise had obviously been greatly exaggerated. Fortunately, I hadn’t yet used any definite phrases to indicate 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 that I found myself helplessly continuing the charade.  

‘Jimmy,’ I cried, running up and giving him a friendly pummelling. 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. I was glad Jimmy was still alive, but it was rather inconvenient.  

One of the most solemn duties of our ancient profession is to confirm that life has fluttered away into the great darkness and can no longer claim any pension entitlements.  

Sometimes this can be easy, like when there’s an absence of a head, but sometimes it can be a very tough call.  

We’ve all been in the 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 and your bun 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 the skilful yet clandestine use of a pastry fork, perhaps.  

Dr Farrell is a GP from County Armagh.  

Email him at

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