Stories from the day hospice: On the ward

7 December 2012

 Illustration by Marianne Dear
[object Object]

Illustration by Marianne Dear

Throughout the summer of 2012, Chrissie Giles spent time at the day hospice at Princess Alice Hospice, Esher, running a creative writing group. In a series of posts accompanying our exhibition Death: A self-portrait, she reflects on her experiences there and showcases some of the writing produced by group members.

I’d been asked to go to the ward to see one of the patients. Here, people are given inpatient care, either as respite for them and their carers or to support them at the end of their life.

Jack’s* mum walked over next to me and put a wide, shallow box on the bed. She opened it and inside was a jumble of cards and envelopes: pink princesses, glitter and hearts alongside the navy, gold and khaki of football, beer and cars. There was a card ready for each birthday of his young son and daughter, all the way until their twenty-firsts.

A breeze from the open patio door flapped the floor-length net curtains. Objects were scattered on the windowsill: a card from a friend, a pouch of tobacco, an empty water bottle, an inhaler.

Jack sat in a wheelchair, his muscular arms decorated with swirling tattoos. His red, swollen legs showed below his shorts, weeping, fluid-filled feet and ankles wrapped in absorbent pads.

He started to dictate a letter. One line in, he breaks to tell me about the recipient, a short summary that explains how he wishes he’d have more time with this person, who has come back into his life relatively recently. He continues, thinking about each line and how best to put what he’s feeling.

His head drops forwards and his breathing becomes more pronounced. Is he just thinking? Sobbing? Sleeping? “Jack?” He wakes up and we pick up from the part we got to, but he nods off again. Heavy inhalation, short exhalation and a small wobble of the head.

A quiet knock on the door is followed by a louder one. His daughter, son and partner are outside. The little girl, who has a large gold foil medal around her neck, asks politely if they can come in. They walk through, see their sleeping dad and bound onto the large lawn to kick a ball and do handstands. I take the notebook and its 33 words and leave.

*This name has been changed.

Chrissie Giles is a Senior Editor at the Wellcome Trust. Death: A self-portraitis open until 24 February 2013. Find out more about Princess Alice Hospice at

Listen to Chrissie read this piece: