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The meaning and magic of weddings in hospitals

Author: Leila Hawkins
29 November 2017

Dr Ros Taylor MBE, Palliative Physician at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London and Hospice UK Associate, spoke at Hospice UK’s National Conference last week about the meaning of weddings at the end of life.

The first time Dr Taylor saw a wedding at the end of life was in 1998 at the Hospice of St Francis in Berkhamsted, with the couple getting married in pyjamas. The groom, Dan, died of cancer a week later and the bride, Jo, said the wedding had been the most important thing she had ever done. At the hospice there would be on average two to three weddings a year.

At the Royal Marsden there were seven weddings between February 2016 and June 2017, which Dr Taylor surveyed. She explained that hospital weddings for people at the end of life are seldom publicised, as she believes they prefer to be known for curing patients rather than for providing palliative care.

The list of preparations includes a letter signed by a doctor to ensure the legality of the ceremony’s location, in other words that the patient has difficulty leaving the hospital and is not expected to recover. This is a requirement for the licence which can be granted at very short notice, while ten days is the average.

Then there are the essentials like balloons, the food which is prepared by the hospital’s catering team, any necessary medication, and the rings. In one case a nurse took a patient in a wheelchair to a local jewellery shop in Fulham to buy a ring - these events and the run-up to them are enjoyed by the staff too, as they have been invited to be part of a special, happy day.

The hospital’s location in one of the capital’s most affluent areas means it is close to some of the most expensive wedding dress and clothes shops in London, some of which lent their dresses or pyjamas for the day. Three couples wed in pyjamas, one got married in scrubs. Most had flowers donated from upmarket florists in South Kensington.

After the ceremonies, two patients were discharged to hospices and lived for a further six weeks. In the case of one wedding, the patient died just one hour afterwards – it is believed the rush of cortisol caused by the joy of the event caused arrhythmia.  

When asked about their reasons for getting married, love and the connection to the other person were the most important. After that came financial and legal aspects such as pensions, housing, benefits, wills and the guardianship of children. Another was having a sense of closure.

One bride wanted the couple’s kids to remember something other than their father dying, another said that after 13 years of being together, she wanted to be a widow, not someone who had lost a partner.

All those Dr Taylor spoke to after the ceremonies had no regrets – even in the case of one woman who had inherited all her husband’s debts as a result.

Getting married made their connections deeper with the knowledge that time was running short, and created important, long-lasting memories for the partners, children and loved ones left behind.

For more information visit Hospice UK National Conference 2017

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