“The standard of care is excellent…from the food, to the comfort of the room and the staff, who are incredibly friendly”

February 24, 2022

Irene Brittain likes to name her important possessions. She has a black car called Clara, a shopping trolley called Charlie and, importantly, a wig called Shirley, purchased during many rounds of chemotherapy.


“It’s a beautiful top-quality wig, and I love it,” says mum of two Irene, who is being cared for on North London Hospice’s Finchley Inpatient Unit.


When our User Involvement Lead Liz meets with Irene on a sunny afternoon, the light is streaming in through the window that looks out onto our garden. The 18 rooms on our Inpatient Unit are bright and airy, with televisions, fridges and all are ensuite.


Irene is organised. It’s instantly recognisable. And pragmatic. “I didn’t choose cancer, it chose me,” she says.


She explains how she keeps a black diary, in which she is writing things about herself so that her husband Mark and sons Matt and Ian can use it when they are preparing readings for her funeral. In it she has also asked her family to write down things they think about her. 


She also has another little black book named, of course, Enigma. The book has all her different codes and passwords written in it. When Irene passes away, she has planned for this book to be wrapped up and given to her sister-in-law who has experience in doing probate. 


It’s not unusual for someone to play such an active role in organising their own funeral or preparing for when they have gone. “I often speak to patients about the detail of their funerals…what they want and what they don’t want,” says Liz. “One patient recently explained how she’d even prepared the menu for her wake, ensuring guests had the choice of a beef stew, Thai green curry and a vegetarian lasagne.”


Irene enjoyed a distinguished 18-years in the education profession, many of which were spent teaching the early formative years. She’s immensely proud of her sons, one of whom is at university and the other working in IT and consider their mum “one of the kindest people” they know.


While the world was grappling with the pandemic in spring 2020, Irene was dealing with her own challenges, having been diagnosed with undisclosed primary cancer (CUP) in April 2019. She also lost her mother Evelyn, her mother-in-law Val, and her husband’s uncle and aunt, so it was a “truly dreadful” year for the family.


Irene was transferred to North London Hospice from hospital in January 2022 and has found a calmness in her surroundings. “Arriving here was my first experience of the hospice. The standard of care is excellent…from the food, to the comfort of the room and the staff, who are incredibly friendly.” 

Despite the many challenges of the last two years, Irene reflects on her ‘amazing life’: “My sons are always telling me that they broke the mould when they made me, and I tell them every day that ‘I know I’m strong but together we are stronger’. It’s my way of thanking them and my whole family and network of friends for all their support. Our new addition to the family, my great nephew Monty, arrived at just the right time for me.”


And despite all that may have changed in Irene’s life, her sense of humour is something that will stay with her until the end: “My favourite programme is Death In Paradise,” and she has a little chuckle at her surroundings.


Irene died peacefully on Tuesday 22 February 2022


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