Dying to talk about it

When my best friend, Di, died I felt a subtle pressure to stop talking about her as soon as possible. It wasn’t that anyone told me I should get over it, or asked me not to mention her. It was that talking about death made people visibly uncomfortable. We were young – she didn’t make it to her 25th birthday – and most of us had never faced death before. Never been struck across the face with it, never felt its shockingly cold breath on the back of our necks.

This stark evidence that death could swoop down out of clear skies was something nobody wanted to remember. But grieving silently – hell, doing anything silently – is just not me. So I write about her. Talk about her with the patient few who let me bare my soul to them. And hold her close in my heart every day.

And still we pretend that death comes at the end of a long and busy life, a blessed relief when strength has dwindled. That we are immortal, right up to that final moment. That we will never lose the ones we love. And I think this is a terrible mistake.

Three years ago my cousin, Chris, died – another death that struck like an atom bomb on a sunny day. No warning. No farewells. One day full of life and love. The next a gaping hole in our lives. Last week I saw him in a dream, and I hugged him and cried – knowing even in the dream that he wasn’t real, but so grateful to see him, to have the chance to hold him again.

But seeing as this was about death, I didn’t tell anyone about that dream. I hugged it to myself, and buried the melancholy memory deep, so as not to make anyone uncomfortable. My daughter was 8 when Chris died, and she loved him dearly. His death ripped her foundations out from under her, as she confronted the shocking awareness that death could strike at random and rip her world apart without warning. Much the same way Di’s death did to me when I was 25.

I wonder, sometimes, whether we would both have coped better if death was something we were allowed to talk about, rather than a deeply uncomfortable taboo. If we retained the matter-of-fact honesty of childhood, talking easily about our feelings and our grief.

Years ago I had a miscarriage, and because I was open about it I found that tales of grief and loss, of miscarriage and infertility, began falling around me like petals from a tired rose. So many of my friends had borne their grief in silence, because that is what we think we are supposed to do. We don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. We don’t want to go on grieving longer than we think we should. We don’t want to bring everybody down.

But maybe talking about death could actually bring everybody up. What if all that honest and raw emotion could provide comfort to others coping with feelings they never see anyone else show? What if that real and current experience of death could provide just a little cushion, as people see that death does strike without warning, but that kindness, compassion, and time make it possible for the rest of us to go on living even so.

What if people saw each other suffering, and grieving, and struggling, and knew that they weren’t alone?

What if we actually talked about death?

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Fitting your own oxygen mask

I read a beautiful thing on another blog today. Titled “Today I lived,” it is a poetic tribute to all the times we want to turn away, to scream, to hide inside ourselves, but we don’t. We want to scream at our kids, but we don’t. We want to slam the door, but we don’t. We want to shut the world out, but we don’t.

The trouble with that lovely tribute is that some days all I can see is all the times I have screamed. The students I couldn’t reach. The problems my kids had that I wasn’t sympathetic about. The doors I did slam, and the actions I regret.

When we do the Successful Thing in the evenings to remind ourselves of what we have achieved lately, I try very hard to give myself credit, even for the little things. To remind myself that however bad the day felt, I did stuff. I got up and went to work when I wanted to stay in bed. I solved a tricky programming problem. I helped someone. I used the stairs instead of the lift – or, when I’m sick, I remembered to use the lift instead of the stairs and actually ended the day still functional. That’s a score, in my book! Yet some days it’s really hard to come up with even a small success.

Have you ever listened to the safety briefing on a plane and actually thought about those oxygen masks? “Be sure to fit your own mask before helping others,” is the standard line. Which makes sense, because you can’t fit the oxygen mask on your toddler if you have passed out from lack of oxygen yourself. I think those days when I can’t find anything to write for the Successful Thing are the days when I haven’t fitted my own oxygen mask.

Recently I offered to run a short mindfulness session at work, before school, once a week. Part of the reason I offered was that I knew that this way I would at least get one mindfulness session in per week. Mindfulness is really hard for me to maintain on my own. I know it’s incredibly good for me. I know I am happier and calmer when I do it regularly. Yet it’s the first thing to go when I get busy or stressed – even though it’s most important at those times! But if I have promised to do it for someone else, I will do it. I’ll prioritise fitting someone else’s oxygen mask, but not my own. When I set it down in text like that, it sounds really crazy. But it is who I am.

I was talking to a friend the other day about how hard he is on himself, and I was dispensing sage advice by the handful. “Don’t beat yourself up when you feel like didn’t measure up on a day,” I said. “Work out what you can learn from it, and try again tomorrow. And above all give yourself credit for the stuff you did achieve today.” This, I think, is a form of mindfulness. This is being aware of your whole day, not just the bits that hurt. And this is being kind to yourself. This is also advice I am very bad at taking myself.

It’s really easy to get caught up in what your kids need. In your responsibilities at work. In making time and putting in effort for everyone but yourself. Especially if you are unwell, as I’ve been over the last few months, and your energy and time are so constrained that there just isn’t enough for everyone who needs it. It’s really easy to put yourself last. To not fit your own oxygen mask. To wind up slamming doors, screaming at the kids, and losing it at work. So far over the edge that you can’t even see it with a telescope.

For me, at least, the way I often respond to these events is to beat myself up for not being the parent I want to be. The friend I want to be. Or the teacher I want to be. And this is an ingrained habit that is hard to break. But I am starting to realise that it’s easier to replace a habit than to break one. Focusing on not doing something is like trying not to smile – more difficult the harder you try. So I am planning to try focusing on doing something instead. I’m going to work on fitting my own oxygen mask. I’m going to try to take those days as a warning – like an alarm that goes off when the plane begins to depressurize – instead of taking them as failure.

Today I’m going to go for a walk, and meet a friend. Tonight I’m going out to my favourite restaurant in all the world, and tomorrow I’m going to get some marking done, but I’m also going to spend some time lying in the sunshine with a few back copies of Cosmos magazine. And I’m going to breathe. Deeply. And maybe that way tomorrow will be better than yesterday, and I will remember to fit my own oxygen mask next time, before the doors slam and the screaming starts.