Holding on tightly

Andrew just left to go to Perth for our friend David’s funeral. I only met David a few times, but we bonded over teaching, and of course over Andrew. Andrew, David, and David’s brother Mike, grew up together. They were brothers in all but DNA. After David and his family moved to Perth in his teens, they were only sporadically in contact but they remained inescapably connected.

And now he’s gone. Andrew packed his things for the flight in my cousin Chris’s backpack, which we inherited when Chris died. Tonight we’ll eat dinner in some bowls that also belonged to Chris. We might serve the veggies with the silver spoon my beloved friend James gave me before he died, so that I would have something to remember him by. I didn’t need the spoon, James has a permanent and dedicated room in my heart.

If Marg hadn’t died a few weeks ago I would call her to touch base around now. I’m wearing the earrings I bought when raiding Vic market with Di way back in first year uni, some years before a car accident robbed her of a future and me of the other half of my brain.

Together, and with many others, they made me who I am. I am built on the foundations of all the people I have ever loved. There are pieces of them embedded in my heart, but they take pieces of me with them when they die. I am broken afresh by each new death, and rebuilt by every friendship.

Each new loss is a body blow, knocking me off balance and off course.

Look down,
The ground below is crumbling.
Look up,
The stars are all exploding.
Hey yeah, hey yeah oh oh
Hey yeah, hey yeah
It’s the last, day on earth,
In my dreams, in my dreams,
It’s the end, of the world,
And you’ve come back, to me.
In my dreams.
Kate Miller-Heidke, Last Day on Earth

Last night in my dreams I was having an argument with my Dad. I woke to find him still gone, and it was equal parts relief and regret. That’s a long story.

Every death interrupts a million stories. But it does not sever those connections. As Pratchett, himself now an echo, wrote: ‘No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away…’

Memories remain. Love remains. Even as sadness is overwhelming. My Dad used to say that life was a chronic and ultimately fatal disease. Experience has taught me that the prognosis is acutely uncertain.

So gather your loved ones to you. Take that chance. Make that stand. Give life everything you’ve got. It’s uncertain, and precious, and capricious in the extreme. Grab it with both hands.

Transfixed

The first time I tangled with death I was struck by the way the world continued to turn. People worked, played, and laughed while I stood immobile, transfixed with horror and loss. My stomach churning. My heart stopped. My life irrevocably shattered – its reconstruction would take years. Yet my neighbours went to work and tended their gardens. The weather was beautiful, heedless of my pain. My friends gathered around me, but they still had lives to live. Things to do. Practicalities to attend to. For me, time had stopped.

Today is no surprise. Her loss has been imminent for weeks. Relief rises in waves because her suffering is finally over. But it hurts. Oh god, how it hurts. Less than 24 hours from her last breath I miss her humour, her bluntness, and her love. Above all she wanted to make sure she wasn’t a nuisance. Surrounded by tales of people having to force their elderly relatives into a nursing home she chose to go, when she was ready – not because she wanted to, but because she wanted to spare her loved ones the trauma, and she knew the time was coming when she would not be able to manage at home.

She did everything on her own terms, but death was not kind to her. It took too long to come, and made her suffer in the waiting. I don’t know what she would have chosen, if she had a choice, but with all my heart I do believe the choice should have been hers. She was dying. She was suffering. Why could she not choose to go gentle into that good night, with the kindness of morphine, instead of suffering night after night, dragging herself and her loved ones through hell with every struggling breath? This is no slippery slope, this is the deliberate withholding of compassionate treatment. This is calculated cruelty for ideological ends.

hey there’s not a cloud in sight
it’s as blue as your blue goodbye
and I thought that it would rain
the day you went away

Wendy Matthews, The Day You Went Away

She was a troublemaker, Marg. One knows another, and we fired a spark in each other that burns brightly in me now. She told me wild tales of growing up with my Dad and his brothers. Through her I saw a side to my Dad that he never chose to show me. I learnt more about my family, and my background, from Marg than I sometimes think my Dad ever really knew.

Marg was always part of her community, even as she spent more and more time in hospital with a failing heart. Her neighbours all adored her. Whenever I visited there would be people popping over the fence to see how she was doing. She used to introduce me as her niece – which technically I wasn’t, as she was Dad’s first cousin, but I took some pride in it. She was certainly an aunt to me, and much, much more.

We talked often, Marg and I. She raved about her grandchildren and great grandchildren. She loved them to bits, and delighted in their spirit and will. Never one to sit quietly and do what she was told, Marg connected best with independent spirits, and she related tales of her spirited descendants with glee.

I always knew I could trust Marg to tell me exactly what she thought, even if it was hard to hear. But even when she disagreed with me, she was in my corner come hell or high water. Marg did what she thought was right, and damn the torpedoes. She loved with her whole heart, even as it failed her.

We’re a funny old family. Widely scattered and curiously distant, Marg was a crucial link between my past and my future. She is a piece of my heart, now and forever. I’m glad she’s at peace – for the last week I was begging fate to let her die, to release her from suffering – but I am gutted that she’s gone. I can hear her saying “I’m not special!” but she is incredibly special to many.

The way I see it I was lucky to have Marg in my life. She was a huge and loving support to me. If grief is the price of love, I pay it willingly. But it hurts.

 

Mortality

Today’s soundtrack consisted of quite a lot of “I can’t do this“. “This is too hard.” and “Make it stop.” Despite far too intimate acquaintance, I still find death impossible to comprehend. That someone can be a part of your life and then simply gone. Not estranged. Not moved away. Irrevocably removed from the world, on some kind of cosmic whim. I just can’t process that.

Once death has left its mark on you, each subsequent encounter is burdened by your response to all that has gone before. Genuine grief for the current loss can be all but eclipsed by the rampaging onslaught of every other grief that ever carved a hole in your heart, plus all the griefs you fear are coming.

It can leave you shaken and afraid, shying from future possibilities like a startled rabbit. It can make you painfully aware of the ephemeral nature of human existence. It can make you desperate to do everything, to be everything, and to experience everything, before it’s too late.

It can make you afraid of getting too attached, or it can make attachments even fiercer, in desperate defiance of an inevitability you hardly know how to face.

It can leave you curled up inside your own head, avoiding the world, unwilling to look reality in the eye.

It can make you knock down doors and rip up forests in a fever to make a difference, to feel alive, and to be noticed.

It can make you wonder if your own passing would leave a hole.

Death can rip up your foundations and nail you to the floor, all in the same moment.

It can make you desperate for human contact and yet unable to lift the phone to make a call.

We all experience it. We all have to face it many times over. Yet it remains impossible to understand. It is brutal, and shocking. It’s devastating. And it’s a normal part of life.

I’ll never get used to it. I don’t want to get used to it. But I’m not sure how many tears I can shed in one lifetime.

 

Death For Kids

I’ve shared this one with a few friends recently – sadly, there’s been a need for it. Conversations about death can be tough, especially with kids. I wrote this inspired by our own family’s experience of death, but also trying to encompass the huge range of experiences and emotions that can happen around the death of someone we know. No two situations will ever be exactly alike. No two relationships are the same. I hope it might be useful to some families dealing with death. Please feel free to share it around – but I do ask that you retain the attribution and a link to this blog.


 

There is a lovely old idea that no-one truly dies until their influence on the world has ended. Until the tyres they pumped up have gone flat. Until the clock they wound up has run down. Until they are no longer remembered. Until their footprints have been erased. Until their last impact on the world is forgotten.
Grief is hard to understand. Sometimes you can laugh and play as though nothing different is happening. Other times you can’t think of anything else but the person who is dying.
When you’re not quite sure how you feel about someone, or you don’t feel as though you love them the way you are supposed to, it can make dealing with them dying a lot harder. You sometimes wind up thinking: “Am I a bad person for not feeling sad? How can I laugh when Fred is dying? He’s my grandfather/uncle/cousin, why don’t I love him more?”
The truth is that some people are hard to get close to. Hard to get to know. Even hard to love. But even if you don’t feel so close to them, it’s tough to face the death of someone you know.
Wrapping your head around the idea that someone is going to die is one of the hardest parts of life. Everybody dies eventually. Most people don’t die until they’re really old, but that doesn’t make it any easier. How can someone be here one day and gone the next?
Facing someone’s death is really hard, especially if you know it’s coming, but you don’t know when. Sometimes that can go on for months, and it’s a real strain. It hurts, and it’s scary, and the people around you are probably grumpier and upset too. It’s kind of hard to get on with life when you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but you know it’s bad, and it’s probably going to be soon.
When someone dies, or is dying, it’s really important to gather your friends and family around you for support. You need to play and laugh with your friends, you need extra hugs, and you need to remember that we all cope with death differently. Sometimes you need to cry and be hugged, other times you just need to play and be distracted, and not think about it for a while.
Sometimes you might feel angry – cross with the person who has died for making things difficult, or cross with your family for being upset and upsetting you. Or you might feel angry with someone who isn’t stressed right now – because it’s not fair that they’re not stressed, and you’re dealing with something so tough.
It’s really important to remember that everyone feels all of these things sometimes. There’s no such thing as the right or wrong thing to feel. You might be sobbing one minute and laughing the next. It’s ok. However you feel, you have a right to feel that way. You need to take care of yourself, and to remember that it’s ok to feel the way you do.
Talk about it when you need to, and distract yourself with something fun when you need to as well. Be gentle with yourself, and cut yourself a little more slack than usual. We all make mistakes at the best of times, and times like this aren’t easy. You’re probably going to make more mistakes, get angrier, and cry more. It’s all normal, and the people around you will understand (even if they might be making more mistakes, getting angrier and crying more, too).
Most people have something called a funeral when someone dies. This is a formal get together where people make speeches talking about the good things they remember about the person who died.
Many people also have a “wake”, which is a kind of party where people eat and drink just like at an ordinary party, but they also comfort each other. At a wake people sometimes make short speeches, but mostly they just talk to each other, remembering the person who died, and listening to each other’s memories.
Some people might come to the wake who didn’t know the person who died, but they know you, so they want to come to support you, and remind you that you are loved.
Grief is really hard, and the feelings can be very intense sometimes. It can be overwhelming, and hard to imagine how you can get on with life when you feel this way. That’s when you might need an extra hug, or a bit of time out. Remember that it gets easier with time, and also that it goes up and down – sometimes you might start feeling better, and then feel worse again. Grief sometimes comes in waves, washing over you uncontrollably, and then disappearing again quite quickly.
The best thing you can do is to spend time with people who care about you, and who make you feel good. Remember that it’s hard for all of us, and we can all look after each other and comfort each other.

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?

A part of life

I love anniversaries for the excuse to celebrate. Birthdays, wedding anniversaries…any excuse to get together with my loved ones and say “Hey, we’re doing well” or “Hell, we’re still alive!” is ok by me. But just as reminders to be happy roll around regularly, so do the anniversaries of sadness and tragedy.

The anniversary of my Dad’s death is creeping up on me, and although I haven’t had time to give it much space consciously, it lies heavily on my heart.

The death of a parent is a funny thing. All around me I see people much older than I am who still have living grandparents, and whose parents take an active role in their lives, yet I also know that many lose their parents much younger than I lost my Dad. It’s not shocking, demographically speaking, to lose a parent when you’re in your 40s, but the heart doesn’t consult statistics before it reacts. I knew my Dad was dying. His death was a release from terrible suffering, but I still miss him.

A year ago I was sitting in a meeting when the phone call came. There followed a flurry of people to notify and things to organise. As the year went on there were more and more things to sort out. We are still getting letters for him in the mail from companies we have never heard of, still notifying organisations who hold accounts for him or want to sell him stuff. But slowly the administrative burden has subsided, together with the shock.

Now we have grandparent days at school with a hole in them, and music concerts that he will never attend. Stories he won’t get to appreciate, and family celebrations where he won’t tell those terrible, terrible Dad jokes.

Sometimes I think I wasn’t the daughter he hoped I would be, and there were times when he wasn’t the Dad I wanted. Relationships within families can be complicated. There were so many conversations we never had, so many truths we never faced. In some ways I am grieving for the kind of relationship we never managed to create between us, and the things we never quite sorted out.

No relationship is ever perfect. I suspect no parent raises a child to adulthood without regrets. My oldest child is only 10 and my list of regrets is already too long to count (which is probably another post or 2… hundred). My relationship with my Dad wasn’t perfect, but he was my Dad, and I love him.

One year on from that shocking day – the day that I waited for, wished for, and dreaded – and I am past the shock and well into the grief. I miss my Dad.

So how am I?

People keep asking me how I am. There’s a brittle edge to the question, a certainty that what you see is not what you get – that all the “going about my daily business” hides a slew of crises just under the surface. And it does.

Grief is a strange beast. On a day to day basis it consumes cognitive capacity.  5 weeks after my dad’s death I still can’t think straight. I am exhausted but not sleeping. I forget whether I have done simple things like locked the door or closed the garage. I don’t know what I did 5 minutes ago, but I can remember with crystal clarity a conversation with my dad 25 years ago.

The first shock passes, the funeral comes and goes, and life settles into a new rhythm. People move on – the first flush of support washes by us and now we expect ourselves to get on with the everyday things that keep us fed and moving. My five year old shocks me with her perception when she cries “nothing will ever be the same”.

I find myself on a hair trigger. I rage over small things, yet some days I can let the big stuff float right past. I grieve for life as it was and as it wasn’t. For what I lost and what I never had. It turns out that it’s not when you die that your whole life passes before your eyes – it’s when someone you love dies.

In life I couldn’t always see past the day to day. Now that my dad is dead I can see past him to our whole life together.

I think we forget, or perhaps never fully realize, the profound and lasting impact of grief on our lives. We wonder if we are going crazy, and when it will get better. We expect ourselves and others to move on, and in some ways we do, but in other ways we are anchored here by our pain and loss.

You don’t get over grief. It never goes away. You just learn to live with it. In some ways it’s necessary to make peace with it. To accept that sometimes it will wash over you in a wave of heartbroken tears, leaving you drained and empty, and that the next day you will get up and get on with things. The very intensity of the wave is a tribute to the strength of our love.

We are very fond in our society of doing the “stiff upper lip” thing. Pretending that everything is fine. Stuffing the grief down into its box, where it corrodes and consumes us behind a veneer of perfect makeup.

In my eternal quest for truth, I wonder what it would be like if we were more open with the people around us. If we felt safer answering “How are you really?” with “Actually, I’m really struggling today.” Instead we toss “how’s it going?” at each other as we fly past down the corridor, often well out of earshot before the answer that never comes.

Some days I am ok. Some days I am not. Some days even honest answers to well meant questions are too hard. It’s one foot in front of the other, one day at a time.