Death, we’re often so reluctant to talk about death, well the British are! It’s as though we just don’t have the words or the courage or any structure to naturally hold it, despite the fact that it’s the one thing we’ve all got coming our way.
Yet we’re intrigued by it, religions are built around trying to understand the afterlife; we read books or watch films, many of which feed our fascination with death. Halloween is fast approaching and so the trailers for the next big horror movie are being screened. I’ve never really been into horror films, the closest I got was Gremlins and that was by mistake!! Yet there’s something about horror movies that draws so many people in! I’m not a media studies expert, and I’m sure there are PHDs written on such subjects but there is something about the afterlife, about how it all ends, about the fear and the unknown, that we long to explore as we look to our own deaths and that of the planet. Yet, the reality is that, despite our fascination, when we have to confront it with friends or family we find it awkward, uncomfortable and frightening. We need outlets to explore death, a way to encounter it, safely?!
My first encounter with death was a relatively safe one! Toby, our cat, died when I was about 7. I cried as we buried him in the garden. Four years later death returned to our family, this time taking my dad. I was 11, my brother 9, he was only 41. Cancer. We found out at the end of the October half term and by Christmas he was gone. Six surreal weeks. I remember vividly the activity in and around the house in the early hours of December 14th. I stood outside the door of my parents bedroom…I could hear my mum talking to people downstairs. I opened the door and my dad lay there, the top of the bed sheet covering his face, just like in the movies, but this was very real. I closed the door and walked back to my bed. I don’t remember much else other than the devastating realisation that I’d not said goodnight, that night of all nights. We held his funeral five days later, the chapel packed and the house afterwards seemed even busier. My brother went to stay with friends for a few days, I stayed at home with my mum and grandad, my mum’s dad, who’d come to stay for Christmas. That night, after the last guests left, I went to bed with a compelling urge to go in and say goodnight to my grandad, something I didn’t usually do. He never woke up.
Those days were strange and painful and somewhat unreal. I remember returning to school before Christmas and no-one expected to see us, no-one mentioned what we’d been through apart from one teacher. It was as though there just weren’t the words, or there wasn’t a script written or a framework to hold that story in!
Three weeks after that my mum found my dad’s uncle hanging from a wardrobe and we found ourselves sitting in church again, staring at a coffin.
There’s much that could be said about all that! My mum is one of the most incredible women I know, the strength and love she relentlessly demonstrated despite her own grief is inspirational. I know the events of those few weeks changed me and my brother in ways we’ll never fully comprehend. I know the death of my dad still haunts me and that at times I still miss him. I also know that I don’t talk about him very much, that I rarely look at pictures and that I’ve never really understood how to continue his memory. I do wonder if the children will look like him, I didn’t know him well enough to really know if they’re like him in other ways. I know that I and many others, don’t really know what to do with death.
So, over the next couple of weeks, inspired by conversations with friends, I’m going to read up on how other cultures and countries embrace death and celebrate life, I’ll consider whether religion helps or hinders our interaction with death and try to figure out how love holds us within the bigger story as we navigate the path between this life and the next. We need to talk more about death.