Categories
Ramblings

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT DEATH AND DYING

Death.  h?

It is inevitable.  It comes to us all.  But we don’t like to think about that.

Why?

Are we afraid?  Afraid to tempt fate, to court the grim ripper for fear he may choose to come too early.  Before we have had chance to live the life we want, the life we struggle for, the life that has eluded us.  For surely the fear stems from a life not well lived, or a life incomplete somehow.

We just don’t talk about death and dying.

And we should.

We should talk about how we would like to die, even if when the time comes we don’t have that choice.

We should talk about how we would like to be buried, or cremated, or not.

We should talk about how we would like to be remembered, leave a legacy behind somehow of the essence of us, so that in death, our lives have some meaning.

I am reading a beautiful book called Lost & Found by Brooke Davis, an Australian author.  The theme is death.  And it is also about renewed life.  But for me, the death part resonates.  Millie, the central character, a 7 year old girl, is not allowed to talk about death, but she is acutely aware that things die.  She does not know why death is a taboo subject.  “It just is,” her father tells her.

My mom was diagnosed at that age of 61 with lung cancer.  From the time of diagnosis to the time of her death took just 8 weeks.  She did not want to die.  She was not ready for death.  She worried she would miss us too much.  I would lie on her bed next to her and she would cradle me in her arms as my tears would fall on her pillow and she would say to me, “I am going to miss you so much.”  She wasn’t prepared.  I wasn’t prepared.  I wasn’t ready.  Four and a half years later, I am still not ready.

When my mom was diagnosed with cancer she was afraid.  She was afraid of how she would die.  She was afraid, mostly, that she would suffocate to death and be aware of that suffocation.  My dad, a devout Christian, caught in the ravaging grip of grief, couldn’t let her talk about her fears.  He clung to the idea that God would save her.  She was one of the good souls, he had said, and God would save her.

For the longest time she couldn’t express her fear.  And so, I sent Dad on an errand on the same day the palliative nurse came to visit and gave mom the space she needed to face the inevitability of her death.  To face the inevitable reality that for whatever reason her God wasn’t going to save her.  She needed time to talk, to prepare.

How will I die?” she had asked the nurse.

Well, cancer robs your body of energy, so you will feel more and more tired.  You will sleep more, and eventually, in my experience, you will slip into a coma like state and then slip away.”

Will I be aware of dying?”

In my experience, not really.”

Will I be struggling for breath?”

No.  Your body shuts down, so your consciousness is shut down first.  Only the very basic human functions will continue.   Eventually, your breathing will just slow down until it stops.”

The relief on mom’s face, to know that it wasn’t a case of her breathing out and suddenly not being able to breath in again.  She will be unaware, blissfully unaware.

A couple of days later we were in the car.

I want “I am Woman” played at the funeral.

We all jumped.

“And I want Sarah to sing Scarborough Fair and Amazing Grace.”

My poor dad looked at her mortified.  We were on our way to her first radiation therapy session.  The cancer had spread to her brain and they had to treat that before they could ever begin treatment on the inoperable tumour-infested lung.

You can’t have Helen Reddy blasting at your funeral.”  Dad said.  Still so much in denial.

“If that’s what you want mom, then that is what you shall have,” I said, my heart breaking as I gave in to the inevitability of the fact that I would be organising her funeral.

And no one is to wear black.  Only bright colours are allowed.

And so it was.  My mother’s funeral arrangements were made in the car, on the way to the hospital.  Thankfully, she found her voice.  Thankfully, she managed to let us know how she wanted to be honoured on her passing.

The nurse was right, my mom did slip into a coma, just as she said mom would, and her breathing slowed and slowed until, at just after midnight on the 8th July, she took her last breath.  It was a funny breath.   A shallow sigh really.  My dad had witnessed it before, in the passing of his own mother, so when mom took it, he said, “This is it girls.”  We looked at him, confused.  And then he said, “Mom, is gone.”  And then we cried, we howled.  But that is grief, and I will write about that another time.

This is about death and how we really need to be talking about it.

After my mom’s funeral at which “I am woman” was played whilst mom was precessed down the aisle, and whilst a slide show of her beautiful, brave life was shown; at which my sister and I both sang “Scarborough Fair” and “Amazing Grace”; and at which no-one wore black, people came up to us and said it was the best funeral they had ever been to.  My mom would have LOVED that!

At the funeral tea, my aunt told me that she didn’t want to get buried in a cemetery, or have a church funeral.  She said she wanted to be buried under a tree, whole, where her body can become one with the earth.  I know that there are a number of humanist funeral directors that arrange this sort of thing.

Yesterday, I watched a movie called “With Honors” in which Joe Pesci plays a character that is dying.  He writes his own eulogy, beautiful, moving.  When he was writing his eulogy, he seeks advice from Brendon Fraser’s character.  Brendon says, “Write about the things you did for which you are proud.”  I think that is good advice.

I’m still formulating my plan.  I have feared talking about death like everyone else, but I don’t want to fear it anymore. I want to embrace the inevitability of it.  I want to be prepared for it and I want to prepare my family for it.  Because I wasn’t prepared to lose my mom, I wasn’t prepared for her death.  And I think if we talk about it more, then we don’t have to be afraid of it, and then we will be more prepared for it, and then maybe, just maybe, it won’t be scary or hurt quite so much.

Do you talk about death and dying?  Are you afraid of it?  Have you got a plan?

Much love,

SHW Signature

Categories
Ramblings

The sound of a voice

When my mom was dying with lung cancer, my sister and I travelled up to Birmingham in the UK, where my mother had grown up.

Without consciously realising it, we found ourselves outside my grandmother’s old house, my mother’s childhood home.

I did not know my grandmother that well but my mom would regale stories of her childhood and I would delight at them, hanging on every word.

One of my favourites was the time when my mom and aunt decided that as a treat to my grandmother, who worked as a char lady for other households in the area, they would spring clean the house.  My mother and my aunt, aged probably no older than 8 and 10, dutifully removed every item of furniture from the downstairs and deposited it on the front lawn.  The beauty of this gesture did not dawn on my mom until she was a mother herself.

Of course, once they had ‘cleaned’ the house, the idea of returning all the furniture was just too much for them, so they waited until my grandmother returned to present to her their efforts.

As my mother told it, my grandmother acted dutifully grateful, and without complaint, after a full day’s work of cleaning other people’s houses, returned the furniture on her own to its rightful place inside the house.

This was the enduring vision I had of my grandmother, and I saw my mom very much in the same light.

My cousin decided to join us to visit my grandmother’s house.  Her mom was my mom’s sister.  The house had changed.  An extension to the side had been added.

We started to take some photos when a woman came rushing out of the front door.

Can I help you?” she demanded.

I am sorry,” I said, “our moms grew up in this house.  They lived here from around 1950 and my grandmother lived here until her death in 1978.  Now, my mom is dying of lung cancer and I thought it would be nice to take some photos of her old childhood home.  I promise I am not being creepy or anything.

Without batting an eyelid, the woman offered to show us around.  As I walked inside the front door, crossing that threshold, familiarity wrapped me up like a warm blanket.  I looked up the stairs directly in front of me and remembered walking up them to go to the toilet as a little girl.  An image of my mom, holding my baby sister whilst she held my hand flashed before me, white blanket trailing down her dress.

To the left was the front room, where my grandmother, sickly for most of her life would have a bed covered with an oxygen tent in which she would lie when we came to visit.  On very lucky days she would be well enough to sit with us on the settee.

My grandmother in the middle, my brother to the left, me to the right and my uncle behind us (circa 1977)
My grandmother in the middle, my brother to the left, me to the right and my uncle behind us (circa 1977)

To the back of the house was the kitchen, updated now, but all I could see was her old kitchen, and the washing ringer that I used to love, watching her as she passed her clothing through it ready to go on the line.

I drank in the smell of the kitchen, the taste of the evaporated milk that my grandmother, Peggy, used to put in her tea still fresh on my tongue.  As we stepped out of the kitchen and into the back garden I remembered the tart taste of the gooseberries as we picked them off the bush at bottom of the garden (why do we call it the bottom, I wonder).

Mom, sitting in the back garden as a young girl (circa 1953)
Mom, sitting in the back garden as a young girl (circa 1953)

Moving upstairs, we peeked into the back room, once the sleeping quarters of my mom and her sister, but in later years would be the bedroom of her much younger brother, only 8 years older than I.  I used to love his room, filled to the brim with comics of all description.  He would never let me touch or read them, they were his treasures, but I was content with the smell of all that paper.  Even at such a young age, written words on paper had found their way into my psyche.

We remodelled a couple of years ago,” the woman said.  “Added an extra bedroom and bathroom.  Would you believe that when we ripped off the wallpaper, layers of it there was, we found the names of three children written on the walls downstairs with heights marked for each one.  Elaine, Sandra and Jon.”

Yes, I had said, they were the names of my mom and her siblings.

I wish I had taken a photograph of them now,” she said wistfully.

I do too.

Later that day, as we drove away, photographs in hand, my cousin admitted to me that she had never actually been inside the house before.  My grandmother had passed before she had returned from Africa where her parents used to work.  I was glad that we were able to give her that gift, that she had some tangible memory to hold on to of where her own mom had shaped her own life.

The family home, remodelled
The family home, remodelled

My sister’s memory of that house is also sketchy, but also tinged with sadness as she was there, staying in the house, when my grandmother’s illness got the better of her.  My sister was only five.

I took the photos to my mom, who, weak now and confined to bed, looked at them with fondness and a certain longing, I felt.  She declared to me later that day that she had seen my grandmother at the bottom of her bed.  I knew my own mom’s time was coming, her mom was calling her.

So many times I have been asked how we find our voice, how do we know the sound of our own voice.  It isn’t something we find, or create.  It is something that is within us.  It envelopes us and shapes us.  It is born with us inside our DNA.  We just have to listen.  Just listen.  And then you start to hear the thump inside your heart, the rhythm, the tone, the pitch.  And everything you become, everything you are is as a result of all the people that have come before you.  Your voice is right there.

The women in my family are strong.  At her funeral my mom requested that as they processed her down the aisle I am Woman by Helen Reddy be played and that during the service my sister and I sing Scarborough Fair and Amazing Grace.  It was also requested that no one wear black.  I have no idea where we found the strength, but our voices sounded like angels that day.  People kept telling us we had such beautiful voices.

From those humble beginnings in that humble council house, that is now shaping another new family, my voice has been forged.  I am woman, hear me roar.

Where was your voice forged, I wonder?

Until next time,

SHW Signature

 

 

 

This post was written as part of #reverb14 – a blogging initiative hosted by Kat McNally.  The month of December is a good time to reflect on the year that was and for us to contemplate the reverberations that we send out into the world.  Please do hop on over to Kat’s blog and if you feel moved to do so, please join in.  
Categories
Ramblings

How death defined me

Death define

To those of you who subscribe by email, apologies.  You are getting two emails today.  It’s a necessity.  I just can’t keep this inside.

I am not a serial follower of blogs.  Blogs are, for me, a source of information.  That thousands, nay millions, of people blog is fortuitous for an insatiably curious mind like mine.  I just plug in what I want to find out about and voila, there it is.  As I have only used the internet as a tool, it never really occurred to me to actually follow a blog religiously.  That was until I came across Edenland.

Eden is pretty massive in the blogging world.  Her blog is individual, about her experience of living life on life’s terms and quite often it isn’t pretty.  I may have mentioned her before, but I love reading her blog because, well, she is raw.  She writes in a way that strips herself bare – honest, unapologetic, so very human.  She shows a bravery I have not had the courage to find in my own writing.  I care too much what people think.  It is limiting, and diminutive.  I hate that.

I have a morning ritual.  I drop Master J off at school, then toddle off for a coffee and muffin.  This is the time I read, catch up on stuff, get to be outside of the house.  Today, I used this time to catch up on a couple of Eden’s posts.  I was reading this one when a lump caught in my throat.  Tears sprang to my eyes and I had to get up and leave.  These words (which are not her own, but of poetry slam champion, Buddy Wakefield) took me completely and utterly by surprise:

Cemeteries are the world’s way of not letting go.”

I have an obsession with death.  I think that’s obvious.  I talk about it a lot.  Ever since my first husband died when I was 25, death, not him, has been on my mind almost every day.  Mr G died by drowning whilst scuba diving.  I had to drive 2 hours to identify the body.  It was shit.  The whole way down there I cried whilst my mom cradled me in her arms having to perform comfort that no mother should have to provide. I just kept groaning “Please don’t let it be true.  Please let it be a mistake.” And my mom just stroked my hair each time I said it.  For two hours straight.

His body was in the police station.  I still to this day do not know why.  An attempt was made to resuscitate him in hospital, so why he was moved to the station is beyond me.  We walked into a cold sparse room.  In the centre was a steel table and on it lay his body.  Sand was in his hair and around his body.  I had to touch him.  He was so cold.  My mother was crying, and my dad was holding her.  I noticed some blood at the back of his head.  I was not expecting this and was shocked.  There was a policeman in the room and I wanted to scream at him to get out.  I didn’t.  But I wish I had.  I just sat staring at Mr G, knowing that my life would never be the same.

Days later it was his funeral.  I insisted on him being dressed in his favourite tracksuit and not a suit.  He hated suits.  Prior to the funeral I was given the opportunity to ‘view’ him in his coffin.  What a fucking idiot term.  Who the fuck views their dead relative?  You sit with them, love them one last time, but you’re not there with popcorn and candyfloss to fucking view them.  Anyway, I sat with him.

He had had an autopsy done, though you couldn’t tell with the correct placement of the satin cover over his head and his tracksuit.  I had to touch him.  I lifted the lids of his eyes.  They were opaque, no longer blue, the life completely gone.  I then traced the incision mark down his chest, gently going down his body.  We had flown our school minister in for the funeral and he sat in the background, quietly watching.  I can only imagine what he must have thought.  Death.  It does strange things to us.

I grew up that day.  And I grew up again when my mom died 4 years ago.  Except there has been no moving on with her death.  After Mr G died, I found amazing love, different love and, yes, better love with Mr C, but there was no one to replace my mom.  My grief and subsequent depression hacks at me every day.  The truth is one day is good, but then the next it is fucking awful.  It is only by the grace of the school run that I make it out of bed.

Cemeteries are the world’s way of not letting go. It is true.  Except neither Mr G nor my mom have a cemetery.  Mr G had one, but I never visited it.  He was cremated and popped into a wall of rememberance.  I took Miss J there once, but I hated it.  To see him reduced to a box in a wall was simply too much.  Then his mom removed him when Mr C and I married and left for the UK.  She had someone dig a whole in the garden at the flats where she lived and popped him in there.  She has since moved.

When mom got sick, it was agreed that we would hold onto her ashes until dad passed and then scatter them together.  Not sure how that will play out – he is with someone else now.  I have a part of her in a medicine bottle on my dressing table – dad brought it over for me a couple of years ago.  I often wonder what part of her it is that I have.  I hope it is her heart.  I wonder if by separating her ashes, I have somehow prevented her from moving on to who knows where.  But then I remember I do not believe in an afterlife, so I feel better about keeping her on my dressing table.

And now I am studying death.  I have studied death rituals of varying cultures.  I obsess with death.  It’s possible by obsessing with death, I don’t live.  I want to write a book on how to die well.  There’s plenty of crap about how to live well, but nothing how to prepare for death.  It comes to us all and we are so fucking unprepared.  We are unprepared for when we are left behind and for when it finally comes to call for us.  I am a control freak.  I hate being unprepared.

Death has defined my life.  I had no idea.

Much love,

SHW Signature

 

 

Categories
Ramblings

A lost friend and a spirit of light

At what point does a person you know become your friend?

A friend of mine died yesterday.  It has filled me with enormous sadness.  But I don’t know if I can really call her my friend, not least because I wasn’t really a friend to her.

I met Adani at a Goddess Gathering that I attended during my quest to find my spirituality which I lost when I became sober.  I felt uncomfortable at the gathering, listening to people talk of what they could ‘see’, the angels that they knew were close by and could ‘hear’, the visions that came to them in their dreams.  I had never experienced anything like this in my life and try as I might, I could not relate.

Adani was sitting next me in the circle.  She immediately sensed my discomfort and told me the story of her journey.  How she grew up in a devout catholic household, and had felt guilty for most of her life, how she had become a naturopath and through that had found her way to her own spirituality.  Be patient, she had encouraged me, my own spirituality in whatever form that meant for me, would reveal itself.

We became facebook friends, although we never became close largely due to the fact that I somehow couldn’t commit myself to the spirituality that they believed in.  Eventually, I went through a vehement atheist phase and through a moment of atheistic activism I deleted almost everyone from that group off my facebook page.  Their belief and faith offended me, I had decided, and I didn’t need to see their constant postings of things that didn’t exist.

Except they did exist.  To them.  And that is all that matters.  I have mentioned that I am studying Philosophy and Anthropology.  One of the things that we are learning about is a thing called phenomenology which is where you bracket, or suspend, your own belief (or non-belief) and ethnocentricity to fully understand the thing or people you are studying.  For it is only through this method that you can fully experience what the other person is experiencing and their motivations for doing so.  First seek to understand.  It isn’t an easy thing to do when culturally we are taught that our way is the only way to do things.  But do it we must if we are to gain full understanding of the culture we seek to study.

When I heard of Adani’s death yesterday, I wept.  We hadn’t been in touch for over a year, but her love and light in the world was unmistakeable.  She was living a truth, her truth, and this truth allowed her to be that light.  My prejudice, on the other hand, had snuffed out that light on my facebook page.  As with a lot of things in life, it is now too late.

So, Adani, my friend.  I want to say to you that I finally see you for all the wonderful light filled person you were.  You were so friendly and warm whenever our paths crossed, always making time to talk to me, to find out how my sobriety was going and to enquire as to how I was travelling inside, which you said was so very important.  I want to tell you that whilst I was in disagreement with some of what you said and believed, at the heart of it, it was me in my spiritual darkness that was to blame.  You reached out to me, and whilst you were no doubt unaware of it, I turned away from you.

I am growing, though, Adani.  Your transition from life was swift, and one person mentioned that this was because you were such a light, your spirituality so strong, that your soul did not need a long drawn out process to pass, to enable you to come to terms with the end of your life.  You were ready and so you left quickly.  I would like to think that was true.

Dear Adani, thank you for your kindness and your light.  You have no idea how you helped me become a better person, even in your passing.  I hope you find your light in the spiritual world.  I truly hope it exists for you.  You lived your truth with such passion, it would be so wonderful for that truth to become a reality for your soul.

Rest well.

Much love,

SHW Signature

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Dear Child Uncategorized

Dear Child {Some things you should know about grief}

Dear Child,

First of all, it is important to know that grief is a part of our every day existence.  We grieve, no matter how momentarily, when we miss the train, or when we spill something on that freshly washed shirt, or when the driver in front of us is going so slowly you feel sure you could get out of your car and run past him whilst whistling the theme tune to Friends.

We grieve at these things because we expect things to go our way.  We are, as Alain de Botton so eloquently puts it, eternally optimistic about how our lives should go.  Our brains predict a certain course of action and when it doesn’t quite go according to plan, we grieve. Not of course in a life-ending “I can’t face the world” kind of way, though I have seen some people react this way, but more in a “I need to let off some steam, or cry, or yell” kind of way.

It is our acceptance of these little aggrevations that determine our ability to cope with this often frequent daily dose of grief.

But let’s shelve that for a moment.

What I would like to talk about is the kind of grief you get when you lose someone you love.

When I was 25 I lost my first husband.  You, my dear Miss 21, were just 16 months old.  There we were, my sister and I, at the cinema watching Mrs Doubtfire (have you seen that movie?  You really should, it is quite funny), when we suddenly noticed a bobbing light coming down the aisle.  I immediately recognised the stature of my dad’s body behind the usher and immediately said to my sister,

Oh my God, Dad has bought me a car.”

Because I had been wanting a car and my husband and I couldn’t afford a car and I thought it was perfectly reasonable for my dad to buy me one.

Of course, I was mistaken.  As soon as I saw Dad’s face I knew that there was no car.  Instead, my darling husband, the man I had been with since I was 14 years old, had died.  Drowned in a scuba diving accident.

My next brush with death was when, four years ago, my mom died of lung cancer.  It was just 8 weeks from diagnosis to death.  Hardly time for any of us to get ready for such a momentous thing.

These two departings have had a significant impact on the person that I am as of this date and I thought it would be good to impart to you my feelings on the subject of grief.  It is probably important to note that each person is different, and that this perspective is only my own but may be helpful to you when you get to experience the same thing.  And darlings, you will, because we all do.  It is just when that changes.

So:

  • No matter how you think you are going to react when a person dies (and we all try to imagine what we would do), it isn’t anything like that.  For instance, I did not imagine for a second that when they came to remove my mom’s body from the house that I would throw myself on her body refusing to let the undertakers close the body bag.  My brother and dad had to pry myself from her.  I imagined my sister to have this reaction, perhaps, but not myself. It is absolutely okay to react in which ever way your mind and your body see fit.  Do not fight it.  Let it happen.  It’s important to do that.
  • After the initial shock of the death and the funeral, people find it really difficult to know what to say.  They avoid the subject like the plague.  They say, “How are you?” but they don’t really want to know the truth.  They want you to be okay, which is understandable.  In our culture we don’t cope well with extreme emotion.  I have often debated about how to handle this situation.  Do I be truthful to how I am feeling, or do I protect them and their aversion to the chance of tears uncontrollable sobs.  Depending on who it is will determine how you cope with this.  On the whole, I have found honesty to be the best policy.  If I am having a crap day I say so, if not then I smile and say “I’m fine, thank you.
  • This links to the one above.  People also will expect you to “get over” the death at some point.  I do not grieve now, some 20 years later, as much for my husband as I do for my mom.  I remarried two years after he died, and that companionship I shared with him was largely filled, although I hasten to add in a completely different way (more on this below).  For most of us, however, there is only one mother.  This void can never be filled.  I have grieved that enormously.  For me, the loss of my mom has meant the loss of the person who gave me life, knew all of my faults and loved me unconditionally anyway.  It has been four years now and without warning I still cry and have some very dark days because I cannot hear her voice.  This is okay.  I know people who grieve for their parents well into their old age.  There is some belief, I think, that we should just accept and move on.  Perhaps we should and I know that many people are able to do this.  If you aren’t able to do this, that is okay.
  • If you are unfortunate enough to lose your partner and then lucky enough to find someone that you love enough to marry, do it.  Do not feel like you are betraying the departed partner.  You are not.  When I married your dad, for weeks before the wedding I had nightmares about my first husband returning and demanding that I don’t marry your dad.  It was pretty harrowing.  I was racked with guilt over the choice to marry again.  It was so silly to feel this guilt.  Why should I feel so guilty to finally find someone who would bring me so much joy and light again. 18 years later, I am so glad that I did not let my fear and guilt get in the way.
  • You may or may not shout out the dead partner’s name whilst making love to the new partner.  This is okay.  Do not beat yourself up about it.  You have had one significant other for a long time, then he/she died.  Now you have another one.  You are bound to get them mixed up in the heat of the moment.  This, I assume, will pass.
  • Grief is our way of coping with an incredible loss in our lives.  There is absolutely no time limit on when that will finish its course.  I would wager that it is never.  Time may be a great healer to some, but my experience has been one not of healing as such but the ability to move through each day with greater ease.  There is something to be said for that.
  • The loss of a loved one and the consequent grief changes you.  How can it not?  You know at that moment, when the life has eked out of your loved one, that your life will change forever.  The road on your journey of life has forked and you are now walking in a different direction.  There is no getting away from this.  Know that through grief, we do become stronger and, in my opinion, better, more compassionate people.
  • Expect to cry a lot more easily and frequently in movies.
  • Don’t be afraid to talk of the person that died.  I had a friend who cried every time I spoke of my mom.  I would comfort her and it was okay.  I still talked about her and I still do.  It is good to talk.

I think that is all for now.  It’s turning into an epic!  Just know that grief is nothing to be afraid of, ashamed of or to be shied away from.  It is a natural and healthy part of the human condition.  It means you ARE human.  And when you grieve for someone so greatly, it means that you have been extraordinarily lucky.  For you got to experience the kind of love that elicited that grief and, my dear darling children, that is a rare gift indeed.

From my heart to yours,

Mum/Gogo