death

Ejo #87 – Let’s Talk About Death, Baby

As a society, we are crippled by the concept of death.  Grief, following the death of a loved one, can be such a lonely challenge to endure – but it needn’t be.  Having the support of your friends can help to take the edge off the pain.  But they don’t teach this kind of stuff in school so sometimes, despite their best intentions, the well-meaning remarks of friends can actually make things worse.  The last thing you need to hear when you’re in the depths of despair is “You’ll be OK”.  Yes, of course you will be OK.  But at that very moment you are not.  What you need is compassion, not a meaningless cliché.

When my father died, it almost destroyed me.  I’m not joking.  I honestly don’t know how it’s possible to feel as bad, as empty and as crushed as I did and to somehow still survive.  I was trapped in a black hole.  I felt completely alone, but I didn’t want anyone to reach into my darkness either.  I pushed people away.  It’s such a confusing, bewildering and miserable thing to experience.  I remember after a couple of months, going on a weekend away with some girlfriends.  I managed to keep the black hole contained, most of the time.  But there was one occasion when I could no longer fend it off, and the darkness just flooded out.  We were walking along, and without warning I started bawling uncontrollably.  My father was dead, and I just couldn’t stop crying.  I apologised to my friends and walked away, looking for a place to retreat and get a hold of myself.  I turned a corner and sat down on a bench, but instead of subsiding I was engulfed in sadness, collapsing in a heap of body-shaking tears.  My friends peeked around the corner, their faces contorted with anguish.  I could see they wanted to help me, to comfort me.  And even though that’s exactly what I needed, I was sending out a powerful force-field signalling them to stay away.

I finally got my shit together and we carried on walking, as though nothing had happened.  And I know it was just as bad for them as it was for me.  I’m not telling this story to shame my friends.  It was a terrible moment for all of us.  I tell it to demonstrate how tricky a minefield grief is, even amongst the closest of friends.  It is a harrowing abyss of ugly, difficult emotions for the person experiencing it.  And a sickening feeling of impotence and helplessness for the people around you.  Even though I know what grief feels like, I am still completely at sea when a loved one loses a loved one.  I still don’t know what to say or do.  I still feel helpless.  And I know that many others in that situation feel the same way.

I can’t write anything that could ever take away the pain of someone’s grief.  But I do want to try and alleviate the debilitating feelings of inadequacy most of us feel in the face of someone else’s bereavement.  I want to open a dialogue, to start talking about it, in the hope of making it less scary.  There is no “etiquette” handbook for what to say (or not say) to someone in mourning.  No two situations are the same, and everyone will react to the death of a loved one in their own way.  But I feel pretty safe in saying that there are a few things you should try not to say.  Each heading in this ejo is something that was actually said to a grieving person.  I know they were heartfelt thoughts from people struggling to know what to say, but these platitudes are just not helpful to someone who is in pain.

 “Be strong.”

The day my father died, the worst day of my life, someone told me, ‘Your Dad would want you to be strong, for your Mum.’  Wow, thanks, but I really didn’t need to hear that.  What was said stayed with me through the years.  Now, if I’m comforting a friend experiencing the heartache of grief, the one thing I do feel comfortable saying to them is, ‘You don’t have to be strong, it’s OK to fall apart if you need to’.  Because the reality is that you are going to fall apart in some way.  I spoke with several friends who have all lost someone close to them – a parent, a friend, a spouse – and they were kind enough to share their experiences in the hope of helping you (and me) next time someone is in need of support.

*          *          *

“He wouldn’t want you to be sad.”

“My first experience with death was when I was 14 and one of my best friends died.  My mother was deeply unhelpful.  ‘These things happen’, ‘he wouldn’t want you to be sad’, etc.  All I wanted to do was shout and scream and listen to self-indulgent indie music with a roll-up between my fingers.  A couple of decades later my father, also my best friend, snuffed it.  I wanted to just talk about my amazing father and cry and mention his name more than once without people all looking a bit shifty and looking at the floor and not knowing what to do.  I did not encounter these problems when I was 14. Apart from people also saying when dad died ‘he wouldn’t want you to feel like this’.  FUCK HIM, HES DEAD!!  I’m sad.”

 “I understand how you feel.”

“I think the worst thing a friend said to me after both my parents were killed was, ‘I understand’.  I know they thought it was comforting, but it wasn’t.  They didn’t understand.  How could they?  I didn’t expect them to.”

 “At least she’s no longer in pain.”

“When someone is grieving, say something meaningful or don’t say anything at all.  The number of trite, hallmark kind of statements I got after my mother died made me want to punch people in the face.  Yes, it’s true that ‘these things happen’, ‘it was for the best’ and ‘now she isn’t in any pain’ but it lacks any empathy at all to say these things. 

“It will get easier.”

“What didn’t work for me was being told that someone knew exactly how I felt, and then getting advice on when I should feel better.  Being told how you should feel, or how you will feel, is not helpful.”

“Life goes on.”

“Life goes on for you, but I just lost someone and life has stopped for me.  Also, don’t push someone to talk about it unless they want to talk.”

“It’s time to get over it.”

“Even though time passes, grief doesn’t.  You just learn to manage it better.  I think once the funeral is over people just forget and move forward – but clearly not those who were deeply affected.  There is almost an expectation that you should just move on and get over it, not understanding how deep and prolonged the impact can be.  I think we need to all be more mindful, especially in the first year after someone has died, how hard it can be for those left behind.”

 “Time heals all wounds.”

“I don’t believe that time heals.  For me it’s a constant thing I carry with me every day and no matter how much time passes, it never gets easier.  Especially important events in your life when you wish your parents were there to share it with you and hold your hand and tell you that they love you.  They never saw me or my brother get married, or had the opportunity to meet their first grandchild.”

“These things happen.”

“Some people can be dismissive.  The ones that reacted as if I had just told them that I’d lost my handbag.  I don’t blame them for reacting like that.  I guess some people don’t know how to respond or act in tragic circumstances.  But it’s not helpful when you are grieving and upset.”

 

As you can see, hollow adages don’t work.  So if you can help it, please don’t use them.  What stood out after talking to my friends was that all everyone wanted was to have their grief acknowledged.  Here is what they told me:

 

“The best way to help is to just be there.  Offer some food, your company, your time.  Ask what they need and be willing to listen.”

 “Amongst the confusion, the numbness, the tears and anger I remember something one person said to me when I lost my parents.  It was exactly what I needed to hear at that time.  He said, ‘I have no idea what you are going through.  This is the hardest thing you will ever have to go through in your life.  I am here for you if you need me’.  That was all I needed to hear.  I wanted someone to acknowledge that it was hard and that they had no idea how I was feeling.  I wanted someone to just hug me and not speak.”

 “Just agree that the situation sucks and is incredibly shit.”

“One of the nicest (if you can call it that) things someone said, and they were a work colleague who I wasn’t good friends with, was “I heard your mother died and that’s really terrible.”

 “People don’t know what to say or what to do.  The answer is, just let them be.  If they want to shout and scream, just hold them and let them.  They don’t want any answers from you.  You can’t give them any.  Just listen, patiently, for as long as they need.  There is no solution.  Let them remember, let them tell you the most boring anecdotes, let them bore themselves with the memories, and most importantly let them be what you might consider a drama queen.  Because when it happens to you, you’ll see that it’s not that dramatic after all.  It’s life.”

 

What have been your experiences with offering or needing support after someone has died?

Ejo #59 – Death (aka Farewell Dear Barnaby)

My whole life I’ve heard that you can never dream about your own death. That you always wake up just before you kick the bucket. Who came up with this nonsense? I dreamt that I died just the other night. And no, it wasn’t a nightmare.

I was involved in a gun fight (as you are, in dreams) and had been shot several times. I had rolled away to try and hide from my attackers and figure out how badly I’d been injured. As the gunfight continued around me, I realised that I was pretty badly injured and that in fact, I was probably not going to make it. This was, as you can imagine, quite a sad feeling. I can’t remember being in too much pain, but I was bleeding a lot and some major organs had been hit. As I lay there contemplating what was next, one of the bad guys found my hiding spot and stood over me with a gun pointed right at me. I wasn’t afraid. He shot me right in the heart – a fatal shot – and I instantly realised that I was dying. My life flowed away from my body, and into an unknown abyss. But it wasn’t at all frightening. Firstly, it felt like a relief, like the fear and sadness had given way to something better. It was a lovely feeling, ecstatic almost, to be aware of death taking hold of me and deciding to not fight it. You could say I actually allowed myself to enjoy and savour the sensation of my life slipping away. It was euphoric, and it was beautiful.

I know it was just a dream, but I woke up from it feeling like I’d experienced some kind of an epiphany. Death itself is nothing to be frightened of. I truly believe that now (yes, thanks to a dream which my subconscious completely made up based on no evidence whatsoever, yes, yes, yes).

The pleasant feeling of having experienced, and even enjoyed, my own death stayed with me for several days and led me to start thinking about my own, actual, imminent death. And what I realised is that even though I am no longer afraid of the act of dying, I really don’t want to die quite yet. This might not seem like a revolutionary thought to most people, but for the last eight years, I’ve actually been “cheating” death. You see, since I was a teenager I had a very strong feeling that I wouldn’t live past the age of 35. I was certain of it. And so, in a way, I kind of lived my life as though I expected it to end in 2006. I don’t mean I was reckless or that I endangered myself. I just had no expectations of life beyond that age. I honestly thought I would be dead. But hey, here I am, very much alive and well.

Since turning 35 (and beyond) the question of my mortality hasn’t really been something that I’ve thought about. Until my death dream the other night. So, when I put the question to myself, “Are you still OK with dying?” the answer came back a resounding NO! I’m not ready. And I’ve never felt that way before. I’d only ever felt some kind of fuzzy acceptance towards my own death. Never before had I experienced resistance. So, was it the dream that caused this adjustment, or is it the fact that as I get older, death changes from being just a nebulous concept into something more real to face head on. I don’t know.

I am no stranger to death. My father died of lung cancer 11 years ago. I clearly remember finding out that he was terminally ill, ten months earlier. My parents had spent the summer in Greece and while they were gone, my sister who was house-sitting for them bought an adorable Cavalier King Charles spaniel puppy to keep her company. She called him Barnaby and she popped him in her handbag when she went to the shop to buy milk. Now, my parents had made it pretty clear that they didn’t want any more pets after our Doberman, Jessica, had died a year before. So we were sure that they would be furious when they got home. But they returned from overseas, and Barnaby’s existence barely registered. There were a few grumbles about it, but that was it. A few days later they told us about Dad being sick. So I guess they just had bigger things to worry about than a dog in the house. And so Barnaby stayed.

Playing with his Mini-Me.

Playing with his Mini-Me.

My father pretended to not love Barnaby, but it was pretty obvious that he did (how could you not love that face?). And I think he provided my Dad with some comfort during his illness. And isn’t that what dogs do best? Isn’t their unconditional loving what makes us love them back so much? Over the years, Barnaby has firmly sealed his place in our family. We’d had dogs before, but they’d always been outside dogs. Barnaby was well and truly an inside dog which is why I think he assimilated into the family more completely than our other pets. He would lounge around watching TV with us, sleep with us and hang around the kitchen while my Mum prepared dinner. He’s always been one of us, and I’m pretty sure he thinks he is too. Barnaby is my sister’s pup, but we all love him as our own. He is the most sweet-natured, playful, gentle, patient and sociable little guy I’ve ever met. People on the street gush over how cute he is and whilst he enjoys the attention, he always prefers the company of our family members to other people (and dogs). Like I said, he’s one of us.

Even though he's 12 he still looks like a little puppy.

Even though he’s 12 he still looks like a little puppy.

This is his bed.  My sister is allowed to sleep in it.

This is his bed. My sister is allowed to sleep in it.

Barnaby’s Mum, my sister Mari, says, “Barn has been a constant companion and mate for me for over 12 years and he’s always been a fantastic personality. If I want to run and throw the ball, so does he. If I want to sit and watch telly, he wants to too, from my lap! But he’s also good at getting me to play ball when I don’t instigate, he cutely nudges the ball at me with his nose. He plays a mean game of soccer, kicking the ball back to me with his front paws! He loves face time and if he wants a cuddle he sits facing me on my lap and just looking into my eyes. Any time I’ve gone through a rough patch in my life and I am demonstrably down he comes and just sits next to me and will sometimes burrow his head under my arm. He’s a face licker and you’ve got to be mad quick to escape his dog kisses!”

I know everyone thinks that their dog is the cutest dog, the smartest dog, the fastest dog etc. And those people can go and write about their dogs on their own ejo. On this site, Barnaby is, hands down, the best dog in the world. Undisputed.

He loves lounging around and getting hugs

He loves lounging around and getting hugs

Over the years Barnaby’s health has, unfortunately, deteriorated to the point where he needs to take a bunch of medication every single day just to stay alive. Cavalier King Charles spaniels are renowned for being susceptible to a number of genetic health problems, and Barnaby has had mitral valve heart disease for a few years. He’s also recently developed a soft tissue sarcoma which has left a golf ball sized tumour on his right thigh, making it painful for him to walk. But despite his aches and pains, despite his failing body, Barnaby, at the ripe old grandfatherly age of 12 has led a pretty good life. He’s been showered with love and affection, he’s been fed well and he’s played a lot. Mari says, “Even though he is increasingly unwell, he still wants to keep going. He will play ball, even if afterwards it takes him two hours to recover instead of ten minutes. If people come over he puts aside his tiredness and gives them attention”.

Yup, the cone of shame.  He wears it with aplomb.

Yup, the cone of shame. He wears it with aplomb.

Today all of that came to an end. Today, we said goodbye to Barnaby. His illnesses became too severe for us to allow him to continue to suffer. And we all realised that keeping him around has been for our benefit, and not for his. We couldn’t do that to him anymore. My sister made the difficult decision to put her baby down today. Barnaby isn’t suffering any more, but our pain has just started. We’ll suffer because we’ll miss him. Because we love him and we don’t want him to be gone. Because he really was one of us.

With his Mum.

With his Mum.

Was Barnaby ready to die? Could he even have had any concept of life and death? Or did the entirety of his consciousness consist of dinner, naps, belly scratches and that damn ball? I think that his quality of life towards the end was pretty poor. He couldn’t walk or see or hear very well. But damn it, he knew he was loved and he loved us back. As he lost consciousness, and as his life slipped away, did he feel relief? I don’t know if Barney was ready for his death, but he probably sensed in some way that we were. Dogs pick up on human emotions, right?? Or maybe he just thought that yesterday was one of the best days of his whole life.

RIP Barnaby.  Good boy.

RIP Barnaby. Good boy.