Death and Bereavement

I’ve been thinking about death this week. There isn’t anything particular that’s triggered it. I think about death a lot actually. Does that make me a morbid person? I don’t think so. Death is, after all, a key part of life. I think we should all think and talk about death far more than we do and I’ve never really understood the reluctance to do so. Talking about death when you are dying is a natural thing to do, I think. I’ve never been aware of dying. Talking about death when it isn’t provoked – when you haven’t experienced a recent bereavement or when you haven’t been told that it is something that is more imminent, is something that is less common. But it’s something I believe we should all do more of.

I remember when my father was dying how difficult it was to have conversations with him about his funeral preferences when he was in a hospice. It made me think, as I considered with my siblings, how much easier it would have been to have had those conversations earlier, when there wasn’t a death sentence over his head. My parents both had ‘planned’ deaths in a sense. In that illness precipitated their respective deaths. Sudden death though, is a completely different experience and planning, thinking and talking about it may help those who survive beyond us.

I’ve found it difficult to talk with my partner about our respective deaths. I have thought a lot why that might be. Perhaps there’s a thought that talking about it might make it come sooner, that innate superstition that resides in many of us. I think there’s probably something to it. I think it’s also the difficulty in conceiving of what life might be like when someone you love is no longer around. When my father was dying, I remember trying to think about life without him. I couldn’t really manage it very well. I was worried about how I would cope. What the world would look like without being able to talk to him about it. The imaginings I had didn’t reflect reality because when you are bereaved you don’t have the choice that imagination gives you. Sometimes, as a thought experiment, I try to imagine living without various people that I have become accustomed to in my world but I know it’s not a ‘real’ belief. Because, in my fortunately limited experience, nothing can really prepare you for a death of someone who you love, need or who affects you.

We talk about pathways of bereavement but I don’t think there really is. I’m not sure that Kubler Ross has helped me very much with stages of bereavement or however that’s interpreted now. The theories seem to indicate that there’s a prescribed path to take. You go through one stage, then you pass to another, then you pass another until you deal with it or ‘get over’ it or ‘accept’ it or whatever the most sensitive language says. Of course, I’m being a bit flippant. Thinking of my mother’s death which is now over thirty years ago, I haven’t accepted it and I know I still get angry sometimes,  just as I did as a ten year old, at the sheer injustice of it. Now though, I am less likely to blame her personally but it’s an interesting thing because I do ponder who or what I’m actually angry with. Not ‘accepting’ doesn’t mean it affects my day to day life but it means that wherever we are at in life, we are touched by those who came before us, affected us, loved and hated us (because it’s not just a relationship of love that triggers senses of loss) we are the sum of those who passed us on the way.

I think about people I have actively disliked who have died too, and what my bereavement process has been for them. I won’t name them or go into too  many details, but it is a part of who I am in the same way. Yes, there’s someone I should, perhaps, have ‘made peace with’ in the normal parlance before they died. But then, I think ‘why’ and for whose benefit. I didn’t really ever forgive them for what they did so why would I pretend to when they were dying. Would it be for their benefit or for mine? Possibly neither as it wouldn’t have been an honest apology and we’d both have known that. Does that mean hate and resentment are now burning up inside of me? No, not really, because the way we treated each other was honest based on the experiences we  had.

I’m not sure what I’m trying to say anymore except that there is no path that tracks the way bereavements happen. There is no ‘right’ way and no ‘wrong’ way of dealing with loss. Some people need to talk and some prefer not to. Some are eaten by regrets and others aren’t but it doesn’t mean that one person is ‘further down the path’ than the other. One of the things I found most helpful was people acknowledging that I’d experienced a loss. I didn’t want other people not to realise that my world had changed, even though I didn’t expect them change any of their actions as a result of that.

Although we don’t talk about it very much, particularly when we are healthy, I think talking about death is enormously useful. Telling people what we want when we die or if/when we are dying. Trying to think about it because we will all die and be affected by death. It isn’t always easy but it is useful.  We will all die with regrets. That’s humanity. It doesn’t mean forgiving people who you don’t feel you can or being less the genuine or honest when people do die. We try to remember the good but sometimes we need to remember the bad too.

In the end (pun intended), I think talking about death is what helps us to live and establish our own priorities – about what and who is important to us and what and if we want to leave a legacy behind. In order to live honestly, we need to bring death into our lives.

5 thoughts on “Death and Bereavement

  1. Very interesting thanks. As a church leader I dealt with bereaved people all the time. But it wasn’t until we experienced our own bereavements, 3 parents and a grand parent in 4 months, that I had any clue what grief was like. I am embarrassed at the expectations I had, or things I said to the bereaved, albeit with the best of intentions.
    I am convinced there is no right or wrong way to grieve.
    Being there for people is what’s important. Especially when there are no words.

  2. Maybe it’s because of the job I do that makes me much more open than most to the subject of death and everything related to it but whatever the case, my tendency to be straight up and out with it has caught on and we (we being myself, husband and teenage children) are entirely comfortable with it to the point of it being an almost normal, everyday thing – which is how it should be.

    Most people shy away from the subject thinking that in being honest and talking openly, it’s somehow tempting fate or disrespectful to have someone “dead and buried” whilst they’re still alive but my feeling is that the worst thing that could happen is for me to genuinely have no idea what a loved one would want.

    A typical example of what most consider a crude or “awful conversation” is one I had with my fifteen year old daughter last week. I’d taken the dog on a long walk and as usual, stopped off at the local cemetery for a wander round. Amongst the graves was one of a young lad aged thirteen and all I could think was how awful it must be for anyone to have to bury a child. I personally hate burials and have a problem with knowing that a loved one’s body is down there underneath all that sod but if that’s what someone wants to happen – that’s what needs to happen. Whatever issues I have are just my own issues.

    When I got back I mentioned it to my daughter and then asked outright, “God forbid anything should happen but if it ever does – are we burying you or setting you on fire?”

    “Setting me on fire. Definitely setting me on fire”

    “Good. I hate burials anyway but if I didn’t ask and something happened, I’d be haunted until the day I died in case I did the wrong thing and your spiritual self was hanging around going “As IF you set me on fire?? I can’t believe you just SET ME ON FIRE!!”

    “Nah that’s fine. Set me on fire and scatter my ashes somewhere nice. Do you want a brew while I’m making one?”

  3. I have had an irrational fear of death since about the age of 7. I am not sure what started it as I didn’t feel too affected by my grandparent’s deaths. I remember as a child my fear was of losing my mother, I also had night terrors about people coming to kill me. Now as a grown up I have in effect already lost my mother, she has Alzheimer’s and is no longer the mother I knew. The loss was gradual but the worst thing about losing someone to dementia is that you are not given the time to grieve, every week and every day I lost a piece of my mother.

    I am not sure if my fear of death will go away. I have witnessed the passing of my friend and saw that he did not fear what was about to happen. Maybe it is the fear of the unknown? There’s a high chance that I am going to go the same way as my mother so in theory I will be unaware of the impeding end. What I sincerely hope is that my future children do not live in fear of such trivial things like death or developing Alzheimer’s.

  4. I just read your trichtillomania post but it would not let me comment. Your description sounds like me! I have had this since I was about 16. The only person I have told is my current boyfriend and even then I did not use the condition’s name. I have not been to a hairdressers in almost a year and more or less cut it myself. I visited a hairdresser a couple of years ago who actually got cross with me and made me feel like crap, the trigger then was being bullied at work, my mum and dad both becoming ill and uni stress. I am now in the final year of my social work degree and I am experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety. I have actually considered wearing a hat whilst assignment writing as that is when it affects me most.

    I am happy to read that yours has stopped, I hope mine will to! For now I am left with a stubbly, lopsided do Thankfully the rest of is crazy waves and curls so isn’t too noticeable, I hope.

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