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.


A high-rise residential apartment building in ...

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It was a fairly standard visit as they go. I knew the block of flats. It was one of those seemingly ubiquitous 1950s  high rise blocks that had been built in the shadow of the wartime bombings.

I knew that particular block though. You get this, when you’ve been working in an area for a fair amount of times – particular estates or blocks that will bring back a range of memories about the people you know who live behind the doors.

There had been a family there, in this block, with whom I’d worked for a couple of years until I was moved to a different patch and handed over with a fair bit of reluctance on both parts, to a colleague.

Now, the boundaries have been redrawn again and I found myself in exactly the same building – in the flat directly underneath the one in which I had spent so much time.

On my way in, I tried for the life of me to recall the name of the family that I’d been working with previously. It worried me that I had spent so long in the life of a family and I couldn’t remember their surnames (I remembered the first names fine, of course). I pondered about the nature of my job, flitting in and out of lives but the lives continue and have to deal with such anguish of illness and tragedy. I can walk away from it.

As I went towards the lift on my way out of the flat I had been visiting (I was on the 11th floor at this point, and while not adverse to staircases, I sometimes have limits), I saw the woman who I had visited so many times a few years previously, coming down the stairs.

I immediately remembered her surname. Thankfully. Maybe I just needed to connect the face with the name.

She did an almost double-take when she saw me and she greeted me warmly. She told me the rest of the story that I knew, partially, from my colleagues’ visits of her husband’s death.

She told me and I listened. We had, by this point, moved downstairs into a more sheltered area. She interspersed the story with tears. I listened more. We walked a little way together.

‘People tell me’ , she said ‘that I should be glad to have got my life back’.

She had been a devoted carer for her husband who had needed an incredible amount of care at home.

‘And that’s not how I feel’.

I nodded, and listened some more.

I gently reminded her how  much she had done but mostly, I listened.

Throughout the conversation, there were tears running down her face.  I offered her a tissue but she did not wipe away the tears. She just continued to talk.

As I was heading into a different direction, she touched my arm lightly and thanked me.

‘I can’t talk to anyone really about his death’, she said. I nodded. ‘I mean about the details – about what happened’.

‘I don’t want to upset my children, you see’, she said.

I nodded and explained that I felt glad that she had been able to share this with me.

As I headed up to the bus stop back to the office, I pondered the nature of random encounters and the importance of knowing and being attached to a particular community.

I was also pondering the way that we think and discuss death. I have worked for almost 10 years in older adults services. Death happens. It happens in many ways but it never stops being something of a shock.  It never stops being the crucial key in the life of the family around that person.

When my student was on placement, two of the people who were allocated to her died. We reflected a lot about the nature of the job we have and what we do when that work comes to an end through a death.  Sometimes it is difficult to have a discussion with family members after a death has taken place. It might feel awkward or intrusive. It depends a lot on the length of time you have known a family and the nature of the involvement – whether it has been welcomed or not.

Generally, I think back to my own experiences of my parents’ and grandparents’ deaths and try and pick up on the need to connect and acknowledge the life of someone rather than trying to brush what may be difficult conversations under the carpet.

Death is still a taboo. Especially to those who do not have personal experience of it.  For me, I count my childhood and adulthood through the deaths of those whom I have been close to. That sounds dramatic but it builds a unique perspective. I spent much of my adolescence trying to think through issues surrounding death. Through the anger, the blame, the fear of ‘being left’, the confusion – what do you do WITHOUT that person who was the rock, however unwell, however much disease ravaged the body,  the unresolved pieces that need to be fit together.

One thing that I have learnt, through personal experience and through professional experience is that it’s good to talk and conversely, it’s good to listen quietly and let the stories be told.

Sometimes when you face a bereavement some people, friends, family, for their own reasons (often fear), don’t want to listen – they express sympathy but they display discomfort. Sometimes people don’t want to hear about death.

Listening without comment, to the commentary about a person’s last moments isn’t always easy but it is undoubtedly important.

Yesterday Community Care had an article on their website talking about the need for social workers to have training around talking about death.

It struck me as a coincidence. As I talked about death. In a corner of a lobby of a high rise block of flats in central London. And I think it helped. I hope it did.