Death. It happens all the time, it’s happening now, as you’re reading this, and yet we’re still a bit lost when it comes to dealing with it, as though we’ve never heard of such a thing before. We’re lucky; we’re living longer, we have better medicine and, up until the recent Covid-19 pandemic, death has not been part of our everyday lives in the same way it might have been 100 years ago, when we had already been through a war and the Spanish flu. So we hide it away, we no longer have our dead on show or in our houses, it’s sanitised, a mystery.
Death is surrounded by euphemisms; we don’t even know what words to use and avoid saying the ‘d’ word at all costs. Even our pets don’t die, they go over the mysterious ‘rainbow bridge’ or, if they’re particularly lucky, get to go and live on a farm. Our need to avoid using the word ‘death’ turns us all into Victorian poets, ‘I offer you my sincerest condolences at this time of great sorrow’. We talk about people ‘passing away’ or refer to ‘losing’ someone.
A strange dance around the reality
Lost someone. Now there’s a phrase.
Someone recently asked me when I’d lost my husband, as though we were in Lidl and he’d wandered off down the exciting wetsuit/welding mask aisle (which actually happened on a regular basis, now I think about it). I wanted to say, ‘I haven’t lost him, I know exactly where he is, he’s in a box on the top of the bookcase in my front room!’
But I didn’t, of course; I know that not everyone is comfortable with direct language, and who knows what they’ve been through themselves, and I quickly became aware that one of the expectations of me in my new, unasked-for role as a bereaved person, is that I am supposed to make this easier for everyone else. I am expected to dilute my grief.
Time is a great healer, they say, and they’re right, but we’re very fixated on time. It’s almost as if people are holding their breath in those first few weeks, keen for you to move on. You can see it in their faces when they ask how you are, the relief when you lie and say you’re ok.
Don’t get me wrong, this is understandable and often comes from a feeling of helplessness that they can’t make this better for you, and of course nobody likes seeing people upset. But there’s almost a collective sigh of relief at around six weeks, despite the fact that that’s when the pain really kicks in, when the reality of life without your person hits you.
Shattering the great illusion
We’re all so used to being in control, but death is a huge reminder that we are not in control at all; death doesn’t care about being fair, or whether or not we are ‘good’ people. It doesn’t care if we’re careful crossing the road, or whether or not we do drugs, or eat well. It can hit us at any time, we are not in charge. Life just happens and it can just stop with no warning, no reason, and you don’t even get time to take a breath before you are expected to just carry on.
There’s a whole industry around birth, even saying the word makes your mouth move a certain way, it’s soft, it almost ends with a smile, a whisper. We celebrate it and make TV programmes about it; there are magazines and gifts and hampers out there, all concentrating on the start of life. Women sit in dusty church halls while their toddlers play and tell strangers the minute, gory details of when they gave birth. It is expected, encouraged. We take our babies into work and people crowd around the new mother; ’How was it? How are you doing? How do you feel?’
You are expected to take a decent amount of time off and there’s a whole system in place to support you. A health visitor comes round regularly and your mental health is monitored. You have the baby as an external sign that you have been through a momentous event, that your life has changed. You can even get a special sticker for your car.
In contrast, death is the relative that nobody wants to invite to the party. The word ‘death’ is definite, abrupt; say the word ‘dead’ and it’s like a clump of earth on a coffin, and rightly so, because it is a terrible thing, the end of a life, the end of a story that possibly hasn’t even got started yet.
When someone dies it’s as though you’re suddenly given access to a special club that you didn’t ask to be part of, a whole new world of funeral directors and wondering whether you are supposed to include shoes when you’re asked to choose an outfit for your loved one to wear in their coffin (you’re not, but I’m putting it in writing here that I expect to be in leopard print stilettos); words like probate are thrown around and you are expected to pick up the baton and keep running in a race you didn’t sign up for, without any training, without any sleep and having only eaten a piece of toast in the last two days.
The unexpected isolation
My husband’s death turned my world upside down in pretty much the same way as giving birth did, and I didn’t have nine months to prepare myself. I was incredibly lucky, in that my employer has been very supportive and generous, and I went back to work on my own terms, but I know that’s not the norm. The average compassionate leave in the UK is five working days.
You don’t even start processing it until at least six weeks, never mind all the admin you have to wade through; the way you get used to having both your marriage certificate and the death certificate to hand, how you have to try not to hang up on the person who pronounces your dead husband’s name wrong FOUR times despite you repeating it slowly and clearly, and all the letters addressed to “The late Mr … ”.
Birth can be isolating, but so can death and nobody else feels your particular kind of grief and loneliness. There is no set mourning period, no black armbands, no P plate for your car while you’re still finding your way through your new way of living. People don’t fall over themselves to come and see you like they do after you have a baby; they often stay away, always assuming someone else is supporting you, not wanting to ‘intrude’.
You pop to the shops and think you probably imagined that someone just crossed the road to avoid speaking to you, but then it happens again, and again and you understand why, and sometimes even feel grateful, but it still compounds the loneliness.
On behalf of the grief-stricken
So with that in mind I have some advice on how to deal with someone who’s bereaved:
- Don’t ask a bereaved person if there’s anything they need, chances are they’re lucky they remembered to brush their teeth that day, the tiniest decision can be overwhelming. When you’re going through trauma the thing you really need to think about is often the last thing on your mind, and that’s how to fuel your body; so take food that can go in the oven/microwave. The people who sent us Deliveroo vouchers, or a week’s supply of ready meals, are still talked about in our house as actual heroes. We also graded the lasagnas we received and had a clear favourite. Don’t judge us.
- Don’t avoid the recently bereaved. We know you don’t know what to say, we don’t know what to say either because there isn’t anything to say, but that doesn’t matter, we’re not taking anything in anyway; just a hug will do, or a hand on our arm, or just say that you don’t know what to say. It’s often not words that we need, just the acknowledgment, then let us take the lead. Or just say how shit this is. A good friend of mine responded to the news by just repeatedly saying ‘F**k’ for about five minutes. This sums it up and was exactly an appropriate response. Even if it hadn’t been, it was better than no response. Trust me on this.
- Don’t use somebody else’s bereavement as a platform for your conspiracy theories about the jab, or to say this is all part of God’s plan, or that God chose that person to be one of his angels. If this kind of thinking comforts you then I am very pleased for you, maybe even envious, but please think before you make assumptions about someone else’s faith/beliefs. If in doubt, zip it.
- Now isn’t the time to tell me I’ll find someone else, that I need to move on, that I’m still young and have my whole life ahead of me. I know I do, but right now my whole life is stretching out in front of me and the thought of doing that without my person is still pretty brutal, I’m still in the process of re-writing my future. If in a couple of years’ time I’m still sitting here like Miss Havisham in my wedding dress, draped in cobwebs, then by all means please stage an intervention. In the meantime, back off.
- We all grieve in different ways, so if someone isn’t grieving the way you expect them to, it doesn’t mean they’re doing it wrong. You can’t fix me, so let me just feel what I’m feeling. If I want to spend all day watching Ted Lasso while eating toast, leave me be. If I want to go out and dance myself stupid for a couple of hours, then hold my bumbag. If I want to write about it and make it public, accept that. If I’m sad let me be sad, if I’m joking, let me joke.
- Talking of jokes, accept that inappropriate humour is a coping mechanism; if I made inappropriate jokes before he died, chances are I’ll carry on doing that now he has, because I’m still the same person, I’m just really sad now, which means you can stop tiptoeing around me and laugh at my jokes, damn you. It can’t all be tears because crying is really exhausting, and you get to a point where you almost have to have controlled explosions of grief because otherwise it can just overwhelm you. There is humour in death too, some of the best laughs I’ve had recently were with the funeral director, and humour is what has got me and my daughters through some really dark times (if we ever meet in person, ask me about the coffin saga).
- Don’t put your head on one side when you speak to us, it makes us want to hit something and chances are that something will be you.
- Encourage us to talk, it really helps, so ask us things about the person who died and if we don’t feel like talking, we’ll say. There is therapy out there but not all of us can afford it/feel comfortable with it/have time. It’s also hard to find the appropriate kind. At 51 I am too old for the young widow groups, yet too young for the over 50 groups. It seems I am on the grief cusp and nobody knows what to do with me.
- This is the biggie. Please accept that you can’t make this better; there’s a huge gap in our lives that nobody else can ever fill, so don’t even try. But you can help fill that gap with love and memories and life. We won’t ever get over this pain, it’s like an open wound, but you can help surround that wound with protective layers, so that eventually the pain won’t be as close to the surface and it won’t brush against something every time we move.
The flaw is where the light floods in
I’ve tried really hard not to make this morbid because the best any of us can hope for, the thing that proves there was a point to all of this, the thing that keeps me going whenever I feel lost and broken, is that we need to live our lives with purpose and find the joy in every day. Death is sad, but so is seeing someone who’s not living while they’re still alive.
I think it was Virginia Woolf who said something along the lines of someone has to die in order for the rest of us to value life, and I know that’s easier said than done. Death turns us all into philosophers, and we throw terms like ‘bucket list’ and ‘living for the moment’ around like confetti when in reality life gets in the way and we all have to work, and every day we’re dealing with all the stuff that life throws at us. But seriously, a lot of those things we worry about really don’t matter.
Ring the bells that still can ring
So do the things you want, don’t save living your life for best, like a nice dress, or the fancy wine glasses, do the things that bring you joy; as long as it’s not hurting anyone, or leaving you in financial or emotional debt, life is too short to waste it just getting through each day waiting for life to come to you.
I’ve said this before, but I will keep banging on about it; tell your people you love them, that you are grateful for them. Don’t assume they know, show them with your words and your actions, because that’s one of the few things we actually can control, how we make other people feel. And believe me, that’s the best kind of legacy.