From grieving to dying well, readers from around the world tell us what death means to them
During this time of the year death appears in a guise of make up, costumes and candied treats. Often portrayed by colourful eccentric images, celebrations such as Halloween and the Day of the Dead were traditionally about remembering the dead and the memories of lost loved ones.
But talking about death is not easy if you’re British. When broached, the topic seems to make people feel uncomfortable and can even be judged as a morbid conversation subject. But death is part and parcel of what it means to live. We talk about having the ‘time of our lives’ or ‘living life to the full’ but often try and forget what inevitably follows.
We wanted to talk more about death so asked readers for their experiences of grieving and what death means to them. Here’s what some of them said.
‘Grief is so overpowering – it consumes you’
Having lost my mother 17 months ago the experience of losing her is still very raw for me. Mum went to her doctor with a minor stomach upset and died four weeks later with an aggressive bowel tumour. She had no previous symptoms and wasn’t even unwell. It came as a complete shock with total devastation to her family.
Grief is so overpowering – it consumes you. First the numbness and autopilot mode then the heaviness of despair, then the oceans of tears, then the questions of the pointless, futility of life. Then anger, then deep despair, then numbness and repeat. Repeat. 17 months on and I still question all of it; but I cope by leaning on my loved ones and I cope by using my mum’s strength to spur me on. Ironically, she is the one that gets me out of bed in the mornings.
My life has changed drastically. After mum died I resigned from my job, married my partner of 22 years (we married on mum’s birthday as a gift/gesture to her), I got a dog and am now planning a move with my husband to Sri Lanka for a few years. I see my life in two parts; my old life with mum and my new life; one I didn’t want or choose but one that I’m trying to embrace. I try to live my life as my mum wanted; with gusto and enjoying the little things. I’m trying at least.
Keely Dowton, 44-year-old teacher living in Essex
‘I said ‘Good morning’ to a photo of him each day’
I lost my father seven years ago. It was totally unexpected and at the time I could not deal with it. I said ‘Good morning’ to a photo of him each day as I did in person before. I threw myself into planning the funeral, keeping busy meant not thinking about what had happened.
Just after he passed away, I noticed a robin that would watch me when I was gardening. The robin visited the garden most days and would look towards the house. There are some people who think that symbolises that a loved one who has passed is okay. That brought me some comfort even if I don’t completely believe it. I like seeing robins in the garden, even when they are being fiercely territorial. Seeing them is associated with my dad now. I talked about my dad in the present tense for a long time, maybe a year after he had died. Even now it feels incorrect to talk about him in the past because he lives on in my heart and mind. He always will. That’s love.
Anonymous, 39-year-old teacher living in the Midlands
‘Dealing with death is relatively easy compared to getting on with life without them’
Death means my husband. It is something I’m familiar with now as I have lived through his. I lay with his dead body for half an hour and felt peace. Other people’s death isn’t scary for me anymore but mine is as I fear for my children.
I think it’s more difficult to talk about death if you haven’t had any personal experience of it. A lot of the time it’s very clinical, with the funeral director taking the body away fairly swiftly. There’s not often the chance to spend time with the dead and say goodbye. It’s almost frowned upon. I took some pictures of my husband dead; before and after he was embalmed. It doesn’t feel right sharing that fact with people as I’m worried they’ll think it weird. It didn’t feel weird to me.
Even though my husband suffered with all the indignities of cancer I believe in the end he had a good death. He’d put his affairs in order, planned his funeral, said goodbye to loved ones and ultimately died in my arms. If if wasn’t for the fact that he was only 48 it would have been perfect.
Dealing with the death was relatively easy compared to getting on with life without them. That’s the hardest bit. When the funeral flowers and cards stop coming. When friends no longer bring cooked dishes round. That’s when the shit hits the fan and you see the size of the hole they have left.
Joanne Baker, 47-year-old full-time parent of two children living in Guiseley
‘I gave her a bag of popping corn – she was being cremated and would have loved that!’
The death of my mother last year was like watching a transition from pain to peace. I miss her so much. The horror of the last 12 hours in A&E and hospital side ward as she slipped into unconsciousness will never leave my memory. The nurses were kind but no one could save her from her journey. As she took her last breaths, I told her to go find her mum now and that we would be OK. It was a privilege to share those moments but terrifying.
I’m a Christian. My mother pre-paid for a cardboard coffin, and at her request we pasted all the grandchildren’s art work on it. Her lid was open and we spent an hour talking to her. Her spirit felt close. I placed momentoes in her coffin and a bag of popping corn just for fun in her hand. She was being cremated and would have loved that!
Jayne Gale, 47-year-old nurse
‘I did not cry at the funeral, nor did I go to view his body’
I experienced my dad’s death at the tender age of 13, in June 2003. I did not cry at the funeral, nor did I go to view his body. I couldn’t believe he was gone for good. Many times I dreamt of bumping into him on the street. I thought he would come back, even though I knew and understood that he wouldn’t.
I think most people find it hard to talk about death either due to a trauma or the death of a loved one, and in many African customs it is taboo to do so. Though it’s been 13 years since my dad left I still weep as if he just died. He was my hero. I have been praying over it, and God has helped me to accept the reality, and to stop living in denial.
Grace, 26-year-old living in Nairobi
‘There is nothing to fear about death’
I lost a little boy who was just two months old – he suddenly passed away one night unexpectedly. I did not understand how this could happen to me – not even as a punishment because I felt I had never done anything that would have deserved such a chastisement.
This was when I started to try to find an answer, so I began reading about what happened after death, the meaning of life and death, why we are here on earth and so on. I got the answer after 30 years of research, so I know now why this happened to me. To me, death means to continue to live in a different form in another dimension where I will be able to meet all my dear ones who died before me and most importantly review all my past life on earth. I will then know if and how I have progressed spiritually. This will be done without judgment, just with love. Then, I will examine and decide what still has to be improved and go back to earth for another experience.
In 2012 my mother died at the age of 84. She suffered a lot and wished she could die as soon as possible “waiting for the angels to take her”. One day she had an accident at home while cooking – she was burnt and taken to hospital where she died two months later. At the very minute she died, I felt filled with an unutterable sensation of happiness which I couldn’t explain at first and I understood when I was told the precise time when she died. I was so happy that she had been freed at last. My sisters got depressed and didn’t understand my reaction at first, but I told them how I felt and they agreed that it was the best way to deal with our mother’s death.
I hope there will be more records similar to mine, so that people grow aware that there is nothing to fear about death – no judgment, no hell, no punishment – only love exists.
Jean Louis, 65-year-old retired teacher living in France
‘Those who talk openly and honestly about death tend to have a more peaceful, meaninful time at the end of their life’
Popular media images of death and dying often portray an image of inevitable suffering, as does frequent media coverage highlighting the inadequacies of health and social services in providing good end of life care and support. As a result, many people live in fear of death and the dying process and ultimately do not have the death they would have preferred.
Problematic issues including misconceptions, unspoken anxiety, lack of control, or the loved ones of a dying person perceiving the dying process as a ‘bad death’ can all contribute towards problematic grief. My own observations of dying people and bereaved relatives are that those who have talked openly and honestly about death and dying – and who have planned for what they would like to happen when the time comes – tend to have a more peaceful, meaningful time at the end of their life.
Katie Shepherd, 43-year-old clinical nurse specialist in palliative care, and permaculture designer living in Spain and Yorkshire
‘I dealt with the deaths of those close to me quite badly. It’s why I’m an undertaker’
Death has shaped my entire life, literally. I became an undertaker, something for which you need no professional qualifications almost 17 years ago after seeing Nicholas Albery of The Natural Death Centre talk about a different way of approaching funerals, environmentally, socially and religiously. I had a welter of family deaths as a child, most of whose funerals I didn’t go to. Now we do the opposite, encouraging as much family involvement as possible.
It is entirely understandable that people find it difficult to talk about death. The implications of our own extinction and that of the Earth’s are huge, particularly now we are at a stage when even the planet may die. I dealt with the deaths of those close to me quite badly. It’s why I’m an undertaker – do what I say, not what I do.
Rupert Callender, ceremonial undertaker and sexton, and co owner of The Green Funeral Company
‘I know that he’s still present’
My father’s death two years ago was sudden and unexpected. The family gathered, and we supported one another. Tears, yes, but plenty of loving laughter – he had an offbeat personality in some ways with a great sense of humour, even around death: he’d always said (in jest) that when he goes he wanted to be stuffed and sat in a chair so he could be glowering at people!
Of course there is the awful reality of his loss in all our lives, the desperate sadness that he’s not here in the physical. He genuinely hadn’t an enemy in the world, and family, friends and colleagues past and present, travelled from far and wide to be at his funeral.
I know that he’s still present though, with countless confirmations of that, so we still go on walks together (a shared love of nature) and we ‘chat’ daily. It’s the next best thing to being in the same physical universe.
Angela, 55-year-old artist and writer living in Ireland
‘It is far easier to grieve among family and friends’
My father died while I was working in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. My brother sent a telegram, but my employers (who had my passport in a safe) did not pass the telegram to me. I found out a few weeks later via a letter from my mother which started from the premise that I knew already. From this experience I learned that it is far easier to grieve and move on if you do it among family and friends.
Old Scarborian, 58-year-old lecturer
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