A cavern full of memories - some thoughts about death and dying
Death is not an abstract concept. For many of us, it isn't just theory. We have had or will have contact with dying, death and grief; whether it is our own or someone else's.
Sometimes reading about theories of grief or death isn't as helpful as reading personal experiences, and so this is what I have aimed to do in this article. I hope it helps.
My dad has dementia. I've been watching him die in slow motion for some years now. It has brought thoughts around death and dying into sharp focus for me.
I have come to realise that the society I was brought up in doesn't do death very well. People don't speak about it. They often don't plan for it.
We are all heading for an unknown destination, yet we don't talk about it. My question is, why not? What are we scared of? And I guess that is the crux of all this. What are we scared of?
That answer is different for us all. Some of us are not scared. I believe we can all arrive at a place in our lives where death does not frighten us and, more importantly, that understanding death, and removing the fear will allow us to live our lives more fully.
I tried to explain to my seven-year-old what was happening with grandad. My son believes in heaven, so I told him that little bits of grandad's brain are dying and going to heaven. I asked him a month or so ago if he understood what would happen when all the bits of grandad's brain have gone, and he said he knew, but didn't want to talk about it.
More recently, he told me that he can see a faint image of a young grandad in heaven and that, as more bits of the brain dies, the image will become stronger. It will also change from a child to an adult. His silence about dying didn't mean there was no thought or processing around death. He just needed to do it his own way and in his own time.
I have come to believe very strongly that it is helpful to process the idea of death at some point during our lives.
I'm currently trying to help my dad to process his ending. It almost feels as if a life review is happening in front of us, as he dips in and out of various stages of his life. In some senses, dementia provides us with the blessing of doing death slowly. We can see more clearly what is happening, and where the dying person needs help and support.
In 2011, an aunt of mine died. I felt that she did death well, she wasn't afraid, she was ready to go, but this was new territory for me - I hadn't looked at death and I hadn't had to grieve for someone I loved this deeply before. In all honesty, I'd been avoiding the fact that I would also die one day.
About a year after her death, I visited her grave for the first time and the experience was healing for me. Below is how I experienced this event.
"I've just come home from the cemetery which is a beautiful large place, full of trees and peace.
We visited my aunt - the first time I've been - and it hit me harder than I expected, seeing her name in gold lettering on the black stone headstone. I was caught in my heart by something quite painful and sharp that brought tears to my eyes and made me feel as if the bottom of my heart had opened up into some deeper cavern full of emotions that usually remain hidden.
We sat awhile in silence and I rested my hands at the foot of her stone slab, stroking it with my fingers as if it were her arm, like I did the last time I saw her. I had a flash in my mind of climbing into the grave and curling up on her lap, as I used to as a child, snuggling into her cuddly body. Part of me really wished that I could, only I know that the body that lies there no longer holds the person I love.
It was good to know where she lies now and to see the trees around her and to hear the birds singing. It's a nice final resting place.
As I sat there, allowing myself to feel, the tears eventually stopped flowing and the sadness began to lift, replaced with peace, clarity and tiredness. I hadn't realised it would take so much out of me. Opening the cavern full of emotions takes a lot of effort, and closing the door is difficult too. But still, it was important.
It's all part of the process and it's a process many of us don't like to return to, but death is not going to stop visiting. As we get older, it will become a more frequent visitor to our lives. As well as the sadness, the cavern is full of photos and videos, memories of what has been. These are all valuable gifts that can teach us about how to be happier in our own lives. It's all part of the process."
I have realised, through being present with the dying and with death, that I needed to confront the inevitable. That letting the feelings out was really important to make me feel whole again - the fear, sadness, anger, whatever might have been stuck inside.
I learned that grieving is really tiring. I needed support and love from those around me. I needed to go easy on myself. I needed people to do practical things for me when my own energy was going into emotional things.
Finally, I realised that everyone grieves in their own way and in their own time. For some it takes months and, for others, it never ends.
Grief becomes a part of who we are, but this can be enriching to our lives, rather than taking something away from us. And that is my goal. How to enrich my life through my experiences.
Talking about death and dying can really help. If that is too much, allowing yourself to feel - in a safe space - may be enough. If your feelings are stuck, sometimes reading can help them flow again.
If you want to do some reading to help process or do death better, the following children's and adult books might help - the children's books can be helpful for adults too:
- If all the world were... by Joseph Coelho and Allison Colpoys
- The Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson
- DO DEATH - For a life better lived by Amanda Blainey
Children's films that deal with the subject of death or grieving include:
- Over the moon (2020)
If there are any other books or films you have found really useful to help you deal with dying, death or grieving, please feel to share them with me and I'd be happy to consider adding them to this list.