The One About Death

I had intended to write about something light-hearted and fluffy today. But this week somebody died. Somebody who had absolutely no business dying yet.

I’ve talked before about how awkward I feel when someone reports a death on social media, about not knowing how to respond without looking like I’m just jumping on a bandwagon. But this isn’t a sympathy post, it doesn’t demand a response. Also, this isn’t about me. There’s a family somewhere whose lives will never be the same again, whose whole future will now have to be re-imagined and I feel a bit helpless, I can’t make things better for anyone, but I can write about it.

Death is a funny old thing. We don’t seem to be able to talk about it properly. It’s riddled with clichés. People start talking about how short and fragile life is, about how we should live for today and stop stressing about the little things that don’t really matter.

It’s not that easy though. We fully intend to do these things, we talk about it and make plans to start just as soon as the bad stuff that made us think like that is over. Then we never do. It’s like that gym membership or The Diet or the plan to de-clutter. Real life takes over again. Also, often, those little things do matter, it’s all relative, it’s not a points system.

I’d like to think though that every time someone close to us dies we will think a little bit more about how we live. Living life ‘to the max’ isn’t always possible when we have bills to pay and jobs to do and other people relying on us, but we can still make changes.

We don’t have to stay in an unhappy relationship for the kids because one day, those kids wont be kids and we wont be here and what was all that unhappiness for anyway? Do the things you want to do, don’t put them aside for that (I hate this phrase) bucket list. Write the book, learn to play the cello, start wearing hats, tell that person you love them. Just do it.

We talk about birth all the time. We celebrate it and make TV programmes about it. There’s a whole industry of magazines and gifts and blogs out there, all concentrating on the start of life. Women sit in dusty church halls while their toddlers play and tell strangers the minute details of when they gave birth. Pregnant women and new mothers are drawn towards each other like iron filings, yet when it comes to death we hide away. People actually cross the road to avoid having to talk to someone who’s just lost someone.

Lost someone. There’s a phrase. It sounds like you left somebody outside the shop while you went in for a paper, and then just walked straight home without thinking. The kind of thing that used to happen in the ‘70s with babies in big-wheeled, old fashioned prams outside the greengrocer’s shop. But ‘lost someone’ is better than ‘they passed’ or ‘they went over to the other side’ (a phrase that always reminds me of Star Wars). We seem to feel the need to soften the blow. It’s almost as though the person who is left behind has a duty to make everyone else feel better by not mentioning ‘death/died/dead’, they are supposed to dilute it somehow. If they don’t say death we can almost pretend it didn’t happen and everyone can carry on with their day without having to do or say anything too uncomfortable. We are rubbish at this, really rubbish.

Of course, birth is the start of life and death is the end and that’s not something we can be happy about, especially if that person is younger and hasn’t even got going yet. Yet while it’s terribly sad that the person isn’t around any more, it almost feels selfish to be upset. It’s not about us, the ones left behind. We still have our lives and, depending on what your beliefs are, the dead person has either gone to a better place or has no awareness of what’s happened. But the very fact that people are upset about it means that they affected our lives in some way, they made a difference, and I think that is something to be celebrated.

So talk to that person who’s just lost someone, it’s much better to say the wrong thing than not talk to them at all. Or give them a hug, listen to them, let them talk. There’s a huge gap in their lives that you can never fill so don’t even try, but you can fill some of it up with love and memories.

P.S. I tried really hard to make sure this wasn’t a sympathy post and I think my friend would be shaking his head at me and laughing and calling me an idiot (basically 80% of my memories of him) because it took me the best part of a day to try to avoid saying it wrong.


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10 responses to “The One About Death

  1. Kate Boardman

    I wasn’t going to leave a comment then I realised that it’s the online equivalent of crossing the road. The question that went through my head on reading this post was ‘why do we feel selfish about being upset’? A couple of years ago a Creative Writing Tutor of mine died unexpectedly. I was gutted. In the short time I knew her she was a true inspiration. I don’t feel selfish at being upset at her death, I see it as giving her the honour she deserves. XXX

  2. Discussion about death is taboo in most circles even though we’re all heading there, ultimately. I attended many funerals from an early age. I viewed grandparents, great aunts, aunts, and my little brother and young sister dead in their coffins. The pain was excruciating; the closer and younger the person, the greater the pain. Personally I don’t find death a difficult subject to talk about; I can honestly say I welcome it. Our fears and attitudes on death are important and need to be shared – and aired.

    • Yes, there was a tv programme on a few years ago exploring death and the different ways we deal with it. I remember my mother in law at the time saying that she couldn’t bear to watch it. I don’t understand that, I think it’s the mystery of it that scares us. I try to be open with my girls about it. They see me upset and we talk about why.

  3. Wow, yes it’s a hard one for most people. I have a very morbid curiosity about death I think due to losing my father when I was 15 and he was only 53. I try hard to avoid the cliches at times like that, they can be hurtful to some degree, because there’s little of substance behind them. It’s a situation we all at some time have to deal with, my mum is 87 this year but I hope I can take comfort at the time of her death with a life very well lived, even so it will nearly destroy me as we are so close. When someone young dies as you say so eloquently, ‘somebody who had no business dying yet’ there’s an additional feeling of being robbed. From my experience if you want to really support your friend be there for them when the dust has settled, the funeral has passed and everyone has gone back to their own lives, that’s when the deceased family really need support and that’s when people start crossing the street to avoid them and that hurts so much. They can’t just go back to their own lives, they need time, lots of time to learn how to live without that someone. Good post, difficult subject, well written.
    I think your friend is lucky to have your love and concern.

    • Thank you. That’s also good advice, about being there when the dust has settled.
      When my grandad died in his 80s he’d had, what my dad referred to as a ‘good innings’ and had seen his children and grandchildren grow up. It is different when it’s somebody young there’s almost a sense of anger.

  4. As a Christian, my views on death are not exactly popular (especially in the increasingly secular UK at the moment). I’m not going to preach, just give you a quote from Psalm 90:

    “As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years, Or if due to strength, eighty years. Yet their pride is but labor and sorrow; For soon it is gone and we fly away… So teach us to number our days, That we may present to You a heart of wisdom.”

    The entire Psalm is a very sobering reflection on life, and our place in the world.

    Hugs to you, Tracy. 🙂

    • Thanks, Colin. Your views on death are very welcome, whatever my own religious views I welcome anything that gives comfort and makes us think. I think death definitely makes us realise our place in the world.
      Thanks for your thoughts.

  5. Very well written. When someone experiences grief for the first time, especially when young (I am thinking about kids here mainly) there is an overwhelming feeling of it never ending. A sense of emotional drowning. Kids need to be reassured that eventually it will become less over time. Adults, due to life experience will know this, the simplistic notion of life not being possible without death, that there is no happiness without sadness etc yet they often forget to pass this ”simple” knowledge on to younger people. Thinking about it, kids get taught at school about birth and how it works, it ought to be the same about death, perhaps.

  6. Melanie

    Good blog! Death was always a frightening prospect for me when very young, as I almost imagined that I’d have an awareness of being dead. A sense of missing out on all the fun. Not being able to move, just laying there in the dark and cold. Of course as I’ve grown up that fear has changed. I’m less scared about being dead as I know it’ll just be like a very long sleep which is rather enjoyable when you’re old and tired, but being a mum of 2 in my 40’s, I now worry for those I’d leave behind if I were to die a bit early. I’m certainly more aware that we all will lose people to death, people we love. My other fear is I may suffer a tragedy in my life time, become a victim on the news. Maybe that’s just part and parcel of being a parent? Maybe its just me? If I pass an accident, I have imagined my own loved one there, told the family, seen the headlines and imagined tie funeral before I’ve reached the traffic lights further up the road. Fortunately these are fleeting thoughts and mostly I do enjoy every day living, even the boring bits nowadays.

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