Except we don’t really. And if we do it certainly doesn’t sound anything like a 90’s jam.
And maybe some people won’t like that I’m making light of something that is so often sad and full of emotion. It’s not an easy subject to talk about, but perhaps if we did it more it wouldn’t be so difficult to discuss.
What I’m trying (badly) to say is that death is a part of life – it will happen to everybody but it is still quite a taboo thing to talk about openly. There are a few subjects like this – sex, bodily functions – and some bring up different thoughts and feelings but right now I have death on my mind. And more specifically, my father’s death exactly 9 years ago.
By the time I was 21 I had attended more funerals than I could count on one hand. Ranging from peers who were cruelly taken by diseases that cut their lives way too short to old relatives who slipped away in their sleep. I know too many people who’s lives have been changed forever due to suicide or cancer. These funerals were all sad affairs and every one of these deaths left people grieving. And grief is tricky.
Different people grieve in different ways, we might all go through Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ 5 stages of grief, although they may not be in the exact order and people within the same family might reach the stages at different times. Grief isn’t a one size fits all subject as every person feels different. Some people might shut down whereas others might want to talk about their dead loved one non-stop. So, as you can tell, this isn’t really going to provide much help if you’re looking for the answer to ‘how do I help my grieving partner/friend/colleague?’. Simply put – there is no answer, everyone is on their own individual journey and will deal with things differently.
Not exactly providing any revolutionary advice here but there is a clue in what I’m saying. As everyone is going to handle things in their own way why not find out from them how you can help? And no I don’t mean ask them directly but take your cue from the person who is grieving, let them call the shots.
It’s not just different people feeling differently, it’s also the fact that an individual can feel the complete opposite from one day to the next. For example sometimes people might mention my Dad or ask me a question relating to him and in I would answer with minimal information as I wasn’t in the mood to start a conversation about him. And then there were other times when in my head I would be screaming “why isn’t anyone asking me more about my Dad?!”. I hated that people seemed to find it so easy to move on to the next subject when I wanted to talk about him. And also not just the fact that he died but about his life and what he was like as a person. It sometimes seems that we can’t talk about our dead loved ones as everything is past tense and as soon as they are mentioned the conversation takes on a sombre, reverent tone.
I can think of multiple occasions where I have cut myself short as I realised that what I was talking about was making other people uncomfortable. I would stop expressing how I was feeling about the quick, painful, heartbreaking death of my Dad as I was concerned about how the talking about it made someone else feel. The talking. Just talking. My heart was broken but I had to put someone else’s feelings before my own as my words might cause them upset.
Yes, before the 13th June 2008 I never thought I would sleep in the same room as a dead body but everything is different when it is your family member. Dad died in his sleep in a special bed in the front room of our family home. My sister and I were at the pub and when we got home Mum met us at the door and asked us to check on him. A nurse came and confirmed what we already knew but the funeral home wouldn’t take his body until the morning. So Mum and I shared the futon in the same room as him where we cried and slept for a few hours. He was gone, it was just a physical body that started to seem less and less like him in the room with us, but we didn’t want him to be alone.
Months later on a girls holiday somehow the subject of dead bodies came up whilst we were cooking dinner (I don’t know either!) and a lot of the comments were about how gross a dead body must be. Even after I explained how I had slept in the same room as Dad girls were still saying how they couldn’t do it as it “creeped them out”. How do they know what they would and wouldn’t do if the situation where the Dad they loved and adored had died? None of them had lost a parent.
It hurt, it felt like judgement. And yes, time had passed, so perhaps they weren’t being as sensitive as they might had been a few months earlier but I think it is simply an example of people not really listening.
Like I said, cues should be taken from the person who is grieving, who has suffered, who has lived through the difficult time of losing a loved one. I also realised I said above that sometimes I wanted people to shut up and other times I wanted people to ask more questions – without me asking them to or explicitly stating it. So yeah a bit of mind reading might need to come into play. Not an easy task is it? But then it’s all about perspective, you might feel awkward or uncomfortable or actually quite useless. But that’s still gotta be better than what they’re feeling right?
Some things will hurt more than others and, depending how I might be feeling that day, determine how I react to different situations. It’s always hard to hear people complaining about their Dad annoying them. Although I need to listen to my own advice there and realise that some people’s journeys won’t necessarily include a good relationship with their father. Other times subjects that people expect me to react to won’t really register to me. At the beach with friends the summer after Dad died someone said, whilst pulling the towel away from the shade and into the direct sun, something along the lines of “Skin cancer would be worth it if it meant I got a good tan”. In front of me, whose Dad had died from cancer (most likely originating from skin cancer) in the winter. A mutual friend was horrified and wanted to say something, she was angry on my behalf and she is not one to stop herself from reprimanding a friend who’s out of line. However it wasn’t worth it to me, of course the sun-seeking friend hadn’t meant any offence, they were simply not thinking when they made the throwaway comment. And cudos to my other friend who took their cue from me and respected that I didn’t need her to say anything.
Recently my colleagues father passed away, she was back in her hometown so the reason for her absence was relayed by senior management. My immediate reaction was to ask what our company was going to do to offer our condolences. I was advised that flowers and a card were either already sent or being arranged. Nothing else on that subject was ever mentioned. I spoke about it with my colleagues, using my own experience to brainstorm what might be helpful during this time. One of my colleagues was getting lots of advice from senior management along the lines of “don’t contact her” and “when she returns don’t go to her desk and give her a hug”. I’m glad I didn’t know of this advice until after I the fact as I had done those exact two things. I understand that the manager’s heart was probably in the right place, she didn’t think our grieving colleague would want a fuss or for attention to be drawn to her. However, I received nice and thankful responses to my messages, which I totally did not expect! I am just mentioning as, although I went against advice, I do feel it was the right thing to do. Since then it appears that no flowers or card were ever sent (perhaps I should have chased harder on this as it’s true I didn’t sign something but sometimes the company sends things internationally without us all being involved and yet I didn’t check) and now my colleague has been asked what her family thought of the flowers we sent (!). She has clearly expressed to me that she thought her workplace sending flowers would have meant a lot to her, to know that we care. Returning to work whilst grieving is another difficult step that some people will face differently from others and I know she is struggling. It seems like people here were making decisions based on their own experience, it is my understanding that senior management have faced the same hardship, but it appears to be the opposite of what the person they are trying to protect actually wants (or needs).
I also think it’s good to not expect the person to have to spell out what they need. If you do get in touch with a message sometimes saying “do you need anything?” is too hard a question to answer. Either make it more specific or, if you are in a position to do so, just provide what you think might be useful. The best example is food. Don’t message asking “shall I bring you dinner?” or “do you need lunch?” just cook extra and show up with it. Leave it on their doormat if they’re not in. Family style meals that can be frozen are a godsend and I know we were very grateful for these when Dad was in the hospital. No one feels like cooking after a long day of trying to live a normal life and working before making sure we get in some quality time during hospital visiting hours. There are even businesses set up to help with this, so you don’t have to do the cooking yourself, you can outsource it and freezer meals will be delivered to your friend in need.
This reminds me of Lindsay, and her husband Bjork, the creators of a food blog that I really love, A Pinch of Yum, sadly lost their son Afton “who was born on December 31, 2016, and who left this world peacefully, laying skin-to-skin in the arms of his mommy and daddy, surrounded by pure love in the early morning hours of January 1, 2017.”. Lindsay then started a series called ‘Feeding a Broken Heart‘; “dedicated to helping those who are hurting to find their way again through food” as we all know that food is part of the healing process. She also wrote an amazing post called ‘What To Do When Your Friend Loses a Baby‘ and it is full of incredibly useful advice about how to help a grieving friend. She is writing from her own experience of her baby, Afton’s death but I hope she realises how much of the advice can be applied to grieving in general. Lindsay says; “above all else: acknowledge. saying something is better than saying nothing” and it’s true – even if the subject is changed very quickly afterwards or you don’t get the response you were expecting you have done the right thing by acknowledging what your friend is (likely quietly) currently suffering from.
I am quite comfortable and happy to mention my Dad’s death in a matter of fact matter, I can state that he is dead. This is a fact. I find that the best reaction from the person I’m speaking to is for them to say “I’m sorry to hear that”. They are acknowledging that what I just told them is fucking sad and terrible but they are also leaving it up to me if I decide to elaborate further on his death. A lot of the time I will respond with “thanks” or “that’s OK” because it is. I mean, it’s not, I would do so many things to get more time with my Dad. To be able to catch up with him and let him know about my experience of living in the country his family had emigrated from when he was in my Nanna’s womb. To be able to talk about food and make sure I wasn’t completely embarrassing the best cook in our family with my simple recipes. But I can’t. That’s a fact.
I am OK. Some days are easier than others and I know that my pain is nothing compared to my Mum’s, who lost the love of her life just as they were finally reaching a life stage where they could start to focus on themselves rather than their children and enjoy their life together.
Some events will make my heart break all over again, father/daughter dances at weddings. But some things make my heart swell with happiness, talking about my Dad with people who loved and knew him, looking at pictures and remember his cheeky side.
Death is a part of life and it fucking hurts when someone you love dies before their time. When it happens people’s words aren’t going to heal you but it’s always nice to know someone cares and is thinking of you.
I don’t think we need to talk about death all the time but it is a part of life. Sometimes, in order to acknowledge and celebrate someone’s life, let’s not change the subject when their death is mentioned.
ps. Sorry Dad, my version of your famous Whiskey Cream Sauce was not up to scratch but I’ll get there one day!