Death No.1 (the small child)
My first acquaintance with Death; the first life-changing meeting that is, was when my second child died at four days old, twenty seven years ago. In his case Death couldn’t wait to jump in and make an unwelcome appearance, on what I mistakenly thought was my life’s stage. (side note: we do like to personify Death, as though casting the world’s greatest vanishing act as human might give us some bargaining power at the end.) ‘Think you’re the star of your own little show do you? he’d whispered (imagine that Death sounds like a villainous and posh Jeremy Irons.) ‘Well, think again. You’ve got as much control over this tragi-comedy you like to call your life, as that fly over there, which I’m about to squish with my Deadly Fly Swatter.’
Death, in his many guises….congenital birth defects; sudden heart attacks; terminal cancers; road accidents; violence…….doesn’t care that you filled yourself with the correct nutrition; didn’t touch a drop of alcohol and went for long walks during your oh so careful pregnancy. He doesn’t care that you ran marathons, watched your cholesterol levels and obsessively monitored your BP. He doesn’t care that you never, knowingly, put a carcinogenic substance in your body; or that you religiously fix your seat belt; or that you take care when out at night. Because Death knows that any attempt to exert control over this random universe is just a powerful illusion, but one strong enough to provide the foundations on which most of us build our precarious lives. And this was the first lesson I learned at the feet of Death.
The loss of the notion that I was in control of my own life had massive and far reaching consequences. And the first was (perversely) a need to hold onto the idea that I could exert some kind of control. So, son no.1, who had previously slept in a room alone (because that’s what the crappy parenting ‘experts’ advised) no longer slept alone. He was monitored continuously. The guilt that maybe I’d not paid enough attention before Death No.1 began to rise to the surface. In fact Time took on biblical proportions. There was the time BD (before death) and the time AD (after death.) The AD time has definitely been spent paying attention.
The way I survive a death is by partially blocking it out. The new born child’s death happened too quickly for the cellular microchips in the brain to get to grips with processing it. I’d brought forth life but instead found myself in the midst of death – to paraphrase – not an easy one to get your head around. The physical and emotional after effects of giving birth were enough to be getting on with, so I hid myself away; refused to go back to the hospital to hold the dying baby (for fear of never letting go) and refused to ‘view’ the tiny dead body, as though he were an interesting artefact on display in a morbid museum.
At the funeral I refused (there was a lot of REFUSING) to chuck handfuls of ‘dust’ into the grave (actually lumps of dirt, bizarrely carried in what looked like an old biscuit tin) at the behest of the father-in-law (whose death I’ll come to.) Imagine being urged to throw topsoil on top of your own child, who’s unbelievably being lowered into a very deep hole in the ground, just three days after he came into this world – that way nightmares lie, and the nightmares (waking and sleeping) do come.
No. Death is final, but I didn’t have to make it final. I didn’t have to throw the first piece of earth which would obliterate my child forever.
And this was the second lesson I learned. Let the bereaved handle death in their own way. Don’t tell them what to do. Don’t tell them how to behave. If they’re blocking it out – fine. If they’re making jokes – fine. If they can’t come out of their room for four days – fine. If they want to distance themselves at the grave side and temporarily exist in a parallel universe, where there’s no death – then fine. It’s all fine………except, of course, it isn’t.
St Paul believed that Death has no dominion. He couldn’t have been more wrong. The third lesson I learned was that Death’s power is absolute; there will be no resurrections. No amount of weeping, fear or anger at an unjust universe is going to bring back the dead. The dead won’t even bother to haunt you, unless it’s in your dreams, or they suddenly turn up in your favourite horror flick. The dead vanish, as though they’d never lived, remaining as memories (if they were lucky to have people around who care enough to remember) and even those memories will fade.
Religions have been founded in the knowledge that Death does have dominion. The only reason Religion exists is because we’re all paralysed with fear at the thought of our own deaths; of the BIG NOTHING. The comforting idea that the believers among us will be effectively immortal, existing in Heaven (or Tian, Svarga Loka, Shamayim, Valhalla, Nirvana) – thanks Wikipedia – is supposed to make us not bother much about dying; but it doesn’t work really does it?
Though I now know that Death takes no prisoners, twenty seven years ago I was determined to put up a fight. The random cruelty of nature wasn’t going to have it all her own way (personification: female.) So, filled with health anxiety of epic proportions; filled with the fear of losing other family members; angry at a cosmic health lottery that allowed a chain smoking, obese woman a street away to churn out four healthy kids; furious with the Christian friend who told me my dead son was in a better place; I decided that the best kick in the face to Death was to keep on bringing forth life; just to spite him.
And son no.2 came along a year later, against all the advice given by the Medics. ‘Not a good idea to replace a dead baby that quickly dear. Another pregnancy could cause physical problems. Your body needs time to adjust,’ said the midwife. ‘You’re not giving yourself time to grieve,’ said the doctor.
This advice was proffered by the same doctor who, in the face of my extreme health anxiety, a week after my baby’s death, had advised, in a strikingly uncaring and impatient tone, that I: ‘learn to recognise the difference between serious and benign illness, you idiot.’ This same doctor had visited my dying son after he was born, and had assured me that the baby was fine, thus displaying a remarkable inability to distinguish between serious and benign illness. And then there was the nursing home, where a locum doctor had been called in, because of my constant whinging that my baby was not ok, and she had picked him up, turned him over, pulled his arms and legs about and pronounced him to be ‘lovely and healthy.’
So Death makes a mockery of the Medics. And I can tell you, with absolute certainty, that all their advice was wrong. The best thing you can do when a baby dies is have another one, and quickly. The medics’ advice was given on the assumption that grief has a time limit. This is rubbish. There’s no expiry date on grief. Another child will give you something else to think about; something else to worry about, whilst the grief and fear (grief is actually fear going by another name) simmer away in the background. And it will also, literally, represent re-birth and new hope (you know, like in Star Wars.)
And that’s lesson number four: the best way to deal with Death is to commit to future life.
(As a deathly side note here. When pregnant with son no.2 I had the misfortune to be seen by a middle-aged gynaecologist at the hospital. He asked his assistant to hand him my notes and read out that I had one son and one who’d died, in a deeply poncey, sonorous voice. ‘Well, she’s proved she can get it right once so I’m sure there’ll be nothing to worry about with this one Eh?’ he’d remarked to the assistant, as though I wasn’t there. I swear to a non-existent God that those were his exact words, etched into my memory forever. If only we could give birth in our 50’s, when we’re blessed with age and the wherewithal to tell the posh professionals to sod off. Home I went, uncharacteristically nurturing a hefty grudge.
A few months later the midwife told me that said gynaecologist had been accidentally shot dead by a ranger whilst on a safari holiday in Africa. Not quite the startlingly surreal cosmic retribution I’d been looking for.)
Death No.2 (the middle-aged woman)
Nearly twenty years ago my mother-in-law died from terminal cancer at the age of 67. Her death taught me all about the significance of numbers.
She died in 1998. The nineties had been our decennium horribilis. In 1990 my son died. In 1993 my mother-in-law was diagnosed with terminal cancer. In 1996 my husband was diagnosed with a severe degenerative disorder. In 1997 son no.3 was taken to hospital with suspected meningitis. In 1998 he was rushed to hospital with pneumonia. In 1998 my mother-in-law died. In 1999 son no.3 suddenly developed Henoch-Schonlein Purpura, a rare blood vessel disorder; such was my terror my GP didn’t tell me what it was until it was over. In 1999 my friend was diagnosed with cancer.
That wasn’t how our thirties were supposed to pan out. The nineties was my ‘lost decade.’ The one where I felt I was living under a curse. The one where my diary reads like a Stephen King novel.
To counter the curse I was lost to superstition: every magpie was saluted; every piece of wood knocked; no ladder was walked under; the beginning of every month was greeted with the words ‘white rabbits,’ to be uttered after midnight and, if I forgot, oh the potential for calamity. This atheist also said a prayer she’d learned when singing with a church choir eons ago, every night silently, so nobody heard. She didn’t feel too bad, being that hypocrisy is rife in the Church. And Christianity just appropriated pagan superstitions anyway, so the poor and downtrodden would convert and toe the line, whilst the clergy fleeced their pockets. (I’ve drifted way too far from the point – you can read about the horror story that was the rise of Christianity elsewhere.)
I was lost to mind-numbing fear: every childhood cold would turn to pneumonia; each new baby would suffer a cot death; every unexplained fever meant leukaemia; every headache meant meningitis or brain tumour.
And I was lost to an absolute dependency on a local GP who, probably unwittingly, saved my soul and my sanity.
That’s not a big ask is it? To send out an SOS to a stranger. To demand that he bear the responsibility for your ability to move forward. That he become your medical watchman. The GP, who squeezed your shoulder in sympathy when they whisked the baby away in an ambulance. The GP who came to see you after the death and said: ‘you knew, didn’t you?’ recognising what every other medic had failed to see. The GP who sat on the very edge of the settee and actually looked devastated, even though he didn’t know you, saying he didn’t know what to say, that the world had been turned upside down, that things would never be the same again – and somehow made those platitudes seem genuine and sincere.
The GP who didn’t talk to you as though you were an uninteresting medical specimen; who didn’t think you were an uneducated dolt; who made unannounced home visits to double check that your offspring’s ailments hadn’t suddenly become serious. Who, when son no.3 developed pneumonia, left his office and drove you to the hospital, parking up in an ambulance space (‘I’m not supposed to do this’) directly in front of the entrance, accompanied you to reception and said your name and your son’s name and every other requested detail (because he knows you stammer) and then escorted you towards the lift and waved helplessly as the doors closed.
Lesson number five: Death can bring strangers together.
Back to the mother-in-law. Through her I also learned to fear numbers. The number 62 stuck in my head. The mother-in-law was diagnosed at 62, a month away from being 63. In my then 31 year old head, I reasoned that 63 was pretty old wasn’t it? She’d had a bit of an innings, unlike my dead son. I had two children to think about and cruelly blocked out her illness. Of course I knew it was happening; I saw the weight loss and the anaemic sunken eyes and the shrinking height but it was too close to the son’s death to, again, fully process it, and too close to the husband’s illness.
I was 37 when she died. She died at 67, a week away from her 68th birthday. She died in a hospice room, pacing the floor in agitation, unable to sit still because of pain, a nurse telling her to sit down repeatedly, as though she were a naughty child (surely there’s no right way to behave when you’re dying?) I was holding a 3 year old and couldn’t stay in the room. My last memory was of the father-in-law saying: ‘I combed your hair didn’t I? I know you like your hair to look nice,’ which was heart breaking, but I only know that now. I remember walking out into the hospice grounds and saying to the husband, ‘if only we were allowed to die outside in the cool, open air, instead of inside a sterile, stifling, impersonal room.’ I’d forgotten all this and now it’s rushing back.
After her death, I remember thinking, ’68, that’s not so bad, nearly 70.’ Trying to reason with myself, trying to make things seem ok. But the number 62 metaphorically hung over my head like a hangman’s noose. As the years advanced I was that much closer to that not so magic number; that much closer to a possible death sentence. And I discovered that 62 wasn’t that old at all. And now I’m only six years away from it; and now I’m old enough to understand what a sainted person the mother-in-law was. How she bravely accepted that her illness was terminal. How she never showed fear or anger when we were around. How she kept up her embroidery (I have three birth samplers she stitched, one during her terminal illness which, in middle-age, I now find I treasure.) How she ate dinner with us all, heroically hiding the nausea and pretending to enjoy every forced mouthful. How she finally succumbed to a wheelchair with dignity, when it had been her greatest fear. And the only thing that really made her weep tears of anguish, at the thought of her enforced separation from this life, was the thought of never seeing her grandchildren again.
But, at the time of her illness, we had been thirty years apart and I’d had callous youth on my side, along with a real anger directed at everything. After her death I dreamed about her frequently, unlike my four day old son whom I’d known nothing about. It was a recurring dream that went on for years. I would be in a strange room full of strangers and family members, and I’d see the mother-in-law come walking through the door, hunched and leaning on her stick. She would stop and point at me saying: ‘you’re the only one who can see me.’ And I’d look around and find it was true.
It took nearly twenty years for me to really ‘see her.’
Lesson number six: Death is heartless and Death is cruel (but so is grief.)
Death No.3 (The Old Man)
My father-in-law died on October 19th 2017. He was 93. His death is the reason for this morbid blog post. A post you might not even get half way through before deciding you’d rather skip over to #imacelebrity. Or you may skip it completely (after all the title’s got very little going for it) thinking, well this isn’t going to be a laugh a minute is it? Where’s the jollity, considering Christmas is just around the corner. No, this doesn’t go well with a cup of tea and a biscuit at all.
It’s been nearly thirty years since I first became acquainted with Death on an acutely personal level, and the last twenty years have been like that parallel universe, at the grave side, where tragic or unexpected Deaths didn’t exist. But now the father-in-law is dead and his disappearance has triggered the same old feelings. The health anxiety is sort of back. The feeling that no-one is safe is back. The spectre that haunts us all is back. But this time it’s different. The sadness is different. At his funeral there was no anger; no raging against the dying of the light; no blocking it out. I could gaze at the coffin without flinching, but still feel the shock that that wooden box had anything to do with my father-in-law at all. I could sing the hymns with an unwavering voice. I could listen to the eulogy without sniffling, because it turns out that numbers really are all important.
He was 93. Life had not been prematurely snatched from his grasp. He’d seen his grandchildren reach adulthood. He knew of their achievements, proudly displaying their degree photographs in the care home he landed up in for a month: ‘my grandchildren are all very clever you know.’ He’d been spared illness, only succumbing to mild dementia a couple of years ago. The death certificate sited ‘bronchial pneumonia’ as cause of death, when he’d died peacefully in his sleep – no coughing, no gasping for breath – but you’ve got to type something. Out of interest, why don’t they just put: Cause of Death – well, he was 93 wasn’t he?
The father-in-law faced death as he’d faced everything else in his life. With good humour, courage, strength and independence (and a brain that was a little addled.) He was exhausted. He was slowly fading. There was no pain, no agitation, the addled brain was, in fact, a blessing. The father-in-law said he’d had a good life. A couple of months before he went in the home we’d taken him out for lunch, and he’d swigged his wine back, laughed and said: ‘that was smashing.’ He was still laughing the last time I saw him, six days before he died.
(A few years ago, during one of our good-hearted ‘spats’, he’d threatened to come back and haunt me. I wrote on my funeral ‘In Memory’ card: ‘Don’t forget you promised to haunt me – you’ll always be welcome, if you can find a way back’ (as of yet, he hasn’t managed it)
Lesson number seven: sometimes death is as easy as taking a nap.
The husband visited his Dad in the care home every day and this is Death’s final lesson. I now really know that I have the best husband in the world. That sounds like the trite sort of thing you’d find on a greeting card or a mug. But Death taught me that you’d have to extend your search to the known universe and beyond before you’d find a better man (or alien) than him. Because two thirds of these deaths and two thirds of the grief were more properly his. I was just on the side lines. And yet I was the one selfishly tormented by hypochondria, fear and blinding anger; blaming this, that and the other, whilst the husband just got on with it; grieving, but doing so with quiet dignity and unstated sadness, not wanting to inflict that sadness onto those around him. Because he instinctively knows Death’s hardest lesson – that life is for the living. With each death the clocks didn’t stop; the telephone still rang; nobody in the streets wore black armbands; the stars continued to shine and the sun and moon rose and set in their endless cycles. There was, in fact, barely a blip on Life’s radar.
So, on some level, you must ‘put away’ the dead, in order to survive. That’s why we have the ceremonies and the rituals. That’s why I chucked out every baby item when my son died. It’s why the father-in-law rapidly gave me all his old photo albums (I accepted) and offered me his wife’s dresses (I declined) after she died. Because, however grief stricken you are; however pointless life seems when a loved one dies; unlike them, you still have the gift of feelings (however brutal those feelings are.) You have the ability to move forward. You can still wake up to the sunrise. You can still watch the sunset. You can gape in wonder at a yellow full moon on the horizon. You can go for grief stricken walks and gradually notice, again, how beautiful nature is; even if you spend most of your time railing against nature’s random cruelty. You will suddenly understand, with absolute clarity, how precious and fragile Life is, and you will determine to make the most of whatever time is left, never ever taking even the smallest thing for granted.
Dumbledore was wrong: pity yourself in your grief, but pity the dead more.
And still, even though I’ve faced up to countless half-forgotten, and present, demons in writing this lengthy post, in which Death has a starring role; I still don’t believe in him – not really. As Terry Pratchett once wrote: ‘life is a habit that’s hard to break.