Lesson 31: giving death a voice

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What do you say to someone when they tell you a loved one has died?

What do you wish people would say to you?

If there’s one life lesson worth sharing, surely it has to be this? It’s the hardest thing to think about, let alone talk about, but how are we meant to even begin to understand something we very rarely confront?

I am not a councillor and I do not have lots of experience dealing with grief, but I do have a strong belief that words can make you feel better. The mantra and purpose of my blog is to connect people through the shared experiences we don’t always draw attention to, and I think one of hardest things about grief, is that we do not talk about dying enough. It’s a terrifying taboo not worth thinking about, so no wonder we struggle the way we do when we lose someone close. The other side of the coin, of course, is that there’s always a danger of obsessing over death. The final-ness of death can consume you if you let it. Most of us choose to brush the idea under the carpet until we really have to face it.

Earlier this year, when I started to struggle more and more with OCD, I thought about dying all the time. More precisely, I worried about dying all the time. It snuck up on me on the tube, in the shower, in the middle of the night: “one day you won’t be here… one day so and so will die… this time 2 years ago so and so was here…” and it provoked panic. Therapy quickly taught me that really, there is no point in worrying, or panicking, or dwelling, because it won’t change a thing. In many ways this is reassuring, but in others it’s the foundation of the problem. We are completely and utterly ruled by nature. We have next to no control when it comes to death, and that’s what’s so scary.

We do, however, have full control when it comes to life. So, the one true way to stare death in the face? Simply, to live the best life you can.

A full and beautiful life isn’t just happiness and rainbows; it is catastrophe, sadness, anger, heartbreak and all the extremes that make us the emotional humans we are. To live a life without the negative is not living, it is half living. All these fiery, dramatic, powerful emotions make us feel alive. They’re difficult to process and cope with, but they’re integral to the human condition, particularly where love is concerned. Perhaps this is why when we grieve, we experience every catastrophic emotion there is. The person we loved and lost casts us on a journey through what it means to live, and what it means to love. It is painful, but to experience it means you have truly lived, and that is a blessing. You were brave enough to love someone so much that you ran the risk of inflicting this much pain on yourself in return. Being prepared to die for someone is the same as being prepared to grieve for someone; and both are the bravest declarations of love you can make.

But how does knowing this help with anything? Understanding grief does little to help you through it. And in all honesty, grief never really goes. It fades, sure, but it will linger for as long as you love that person. The trick is learning to comfort yourself rather than taunt yourself with ‘what ifs’. Your mind and memory will take you on a journey through time, always dumping you in the present with a big hole in your heart. My advice to you is to fill that hole with stories. Say them out loud, write them down and share them with people who care about you. Keep that person’s voice alive. Make it your duty to protect their memory.

Talking about death is integral to coping with grief. It also encourages us to fear the unknown a little less. This is what I tell myself when thoughts of death catch me off guard – I hope it comforts you too:

“…You know that moment when you start drifting off to sleep? It’s by far the most peaceful, welcoming feeling you ever experience. Your eyes are heavy and your body happily succumbs to the beckoning quiet. You want nothing but darkness and nothing else matters…”

That is how I imagine death to feel. Death is remaining in that blissful, content couple of seconds just before we fall sleep, handing ourselves over because it feels irresistibly natural. Maybe that’s why the dead visit us in our dreams. What if, when you die, you become the essence of a feeling? And what if you can’t quite settle into being the essence of peacefulness until the people who love you feel peaceful?

Last night, I dreamt that I had my purse stolen. My Granddad, my Dad’s dad, was in my dream, trying to help me find it. Oddly enough, I woke up to a text from my Dad (who is currently is Japan) saying that he’d had his wallet stolen. It was weird enough that I had experienced the same anguish and frustration asleep as my Dad had when he was awake, but it was even weirder that my Dad’s dad was there to comfort me. This was just a strange coincidence, but I can’t help but believe that maybe there are all sorts of different energies and forces we don’t understand. Our sensitivity to the people we love is much stronger than we realise. Who’s to say that bond is broken after we die?

Death, like anything traumatic and confusing, needs a narrative, even if the narrative is just a big open space that we write ‘who knows?’ in. Because, like life, maybe death can be whatever you want it to be.

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