Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come. W.H. Auden
I was watching a television program tonight on ABC (in Australia) called Q&A. One of the topics up for debate was death. They touched briefly on a subject that is really close to my heart and that is the sanitisation of death in the Western World. The distance that society puts between us and the death & burial process. The outsourcing of death to an industry that will make sure you’re not bothered by the unpleasant details.
I have spoken openly about this to anyone who will listen and today, it’s your turn to hear it. I truly believe that the way we deal with, or should I say, don’t deal with death, is one of the biggest causes of illnesses brought on by grief not being processed or dealt with.
We are told by society that we should step aside and let a professional do the unpleasant work for us. But is it really so unpleasant? Maybe if I was preparing someone I didn’t known for burial it would be an awful task but when it’s someone I know and love who has passed away, is it still unpleasant? Uncomfortable, no doubt. Confronting, definitely. But your choice? Absolutely. Of course, also your right not to do it if you don’t want to.
When my daughter Aimee died, I felt like I was completely left out of the loop. That was my little girl and from the moment she stopped breathing, she was in the hands of other people. Firstly the coroner held her body until they’d done an autopsy. She was then released to the funeral parlour. Then she was buried. Not one moment of that time was she just my little girl. I wasn’t allowed to touch her much when she was with the coroner and when the funeral parlour took over, they prepared her for burial. I had an hour or two where I could hold her hand while she was in the coffin but even then, I shared that time with other grievers.
As fantastic a job as the funeral parlour did, I felt and still feel that it was MY right to prepare her for burial. It was my right as her mother to bath her, wash her hair and dress her. Of course, I couldn’t have done all the necessary things that funeral parlours do but I could have done some of it. I was completely aware of the fact that she would have scars from an autopsy but she was mine. I would have been focussed on her, not the scars. Acutely aware I’m sure but still focussed on her.
Many years ago we had a bush nurse in our town. Sister Getsom was an older British nurse who visited the sick and injured instead of or in conjunction with a doctor. She did what community nurses do now I guess though she did so much that was probably not in her job description. She was the person that the town preferred to turn to as she just knew it all. I was a little bit scared of her as a kid but I also really liked her.
The day my beloved Gargie died, we called Sister down as she had been visiting every day to help Mum care for her. She came in, checked Gargie for vital signs, gently told Mum what she already knew and then proceeded to do all the things she needed to do. She told Dad to call the funeral parlour and then told Mum to come and help lay Gargie out. Mum was horrified. She didn’t think she could do it.
The bush nurse had very different ideas and told Mum it was the most natural thing on earth and that she had been doing all the same things daily that she was going to do now. Mum reluctantly went in to help her. Together, they washed her, changed her nightie to a nice fresh one, brushed her hair, made sure her gnarled old limbs, bent and twisted with painful arthritis were finally straight and even. By the time the funeral parlour came to take her body, Gargie was looking like she was just sleeping peacefully.
Mum always said it was the best thing she’d done. It helped her deal with losing her adored mother. She realised in that time helping get her ready, that Gargie was free from pain and finally able to skip the path she always promised she would when she got to Heaven. A job she was extremely hesitant to do became one of the great privileges of Mum’s life.
It was then my privilege to hold her in my arms when she too passed over, many years later. Caring for her while she was sick and then having her slip peacefully away in my arms was an amazing experience. The only scary thing about it was knowing I would no longer have my rock by my side. The actual experience of watching her take her last breath was not at all scary. It was a natural progression. She was there when I took my first breath and I was there when she took her last. The circle of life.
I have written before about how we are expected to condense a loved one’s life in 5 minutes. We are not encourage to eulogise their lives ourselves or to do anything remotely personal. Let the professionals do those jobs. Take the personal out of it. Well, maybe it’s just my Irish heritage mixed with my Australian roots that make me think that a goodbye should be a way to honour someone’s life. It should be personal. It should be a party. There should be laughter. There should be tears. Life is one amazing ride. It should be a celebration.
The death of someone you love is without doubt, one of the toughest things you will ever face but it is also inevitable. Where there is life, there must be death, eventually. It is not always natural, it is not always expected but it is always a part of the life process. So I honestly don’t understand why we have made it such a taboo subject. Why are we taught to fear it so much?
If we had a better, more involved part in it, maybe it wouldn’t feel so unnatural. It’s going to hurt, of course, but maybe it wouldn’t be so scary. Perhaps it would help if a grieving person was involved in the process instead of being excluded from it. I can’t help but think that it’s the non-involvement that the Western world insists on that is so damaging. I think we could accept it a lot more if we were part of the process.
We have finally learned as a society, that parents of babies born sleeping are much better off if they are allowed to spend as much time with that baby as possible. Taking that precious angel away from them and pretending it never existed is not going to lessen their pain. Being allowed to hold and touch that baby will not lessen their pain either, but it will burn indelible memories onto their heart. They have time to take photos with their baby. They have time to study every inch of their face, committing it to memory forever. It is an essential part of the grieving process.
One day I had a daughter. Then she died. Five days later she was buried. I was not part of those five days. I was not part of the process. I was not with her for her last five days on earth. I know she was no longer there, but if I’d been part of the process, perhaps I wouldn’t have felt so excluded from her. If I’d been allowed to hold her and kiss her and spend time with her, maybe I wouldn’t have felt so helpless as a mother. Maybe if I’d been allowed to bath her and dress her, I would have felt like I was doing the last physical thing I could do for her.
Exclusion from the process does not work. We know this yet we still live in a society that wants to sanitise death. We live in a society where we outsource it to an industry. A society that gives us a few days to grieve then it’s back to normal, thank you very much. Our mental health system is breaking under the weight of people who can’t cope with the death of a loved one, so they either fall apart or self medicate to ease the pain. Perhaps if they were encouraged to be part of it and allowed time to grieve, their lives might return to normal quicker, albeit it with a heavier heart than before.
There is no easy way out of grief. Nothing will heal it except time. The pain never goes away but it does become bearable eventually. I’m not suggesting for one moment that being involved is going to take that pain away or even lessen the severity of it but it may make acceptance a little easier. It may take some of the fear away. It may make the bereaved feel like they did something for their loved one. It may even help.
Happy living… Livvy xxx