Thanks to COVID-19, this has been a year of reflection for all of us. Whilst many of us still have our health and are doing everything we can to protect ourselves, our family and our community, others have sadly lost their lives to the virus through no fault of their own.
It has certainly been a time to ponder the meaning of life and I wonder how many of us have said goodbyes to loved ones trying to socially distance around in graveyards and crematoria. Whether huddled around a granite memorial or watching a funeral procession from a distance, we seem to have lost the right to say goodbye.
This makes grieving harder, I think. Deprived, not only of saying farewell to relatives but also of solace and comfort from fellow mourners from whom we have to stay apart.
This year I lost a close friend who I had known for over 30 years and weekly I hear of others in our community who have passed away. To have your life curtailed by this virus seems incredibly unfair.
The young rarely think of death. You consider yourself immortal in your youth, don’t you? Older people tend to prepare for death and accept the event as a natural and inevitable occurrence but that does not make it any easier to deal with!
Experience and reality have tempered their emotions. Whilst they may hold on to grief and past hurts, they are able to weigh these against the positive aspects of their lives – their family, their loves, their personal and professional successes. Some are more concerned to outlast their friends
I fully admit to being scared of death and all the other emotions that come with it – sadness, pain, empathy and love. I can quite understand why many are only able to say goodbye to relatives once they have passed away.
The author Kathryn Mannix has written a brilliant book “With The End In Mind: How To Live And Die Well” which tells the stories of patients who have passed away and how they made their peace with dying.
Mannix spent 30 years in palliative care whilst working in hospices, hospitals and the homes of her patients enabling those with life-limiting illnesses to make the very best of the time left to them. This is a book which educates as well as comforts and is well worth a read.
The other thing to remember is that grieving is not a linear process. In her book “On Death And Dying”, Elisabeth Kublar-Ross talks about the five stages of grieving that people go through.
- Denial and isolation
The dying, as well as those who love them, go through these stages although rarely at the same time and these stages are not predictable.
It is possible to move between these phases and there is no ‘right’ amount of time to spend in each phase. Telling people that they should have got over their loss is not helpful and is, in any case, insensitive.
That said, we do all have the ability to choose our thoughts and how we process our emotions so, while you might miss someone, it is not inevitable that you have to grieve in the way most of us think of it. You can see this by considering the different approaches to death and burial in other countries where a funeral is closer to a celebration, for example in Jamaica where the event involves food, dancing, rum and sharing stories about the deceased.
Grieving is, in many ways our best attempt to keep that person alive in our thoughts. It is a way of proving to ourselves and others how much we cared – and how much we may need their support now while we come to terms with our loss – if we can.
There may be frequent trips to the cemetery, conversations with the deceased and constant talking about the one who’s gone. The road back to some sense of ‘normality’ may be a long one and impossible without a daily reminder of our loved one.
Some place ashes in a necklace, some set up scholarships or memorials. Others plant trees or donate engraved seats and benches. There are all kinds of creative ways to keep a loved one’s memory alive. If it brings comfort to the bereaved then those around them should support it. Patience and understanding are needed for those coming back from grief.
However we choose to remember those we have lost, we should not judge ourselves.
The last stage of grief is acceptance where we start to feel better and return to a normal life and in that acceptance lies the reality that death is a part of l. In acceptance there’s healing as in acceptance, there’s reality that death is a part of life.
So where does death take us? Depending on your beliefs it could be to the end of a journey or the beginning of a new one.
If you were to have a tombstone, what would it read?
I particularly love the words on the late Spike Milligan’s grave which lies in a quiet churchyard in Winchelsea. The inscription, which is in Gaelic, says “I told you I was ill!”
You may prefer something less light-hearted – perhaps about how honest and caring you were, or about the positive difference you may to others’ lives.
See that’s the thing. We can’t do a lot about death but we can endeavour to lead our best lives and have a positive impact on others – even if we only have a little time to do that.