OK not the cheeriest topic but something that has been with me recently so this posts theme!
Maybe the reason I am apologising first says something about the way we deal or don’t deal with the topic more generally. I consider myself quite lucky that in my 32 years I have not experienced much loss. I lost a grandparent in my early 20’s when I was emotionally in a place that I didn’t really engage with the grief or loss at the time, or maybe it was a coping mechanism. More recently, I have experienced the loss of my Aunt Helen. We passed the first anniversary of her death last month.
I think that in grief we feel the wider impact of the loss as well as the loss of a person. What this loss means for different people around you and what it means for the future, relationships and the social spheres we move in all play a part in your overall experience. I’m not sure it is particularly age related but being who I am now made the experience of death very different, that is as much about the difference in the relationships I have now as how I understand my ‘self’.
This September I attended another funeral, of my Aunt Kath, at the same crematorium where a year ago we said goodbye to Helen. It was like doing it all again in some ways but once the ceremony began I became more of a spectator of other people’s grief. I had an unusual physical position in this setting adding to the feeling of ‘spectator’. The amount of people at the funeral meant that my Dad and I were stood up, near the front of the room, this meant we were looking back at those who were seated You couldn’t look down and disappear in the crowd, but were faced with the expressions and interactions of other people and their grief. From this position it struck me how interesting it is, how we shape these ceremonies, how we choose the tone and content of them. The contrast of religious and more secular content is fascinating. As the celebrant (humanist name for the person leading a ceremony) said “we have a wonderful freedom to make the ceremony personal”. This freedom made the ceremony special with my cousin speaking about her mum including memories of the past and more recent times. Then another cousin’s daughter read a poem about her feelings and memories, including making jam tarts with her Nan; it was personal and a special moment. Although the celebrant stated that this wasn’t a religious ceremony as my aunt “did not follow any structured religion” there was a Christian hymn that everyone sang; a well known song to anyone brought up anywhere near the Church of England. I don’t follow any religion either, but there was something positive and embracing about a group of people singing together. Although religious ceremonies are personal, a Humanist ceremony becomes completely about the person and the people close to them.
I have had a few discussions with my Mom…
about what she would want when the day comes, and I agree with her that this is an important conversation to have. It seems important that the individual should choose how any ritual takes place and carrying out these wishes for them can play a part in grieving as well as the processes we go through as a result of our cultural norms. It also hopefully saves an argument (discussion!) about what should happen when they’re gone and not there to ask any more. Because that is when you might just realise that you don’t know what they wanted and I can only imagine feeling even sadder as a result.
My cousin who spoke at last months cremation said that although her mum couldn’t talk to her any more she could still listen and that really sums it up for me, whoever we have lost they can still listen, not literally, but they can still be present to us. By us talking about them and to them people stay alive and present to us.
and parts of China ‘Sky Burial‘ is not uncommon, the deceased are taken to the mountain top, there is a ceremony, they are cut into smaller pieces and vultures are allowed to eat the body. I saw this on a documentary once, quite shocking at first you think, but as a part of these actions are ideas about the soul being taken to the heavens by the birds who represent angels, and in practical terms, there is no need for the land that graveyards take up or using scarce fuel for fires. If you think about our methods from the outside; being burnt in a box or buried in the ground in one don’t sound much more pleasant. It’s just how we think about what we do as normal or acceptable.
I like to try to think like an outsider, as if I have never heard of the things-that I know well-before or otherwise imagine how it would be to do things completely differently. It helps to imagine yourself as really small, a tiny dot in a huge world of ‘other’ things, other people and other planets.
Lie on the floor in your house, anywhere it doesn’t matter where. Imagine you are just in that room there is nothing else, now imagine you are just within the house, now just within the street, the town, the city, the country and the world…slowly with each one use your imagination to conjure up an image of yourself, just you in each of these places lay down as you are. Now look at yourself from above. Your final image is yourself lying on the surface of planet earth moving slowly through space (or fast depending on your image!). I find this really grounding, I am me but I am part of all that and I can look at myself and others from another perspective.
A piece from Bulgaria…
Some of you will know that I am currently in Sofia, Bulgaria undertaking some research for my Masters course, I’ve been here since the beginning of October. I am working with the rather brilliant For Our Children Foundation. On day two of my work there, I had the opportunity to shadow two social workers as they visited families who are receiving support from the Foundation. The families we visited are all part of the Roma community in Sofia, some families live in state housing and others have built their own homes in the same area. There was a variant of conditions here, from huge 4 storey villas with elaborate gates, to small one room homes made from pallet wood and some bricks (these were both part of the self built area). Whatever the difference in housing here, it is the case that almost every family has lost a young child- they have died in early childhood because of health complications. The reasons for this are complex and I am not going to start any depth of analysis now as it would deserve more space and time. However, it was clear to me that the clashes in cultures and barriers this brought to accessing health care here contributed to families experiencing the death of their small children on a regular basis from complications that we would consider to be routinely dealt with. The social workers I was with encourage families to access health care by advising them on the system and, for example, the benefits of immunisation. They have also worked with mobile health units who visit the area to carry out testing for blood borne diseases recently.
Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. It wasn’t what I expected after reading some of her journals years ago. I didn’t realise it was a novel until I started reading. It was a novel, but it was a most fantastic description and narrative on depression. It was also a statement about the medical treatment given to women with depression in the US at that time, it is set in the 1950’s, but I feel it is relevant to other places and the modern day too. The book deals with issues of suicide, death and suicidal thoughts as a part of depression and anxiety disorders. I ‘enjoyed’ reading it, with the literary and poetic skill of Sylvia Plath it was a pleasure as well as a pain.
I came across these two blogs this week first from charliesotherangel a beautifully articulate blog on loosing someone and forgiving them too and second from live to write-write to live about writing through grief.
So that’s me on death for now! For the record you can cremate me and scatter me off the back of Hanbury Church hill over the fields. I know it’s a church and I am not religious, but it is an amazing view, a quiet and calm place and its home, anyway if you scatter me over the fence I will be on common land! As ever I’d love to hear your thoughts on this blog and you can share your wisdom in the comments section below.