Rage, rage against the dying of the light

I was recently reading an article about the Australian writer Cory Taylor and her book, Dying: A Memoir.  In it the writer of the article, Alice O’Keeffe asked what we should do if we don’t have the consolation of a religious belief about the after life.  She wrote that:

“The rest of us need to know how to go about dying with some dignity and grace…”.  

Now this sentence struck a real element of discord with me.  Why do we have to aspire to die with dignity and grace?  This reminded me of the women who are held up as marvellous examples because they went through childbirth without a murmur or breaking a sweat whilst the rest of us puffed and farted and screamed our way through it.  Why does death have to be “dignified“?  I feel that this pressure to be calm, unemotional and serene through major events is so sterile.  What’s wrong with a bit of passion and expression when we are undergoing life’s big events?  My worry is that the need to be serene may preclude a dying person’s opportunity to be happy as well as sad: to be laughing and crying.

Dylan Thomas wrote his great poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night to say that it’s OK to be angry – it’s OK to rage at the end of your life and express your desire to stay a little longer.  Maybe having a bit of a rant will be cathartic and help you move towards accepting what is inevitable.

“Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

 Because their words had forked no lightning they

 Do not go gentle into that good night.”

 

 

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Lessons from our parents

This week the actor Kirk Douglas is celebrating his 100th birthday.  In the Los Angeles Times David Wolpe writes about studying the bible with Douglas over the last 20 years and how this has provoked some interesting conversations.  It was during one of these conversations that Douglas talked about sitting with his mother at the end of her life nearly 75 years ago. As he held her hand she told him not to be afraid, that everyone dies. The normalising of death must have offered some consolation to him. And this made me think about the messages  we receive from our parents about death.

With hind sight I realise that many of my parents’ siblings (there were over 20 of them and my parents were the youngest in their families) died without us children even knowing.  My parents obviously thought we didn’t need to know! We didn’t see much of them so their absence from our lives didn’t really register.  I was aged 13 when my grandmother died but there was no question that we children attended the funeral – my father believed very firmly that this was no place for children.  In fact, when my mother told me that her mother had died I remember it almost being mentioned in passing without any emotion.  I had only ever seen my 94 year-old grandma in a nursing home bed where we were made to visit a couple of times a year and it would be honest to say that I didn’t have any strong attachment to her. (I realise how callous this seems but it was a combination of my upbringing and the selfishness of a teenager.)  I’m sure that this approach led me to believe that death was something taboo, something not to  be spoken about and not to allow children to be around.  On the other hand a couple of years later when our very elderly dog died I was really upset but my father told me not to be so stupid as it was “bound to happen” because he was so old. So now I knew that death was taboo but not something to get all emotional about!!

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Talking to friends I’ve learnt that this wasn’t uncommon in British society.  My peers have talked about also being excluded from funerals and families not wanting to talk about the loss of family members.  One friend even discovered years later that her mother’s “difficult” years were due to a late miscarriage that devastated her but of which her daughter was completely unaware. I’m sure there was no grief counselling for her mother either.

Having thought about this I’ve realised that I’ve partially perpetuated this with my son. We didn’t talk about death much at all and although he attended a funeral of a family member he knew very well when he was 12 I know that we didn’t talk about death and dying in any deep way.  So it is small wonder that now that I want to talk about my Advance Directive and my will he is incredibly reluctant to discuss it.  I feel I have done us both a disservice.  What I would want to say to him is that death is normal and its nothing to be afraid of: I’m not leaving you but just going off on a big new adventure.

I’d be really interesting to read of your experiences growing up and what messages you got from those around you.

A message to those you leave behind

In 2013  a man received a message from his late wife who had died two years earlier.  She had entrusted the letter to her best friend and had asked that it be read out to him if he found  a new love.  In it she told him that he had her blessing and she also spoke to his new fiancee thanking her for looking after her young children and wishing them both happiness together. In 2015 a young woman found out that she had terminal cancer shortly after giving birth so she made a short film which would be shown to her daughter when she was older.  In it she talks about herself and her hopes for her daughter.

In the last century we have had lots of ways of speaking from beyond the grave.  At one time this might have been by letter (if you could write) but in recent times this has multiplied into anything from digital legacies to texts as well as old fashioned Super 8 film.  Our desire to hear from the dead might even mean that we keep phoning them so we can hear their recorded voice speaking on the answering machine. In this day and age its not surprising that there is even a website that will promise to send an email from beyond the grave on your behalf!

So if you could speak after you’ve gone, who would you speak to and what would you say? The obvious one for me would be to speak to my son.  But when I think about it I’d hope that I have said almost everything I need to say to him in person.  He knows how much I love him, how proud of him I am and how I want him to live his life entirely his own way.  I’ve even told him that if I leave him money he should not fret about how he spends it – he can be wise or foolish with it and most especially not feel guilty about gaining any benefits financially by my dying.

Other than this I don’t have any profound or lasting words for the world I’d be leaving.  I’d love to be able to say “make peace and be kind” but I’m not an influential person so who’d care?  I don’t have any special insights into the world and I’m not a creative or literary person whose legacy will be in my art or writings; certainly much smarter and wittier people have said it better before me. But if I did want to say one thing to those I’d leave behind it would be:

Thanks for everything.  I’ve had the best possible life and I will miss you all.