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!!
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.