Fascination with the undead

Over the last two month I’ve been box-setting (yes, I know its not really a verb) The Walking Dead even though  I’ve never been the biggest fan of stories about the undead. I’ve seen my fair share of zombie and vampire movies but i have to admit that ghost stories really spook me.  And it set me to wondering why we love stories and movies about the restless dead so much?

Throughout history and in many cultures around the world there are tales and religions built on the notion that we don’t really disappear completely when we appear to have breathed our last. Last year I was on a trip to Namibia where I visited a tribe who considered themselves to be Christians but where the eternal flame within the sacred circle was kept alight to worship their ancestors because they felt they still walked amongst them. They saw no conflict in maintaining both beliefs.

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The wife of a Herero Chief guarding the flame

 

I wonder if it is a response to the difficulty in letting go of the person that has died.  But then why are they so horrible? In The Walking Dead everyone who becomes a zombie is instantly a killing machine with the sole focus of eating the face off everyone else.  I can’t see that this is a consoling image! And ghosts are always mean. If I’m going to hang around and haunt anyone I know it will be because I love them so much that I can’t bear to go rather than that I want to frighten the bejesus out of them.

The image of the vampire in stories like the Twilight series is much more my cup of tea. Enigmatic, moody and sexy. What’s not to like?

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Bella admiring her vampire self

We can only wonder at what was going through Bram Stoker’s mind when he wrote Dracula or Mary Shelley’s mind when she wrote Frankenstein.  Its not like they had access to Netflix or Sky in the 1800s to stimulate their imaginations.

I think the most interesting aspect of this fascination is focusing on the point at which we move from being alive to being dead and what that means. Is it even a simple dichotomy? If a zombie has the body but not the mind of a human being does it still count as human?  Clearly not in The Walking Dead as they consider it unethical to kill someone living but they’re blasting away at the zombies like it’s a video game.  And ghosts have the mind of a person but only a wispy, usually white, transparent shadow of a body left. Maybe we need both mind and body to be considered alive but what about the soul? At a Death Cafe recently we had a very lively discussion about what is the essence of self: does anything we do or create or buy or say make a difference to what is at the heart of who we are? Or is all this fixed at birth and nothing we can do changes this? Opinions were diverse and strong on this!

I have talked to others about observing the death of a person and we all agreed that there is something instantly different about a body in the minutes after someone has died. I could only describe it as one minute they were there and the next minute they, well, just weren’t. Maybe this is what we subconsciously feel is the point at which the soul has left the body.  And without witnessing it myself I’m not sure I would have believed it.  However I would hasten to add for anyone who is worried about this that it wasn’t supernatural or spooky but rather reassuring and comforting. I now just had a body to deal with: the person I loved had gone. Well at least so far they haven’t reappeared as a zombie and I’d be delighted to get a visit from them if they decide to float by as a ghost!

 

 

Appearance on Radio Bristol

From 30th March to 2nd April 2017 there will be a festival called Life, Death (and the Rest) at Arnos Vale Cemetery in Bristol, UK.  As part of this I will be hosting a Death Cafe on Saturday, 1st April 2017 at 2pm and I will be around all day on Sunday 2nd April 2017 to talk about the work of death doulas and associated agendas.  In support of the festival I was invited on to Radio Bristol alongside a representative from Arnos Vale.  I was happy to talk about the role of Death Cafes as well as giving some examples of the work I’ve done as a death doula. If you’d like to listen to this you will find it at 24 minutes in until 45 minutes on this podcast.

Doing publicity, newsletters, visits, managing correspondence and, yes, writing a blog are all part of what I do to promote the agenda of talking about death and dying.  Sometimes it feels like a lot of work for a small impact but I’d like to think that this movement striving to remove the taboo around death is slowly building momentum and it is all these small contributions made around the country by all the “death activists” (not really comfortable with that term) that add up to change. I’d like to think that in 10 years time we will all have an Advanced Directive outlining what we want when we are in our final days tucked away in our private papers and our loved ones will know exactly what we want when the time comes. And we wont be able to understand why there was a time when this wasn’t the case.

Tea, Cake and Death

In September 2016 I wrote about Death Cafes and how I’d like to run one.  Since then I have been holding a 2-monthly Death Cafe in Bristol and I thought I’d like to give some feedback for anyone thinking of holding one where you live.  General advice can be found at the Death Cafe website but here are some extra thoughts from me:

1. First and foremost, it is a real challenge to find the right venue that is accessible to everyone, e.g no stairs.  It needs to serve up tea and cake, be on bus routes, have little or no charge, be available at the time you want it and not be linked to an organisation or institution which might give the wrong impression of the meeting.  (This is why I tend to avoid church halls as I don’t want to give the impression that it is a religious event.) Most commercial cafes are reluctant to set aside a section of their premises when you can’t guarantee a) how many will turn up and b) whether they will spend any money. You will need to bear in mind that having really tried to cover every base, at every meeting someone will tell you how you should have found somewhere better. There will always be someone who doesn’t like the time of day, the day of the week or the cost of the sandwiches.

2. You need to work out how you will publicise the event.  In these modern times this generally means social media.  I create a Facebook event and send out an e-newsletter to a mailing list that has been established over the last few years. If you can attach a poster that is helpful and I send out reminders nearer the time. The advantage of the Facebook event is meant to be that you can see how many are expected and prime your venue to be ready for how many will attend. But (and this is a big BUT) this has proven to be totally unreliable for me.  At least half of them will not turn up and others will wander in announcing they hadn’t said they were coming.  So far these two groups have cancelled each other out so I haven’t been embarrassed at the venue when they have brought in extra staff.  In my opinion it is the down side of not charging people – they are much more relaxed about changing their minds at the last minute because they wont be out of pocket but very frustrating from an administrative point of view. And having spent so much time tracking down the right venue, you really want to keep them happy!

Friends girls

3. Having more than one table is a gamble if you want to be a full participant yourself. Recently I could hear another table getting a bit heated and had to try to monitor it whilst listening to someone speaking at my table.  Luckily it settled down. The bigger the number of tables the more likely you are to have to float a bit to check everyone is okay. I try to avoid becoming an informal chair to my table although participants often look to me for affirmation or information. It is meant to be self-managed with each participant taking an equal responsibility for what is discussed and how much each contributes. Having said that, as hosts we have a responsibility for the event to go well and to ensure that everyone enjoys it.

4. As there will always be someone new in the group I have a bit of preamble that I say at the beginning of each meeting.  It covers the history of Death Cafes (briefly, honest) and lays out a few rules concerning listening respectfully, giving everyone space to contribute and confidentiality (I usually use this point to ask if there are any journalists present). My view of confidentiality is that whilst you hope people will respect what others share, it cannot be guaranteed. I remind participants of this and ask that if they talk about the session outside of the venue they do not say anything that would identify an individual. After all we want people to take these discussion back to their friends and families as part of the movement to make talking about death and dying less of a taboo. I remind people that this is not a bereavement support group although members may talk about grief and loss – if anyone needs information about where to get support I have that information to hand.

5. I try to discourage people from “popping in”. Because of the nature of discussions, it can be hard for everyone if someone arrives late and/or leaves in the middle. There will be occasions when it is unavoidable but if I’m asked in advance I suggest they try to come when they can stay for the whole meeting.

6. I make sure that there are note pads and pencils on each table so people can make notes if they want.  I think it helps them to allow a discussion to flow, knowing they can come back to an earlier point if they want to.

notepad

7. Having done the introductory comments I explain that we will have a minute’s silence to help us come “into the room”; to leave outside some of our other issues such as work, parking, babysitters.  I have a small bell that I ring when this is finished and they will have been asked that on hearing this they can start their discussion with introducing themselves and saying what brought them to Death Cafe. At the end I have a short plenary in case anyone has any thoughts they’d like to share with the other tables before another minute’s silence to prepare to go back to their often busy lives. I think this nicely bookends the meeting.

8. From time to time I get requests to attend from people who have another agenda, e.g. students doing research, journalists, GP training. As the group is open to everyone and we do want to get the word out as much as possible my response tends to be that they can come but they have to do so as participants: it is not appropriate to just sit back and “study” the group. So far, they have either chosen not to come or have come, taken part and loved it.

There are so many different themes and characters at each meeting that I love running Death Cafe. I would urge anyone to have a go if they fancy it. What’s the worst that could happen? No-one turns up and you have to eat all the cake yourself!

Making hard work out of retirement

If you are lucky and live a fairly healthy life you should enjoy a period of retirement between finishing work outside the home and dying.  Governments are constantly reminding us to make proper provision so that we can enjoy this period of rest and relaxation but there is not much written about how to prepare mentally or emotionally. Personally I spent the last few years of my working life dreaming of the time when I could do nothing because my life was so full-on but I was also aware of anecdotes about people who couldn’t cope with idleness or boredom.  A survey in 2015 reported that 48% of retirees were happier than they thought they’d be but it didn’t report whether this meant it was just not as dreadful as they’d anticipated! People don’t always respond the way they think that they will.  My father was a true workaholic who was dreading retiring and hung on until he was 67 before giving up work.  We all thought he’d fade away but he took to it like a duck to water – in fact he remarked that he could now understand why the unemployed found it difficult to go back to work.

I recently went on holiday with three friends who, like me, are in their sixties and retired.   During the holiday we fell into a discussion about our respective retirements and whether we were managing it well.  We are all single women and I’m the only one who has had a child who is now grown up and flown the nest.  What is really interesting is I think that we are quite typical of single retired professional women.

Rose is retired from the Civil Service and relatively wealthy.  Having spent the first two years of her retirement as a consultant, she now does high level voluntary work, owns a second home in France, plays bridge and travels extensively.  She is a busy person and is happy in her retirement. With her parents having died some years ago she has no real family demands on her time.

Liz is also a wealthy pensioner having retired five years ago.  She has both elderly parents living across the other side of the country and she pays regular visits whilst resisting any further liability for them: she will not go to live with them or have either of them to live with her. In our discussions she declared “I think I’m making a poor job of retirement.” She still does minimum wage sessional work of the most menial type (shop work, sorting the mail) despite not needing the money – she admits that she misses the routine and structure of employment.  She will not consider voluntary work, has no real hobbies other than travelling and regularly complains how bored she is.

Gardening

Laurie retired three years ago and recently moved into a smaller house where her main project is to “sort out the garden”.  She spends Thursday to Sunday with her elderly mother who lives 60 miles away.  She does not volunteer and describes her daily routine at home as taking the two mile walk into her nearest town to buy groceries and a newspaper as she feels she needs the exercise.  Whilst there she often stops for coffee with friends.

Although I’m the youngest I retired first eight years ago at the age of just fifty-three.  For personal reasons I left my job as the CEO of a charity and decided to take a break for a year – at the time I didn’t know that this would effectively be the end of my professional career.  I did a little consultancy work and then decided to do some supply work as and when I felt like it. I have never been strongly motivated by money and realised that I preferred to tighten my belt rather than return to full-time work. Two years ago I gave up working entirely – my life was too busy to fit it in! I have two dogs; I design and make stained glass panels; I belong to a book club; I am a death doula as well as running a Death Cafe; I have several friends who have reduced their hours or retired and consequently I have many social engagements that fill my days. I have also been able to become more involved in politics and the local community. When people ask me if I get bored, I reply “Less often than I got bored at work”.

older-volunteer

Talking together with my friends we realised that 50% of us were making a good job out of our retirement, 25% had yet to start as caring for elderly relatives had taken the place of work and 25% was definitely not getting the hang of it.  I suspect that this reflects the wider population. We fill our time with volunteering, gardening, diy, hobbies, travelling and hanging out with other retirees – again fairly typical I would think.  Two of us had a gradual reduction in working in terms of levels of responsibilities as well number of hours worked and I wonder if this is why we’re better adjusted? We had time to plan ahead whilst weaning ourselves off the advantages of work: status, identity, structure, social contact and salary.  When you look at this list of advantages it’s clear that only one of the advantages of working is financial and it is the other four that you have to plan for if you want to be happy in your retirement. Don’t let this period of your life feels like you’re sitting in God’s waiting room – given that the average person will live another 18-20 years at the age of sixty-five, you could be there a lot longer than you think.

 

 

 

 

What legacy would you leave behind??

A dying man in America has decided to donate his priced collection of 1500 bobbleheads to a museum.  Now, you may be wondering what kind of museum would be interested in a small plastic toy with an oversized head?  Not surprisingly, the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum was delighted to accept them. This somewhat whimsical tale got me thinking about what, if anything, I would be leaving to the world when it comes to shuffling off this mortal coil?

I have never been ultra-materialistic so although I have all that I need I’ve never been one for collecting lots of things.  When I was younger I didn’t collect stamps or coins or beer mats and only got half a dozen girl guide badges. I’ve never entirely understood the obsession required to build up a collection of “things” which often have little intrinsic value. I genuinely can’t imagine that anything I own would be worth donating to anywhere other than the charity shop!

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It would be lovely to think that your lifetime’s collection is being visited and admired by others but I’d like to think that a legacy doesn’t always have to be tangible.  Perhaps some of us have left behind something more ethereal. During my career I worked with many people who were at a crossroads.  With support they were able to rebuild and sometimes prolong their lives, finding more satisfaction and happiness.  However not all of them made it and it saddens me to think of those who continued to live a half-life or died before their time. I would love to know what happened to some of my clients and I hope they continued to flourish and grow. I take consolation in the fact  that my legacy may be something that other people might not be able to visit and admire easily but is as important as a collection of Picasso paintings or Malibu Barbies.  We all leave something behind when we go – what do you think your legacy will be?

If I could have one more hour with you.

In The Guardian yesterday there was an article by Tom Connolly “We got it right.  We’ve been good brothers”.  It is a very moving account of his close relationship with his older brother, Pip who died at the age of 50 in 2010.  Tom has realised that this year he reaches an age whereby he will be older than the last time he saw his brother.  Having spent his whole life looking up to his brother and taking his advice on everything, he feels that he is entering unknown territory – how can he experience an age his brother never did? Who will tell him how to handle what life might throw at him.

Tom misses his brother terribly and he remembers a very moving moment they shared together when Pip knew he was dying.  They held each other and reiterated their love for each other.  Tom told his brother that he didn’t want Pip to die and couldn’t imagine life without him. Pip admitted that he could never have watched his little brother die and was relieved that it was this way around. They had the opportunity to say many of the things we never get around to saying to each other – always thinking that there will be time for that.

I remember when my brother was seriously ill in a London hospital and everything looked pretty hopeless.  I remember travelling there from Bristol and knowing that I had to tell him I loved him.  Coming from a family which wasn’t big on saying what we feel, I knew I had to overcome my reluctance because I might never have this opportunity again and I would forever regret not doing so.  In fact, when I saw him lying in his hospital bed, so close to death, the words came easily.  My brother recovered miraculously but I never regret that moment we shared in the private hospital room. Whatever happens in the future my brother knows that I love him.

Tom Connolly misses his brother so much that he has fantasised that somehow he will see his brother on his birthday and this led him to think about what he would say if he could have one more hour with his Pip. Thinking back to that conversation they had, Tom is lucky to realise that he doesn’t have anything unsaid that he needs to resolve with Pip.  He would just like to look at him, hold him and walk with him.  And perhaps to tell him one more time how much he is loved.

Mottos to live by

At the end of our lives we will inevitably look back and consider what we achieved and whether we lived a good and full life. Over the years we may have had a sense of what direction we were heading in and what we wanted to achieve in our lives even when this might have been as simple as maintaining a happy status quo. Underpinning this we would have built up a complex set of values and ethics which governed and informed our everyday activities much like a business or organisation might formalise into a Mission Statement and Statement of Values. As a shorthand many organisations have a formal or informal slogan that they use to reflect this.  For example Asda says “Every Little Counts” whilst Barnado’s is “Believe in Children”.  Both of these say so much about the organisation and what is fundamental to its operation. So what slogan or motto would reflect the aims and values of your life?

There are daily posts on social media (particularly some bonkers ones by a man with a vegetable in his name) which provide slogans to live by:

“Beautify your thoughts. Thoughts are the headwaters of action, life and manifestation.” – David Avocado Wolfe (told you he was bonkers!)

“Do one thing every day that scares you” – Eleanor Roosevelt

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined” – Henry David Thoreau

Some of these are empty platitudes often written by people who don’t live by the same creed themselves urging us to strive to be better people.  But maybe a bit of “do as I say, not do as I do” can still give us a kick up the bum when we need it.

“Don’t complain, there’s always someone worse off than you.”

“Stop talking and start doing.”

When we give ourselves a good talking to we often use cliches and hackneyed phrases frequently recycled from our own childhoods.  When dealing with my own compulsive procrastinations I often use “oh, for goodness sake just do it” – I can hear my mother saying it long before Nike used it as a slogan.

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I’ve told you a million times not to exaggerate

Many years ago I discovered a quote by Howard Figler, the career counsellor,  which says:

“Risk is the tariff for leaving the land of predictable misery.”

For me this was pertinent for that particular time of my life but I have relied on it ever since whenever I am apprehensive about getting out of my comfort zone or (more truly) my rut and making a change. I had it written in the front of my Filofax where it reminded me to not settle for any situation I wasn’t happy with.  On one occasion it prompted me to talk to my intimidating boss about my ridiculous workload whilst in another situation it encouraged me to apply for a new job.  It also helped me to find the courage to end a relationship despite the fear of ending up a lonely old lady. To this day I still keep a white feather pinned to my mirror to challenge myself to be brave especially when I don’t want to be! This motto was one that I knew could help me live a life without regrets of what could have been.

But if I was to pick a single motto for my life I think it would be something like:

“Life is a balance sheet. Being only human you will inevitably get things wrong, hurt people’s feelings and never be perfect. So make sure you are kind, loving and selfless often enough to balance out the books.”

What would be your motto or slogan and how have they helped you to make life decisions?