Thursday 30 August 2018

Death - The final frontier

Talking is the key to dealing with bereavement
I have some bad news for you (or maybe, if you don't like me good news). I am going to die. The only thing I am not sure about is when. Maybe it will be today, maybe tomorrow. Maybe it will be in fifty years time. As someone living with cancer, but a non aggressive and controlled cancer, my sell by date is probably a little bit nearer than a few of my peers, but I am not greatly troubled by this.

Death is perhaps the biggest taboo subject in ourt society. If you get a phonecall from your best friend, your mum or your dad and they say "I've got some very bad news, I have cancer and I've been told its terminal and I only have a month to live", very few of us know what to say. Even if we've been worrying or thinking about this for a long time. I've been thinking about this for a while. What is the correct response? Most of us probably struggle to put anything coherent together. We may mumble "that's awful, I'm so sorry".

One of my biggest bugbears with ourt system of education is that it gives us no education at all in how to deal with such difficult moments. My sister is a hospice nurse. She's seen hundreds of people passing on this news. A few years ago, following a situation where a friend told me he had terminal cancer and I couldn't say anything, I asked her advice. Her response was absolutely brilliant. It amazed me that I'd never really thought about it. She explained that just about everyone finds it difficult to tell friends and family bad news. They may not have come to terms with it themselves. They may be scared and feeling very vulnerable. She said that she would say something along the lines of "I am here for you, whatever I can do to help just ask me". She advised me that she thought saying "There must be something they can do" or words to that ilk don't help. What people need is love and support.

The first consideration relaly should be to make sure that people get their affairs in order whilst they still can. From a practical point of view, this could mean making sure that they have their will in place. One of the biggest problems friends and family can have is actually working out what is in the estate. Putting together a file with details of all insurance policies, bank accounts, share certificates, email account passwords etc is worth doing.

The next thing to consider and this is a very difficult thing to get one's head around, is to ensure that friends and family are engaged to offer the maximum support. I sometimes think that it is actually harder for the partners to deal with than the person who is going through the transition from life to death. They need as much support as possible. Sometimes this may be in the middle of the night, sometimes it may be when they are at the shops. Make sure that they know they can call you at any time. Be there. Be prepared to drop everything and make time. If your working or life commitments won't allow this, then work with friends and family and have a rota so that there is always someone around.

There is also the issue of faith. When my mother died, there was a bit of a discussion about this. My mum was a devout Roman Catholic. One of my siblings is quite anti religious. He wanted a  service with the minimum of a religious element. My Mum hadn't left any specific wishes. It was pretty clear to me that she wanted a traditional Catholic funeral (we'd been together in Lourdes the week before she died). It had never really occurred to me that this would be a contentious issue, but it was to a certain degree. I would suggest that everyone leaves instructions as to their wishes (even if it seems obvious). If it is clear what someone would want, then there is no scope for arguments when emotions are high.  One of the areas that I feel that members of faith communities have an advantage over people with no attachment to such groups is that churches, mosques etc have good support networks. I was talking to a Catholc priest about this. He told me that over 50% of his ministry was supporting people through illness, death and bereavement. He said that although this was the hardest part of his ministry, it was also the most fulfilling. If such networks exist, don't feel embarrassed to use them. If you are not a member of a community that has such support, then it is worth finding local secular bereavement groups etc. There are plenty of humanist ministers that preside over funeral services and can put you in touch with support groups.

Another issue that can be difficult in such circumstances are the issue of family squabbles. Sometimes siblings fall out and haven't spoken in years. If a parent dies this can make for a tricky situation. When my friend, who I mentioned above was dying, it brought me back into contact with another friend who I hadn't spoken to for sixteen years. As we are both mature adults, we immediately agreed to put our differences aside and are now friends again as a result. It isn't always that easy though. My advice would be to try and seek a degree of reconciliation before the person passes away. I know this isn't always possible.

Another issue which may be worth considering is the issue of the wake. My friend who passed away had a complicated personal life. He'd been with one partner for 25 years, but left her two years before he died in very bitter circumstances. His ex was very popular with all of his friends, his new partner was not known by most. I had only got to know her in the final weeks as she nursed him to his death. Both made it clear that they would be attending the funeral. Given the acrimony between both, we decided that the only solution was to have an alcohol free wake.  As both were explosive characters, it meant that things were less likely to get out of hand. As a result it passed off relatively well.

As our friend was skint, it fell upon us, his friends, to organise and pay for the funeral and wake. We found that if you have the service at 9am, it is cheaper. We also found that shopping around and stating "The first consideration is that it must be as cheap as possible" certainly focussed the funeral directors minds. Of course, for most people there are other considerations. One of the things to consider is that for some people, getting to a funeral can be difficult. If peopleare coming from all over the country, then a funeral at Mid day is more convenient. Travelling across London or around the M25 in rush hour is a chore. Speak to friends and relatives and find what is the most suitable time.

For more casual friends, the funeral is when you mentally wrap up the whole sad business. For close family, it is just the start of the process of bereavement. When the wake is over and everyone has gone home, the partner returns to an empty home and life will never be the same again. Check in on them. Make sure they are OK. It is better not to say "I'm just calling to see if you are OK", because people will invariably say they are. if you can, have a drink,  tea or coffee. If you can get people out of the house and into a different environment it can help. If you have an automated calendar or a diary, put a note in for yourself to remind you to get in touch.

One other thing that should be mentioned is that often people cope with bereavement by using drink or drugs to excess. For friends this can be worrying. Don't be judgemental about this. Generally people get over this stage, let them know that you are there to support them. If they are getting absolutely smashed, make sure they are safe. They are likley to know that it isn't doing them any good, but unless they have a better option to numb the pain, then they are not really very likely to be interested in changing their behaviour and will not take kindly to a lecture. If you need to talk to them, go for tea or coffee in the afternoon. They are less likely to be inebriated and more receptive to doing things.

Back in 2012, I wrote a blog on the subject of how to deal with watching someone die, called The Practical Guide to Watching Someone Die. The response to this has been extraordinary. It is the seventh most read blog on the site. Unlike most of the blogs on the site, the vast majority of the views are the result of organic searches. Once every two or three months, I receive an email from someone saying that it has really helped them and these have come from people all around the world.

A couple of these have suggested that the blog should be expanded and issued as a book. I am giving serious consideration to this. I am currently doing some reseach on the subject and there are many aspects of the what we go through that are seldom discussed. People feel very uncomfortable talking about mortality. If you have anything which you feel may be useful to include, either credited or uncredited please let me know. I was discussing this issue with some friends recently and one told me that they had not been aware of the blog when their mother died. They said that they read it retrospectively and were actually cross with me that I hadn't signposted it to them at the time. I could only point out that they hadn't actually told me their mum was dying. It seems that this is the biggest problem. We just don't want to discuss it. I hope that this starts some sort of conversation that helps a few people.

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