I had recently been forced to examine my attitude towards death in a different way. As I toyed with joining the fire brigade I thought about the things I might see that I would rather not.
Trigger Warning – this piece deals with death.
Trigger warning two – this may be overly pompous.
We have a lot of time to think. At least the ones of us who are keeping socialising to a minimum. I feel a seeping judgmentalism creeping in as people in my town seem to be carrying on as normal. I always thought I was the irresponsible one and for much of my life I have been but other people’s health is at risk.. Not that you’d know it by reading my journal which betrays my blase attitude towards life and death and crisis’ in general. Today I have been reflecting on that.
My first experience of death was when my dear great aunt died, I was 11. I was on Scout camp when I heard. I remember being surprised that I didn’t get upset over an event I had dreaded and felt that perhaps I was growing up. Strangely I had always been a little afraid of the dark but the fear left me after that week.
When I was 18 a favourite cousin of mine died of AIDS. He owned a bed and breakfast in Blackpool with his ridiculously camp boyfriend. We had great times as teenagers exploring our new freedoms in the famed seaside resort under his liberal care. He was one of the few of my extended family I bothered with. I went to work instead of attending his funeral.
In my twenties my nana died. She was the only person who loved me unconditionally. When she died I shed a tear for the briefest of moments but it actually made me happy. I knew she wanted to rejoin her husband and mother who had both departed short years earlier.
I have been blessed not to have suffered grief like others I have known. No parents at a young age or partners or God forbid children. My cousin aside, all the bereavements in my family line have been in timely order. I have witnessed the tragic loss of close friends’ parents far too young. Speaking to that friend today she told me “she was glad she didn’t have to worry about them right now.”
I look back at my nonchalant attitude to my loved ones passing and wonder if there is something wrong with me?
My great auntie was a strong matriarchal influence in my formative years. A refuge for my sister and I as my mother negotiated a divorce. She was the connection to the wealth of my family’s past, living in a plush house in an upmarket suburb, the family historian whose memory seemed to stretch back deep into Victorian times. I have vivid images of times spent in her garden. When I think back I can recollect the smell of the linen in the beds we used to sleep in and how she nursed me after a traumatic operation. I know our involvement in her life brought her great joy. It might have been years since the last time I thought of her. We were around for her while we could be and then she was gone.
My cousin had been disowned by his close family for being gay. It didn’t bother the teenage me. I was always a black sheep myself so I empathised. Back in the nineties HIV was still a death sentence unless you were Magic Johnson. When AIDS took hold it took him fast. I remember his five stone frame lying on his deathbed. The heating was turned up so high it forced me to leave the room and vomit. None of his other family, the ones that attended the funeral, visited him. I was there while he was still living, held his hand as his life drained away and then he was gone. I didn’t really think about him much since.
My nana knew she was dying but she didn’t let on. Hers was the most stoic of demises. In the end it turned out she was riddled with cancer but not once did she visit a doctor. The day I called one out to her was the only time she had ever got angry at me. Fate was kind to me there. Circumstances unrelated to her hidden illness meant I moved in with her for her last year of her life. We had many long conversations into the night over bottles of Scotch. She took pleasure in annoying me by talking when she knew I was engrossed in a TV programme. Her decline was quick. On reflection she had taught me a lot about dying, her mother, who she nursed and her husband, a concentration camp survivor both died from cancers a few years earlier using whisky as their only medication. There wasn’t much fanfare, no hysterics. I don’t really think about any of them now, only if in rare dreams while I sleep. I was with her in her sickness and then she was gone.
Today was the first time I had consciously pieced those experiences and attitudes together but I had recently been forced to examine my attitude towards death in a different way. As I toyed with joining the fire brigade I thought about the things I might see that I would rather not and wondered if blissful ignorance would be better for my mental health? An alternate thought forced itself into my consciousness. It told me, bad things were happening whether I was sitting on my couch avoiding them or actively witnessing them. If I wasn’t willing to be there in a crisis how could I expect anyone else to be?
Faith in something helps. I have a bit of faith nowadays and it isn’t blind, rather it is built on the logical rationale that fearing an unknown inevitable is futile and will lead me to madness therefore I might as well think of the thing that gives me peace. As i read in a poem recently, dying has “had a bad press”. It is simply unknown. Unknown is neutral at worst, exciting at best, unless you believe in damnation but I can’t help anyone with that. These are just the words that a grown-up vocabulary can use to explain what I had instinctively thought as a youngster. No-one had taught me how to respond to loss, it’s just how I reacted. Is it the wrong way?
Now we are in a time where a lot of loss seems inevitable and I wonder will I be able to grieve like everyone else? To be honest I don’t think that I will. I am not worried about my parents. Soon it will be my turn, who knows when? People have accused me of being breezy or amoral and maybe I am. Perhaps I am not well in the head at all? I will certainly write with inappropriate sarcasm, badly timed ironic prose and hold views that may not be palatable in polite society but I am determined to journal how I honestly feel.
Christ was reported to have said, “let the dead bury the dead”. It’s helping the living I am interested in. So I take all my precautions. I cocoon myself out of the public as much as possible and when i am called to an emergency i respond. I pray my efforts are worthy.