One of a number of biographies about the Doors lead singer Jim Morrison was entitled No One Here Gets Out Alive. I haven’t read it although I do find the title intriguing. The truth is that when it comes to our lives, no one here gets out alive.
As you get older, death seems to be everywhere and barely a week goes by without hearing about yet another bereavement, another funeral. You could allow yourself to be worn down with it all. As the oldest member of my own family, with both parents and my stepfather long gone, I feel my mortality as much as anyone. So how do you deal with it? The answer is that there is no answer that works for everyone. For me, a mental basket case at the best of times, I coped remarkably well through most of my major losses. I coped by employing strategies that worked for me. Let me try to explain.
My mother’s death in 1999 came, in some ways, as a blessing. Ravaged by smoking related diseases, her final 15 years or so were largely spent in terrible pain. She had no life, she never went out and visiting her every week, sometimes more often, was a stressful and often upsetting business, which nonetheless had to be done. She died suddenly, from an almighty heart attack; here one second, gone a fraction of a second later. I called her brother who lived in the Netherlands. That was the only time I cried and only because he seemed so ambivalent about it. I never spoke to him again. I didn’t try not to cry, instead planning in my mind every next step along the way. I imagined everything that would happen from registering the death, arranging and attending the funeral and how life would change without her. And it was planned, by my low standards, almost meticulously. If I was going to do anything, I thought it through. How it might go, what people might say. The more control I had of the situation, of my mind, the better I coped.
My stepfather suffered from Parkinsons and later dementia. In the years following my mother’s death, the decline was terribly sad. This lovely, kindly, gentle man saw everything taken away by the ravages of two evil conditions. I was with him as he died, still the most powerful experience I can ever remember. Not that I felt his spirit move into another world. I’m pretty sure that just doesn’t happen I had never seen death actually happen right in front of me, watching someone draw their final breath and, more powerfully, being out of his constant misery, not that he knew anything about it. Again, I planned everything in advance, although this was much easier since he had comfortably outlived everyone else in his family. I came through quite easily.
My father’s death in 2011 was very different. He became ill on Boxing Day in 2010 and his health steadily deteriorated. However, I was kept in touch by way of telephone calls and emails from his lovely wife because he lived in Canada. the Atlantic Ocean never seemed wider. He died on 28 February and some days later I flew to Ottawa to attend and speak at his funeral. Things soon began to go wrong.
The complexity of our relationship is for another day. We had in recent years become closer although it was not until his death I realised just how close we had become. On the day I travelled to Ottawa, I broke my little rule: I didn’t think things through.
The bus to Heathrow passed uneventfully. I read the paper, I listened to music. I might as well have been going on holiday. I made my way to the check-in desk and that was where things started to go badly wrong. The lady at the desk asked me a series of questions and suddenly I became tearful. Why was this happening? Then, I simply started crying. She asked if I was all right, I said I was. Then she asked me whether my trip to Ottawa was for business or pleasure. To my great and lingering embarrassment – I still cringe when I think about it – I burst into tears. I was inconsolable. Somehow, I made it to the departure lounge. I had been here a few times when flying to my dad’s 75th and 80th birthdays. I knew what to expect. It was familiar. Phew. Normality resumed. Then, I got to the gate when the flight was called and I went into meltdown. I hadn’t thought it through. I talked with the Air Canada lady, explained through my tears what was wrong and was there any chance I could sit on my own. There was. I recovered my composure, boarded the plane and for the rest of my trip, including meeting my brothers, my father’s lovely wife and the funeral ceremony itself, I never shed another tear. On the flight, I had gone through everything that was going to happen, every single thing I could think of. And, most unlike me, I could see the world with complete clarity. Christ, I wish I could have bottled those moments.
The pre planning may not work for everyone, the obsessive mental planning (nothing written down) is probably not the ideal model for all people who have been bereaved. All I can say is that it worked for me. It got me through one of the traumatic and upsetting times of my life, I was even confident enough to make a speech in front of well over 100 people at my dad’s life celebration in the knowledge that I would almost certainly get through the day.
At the time one suffers a bereavement is probably not the best time to attempt ordered thinking. I was lucky that, at the time of my bereavements, I was not at a mental low. If it happened today, I dread to think how I wood react.
So, to any of you approaching a funeral, see if it works for you. Imagine the days ahead, what will happen, what might happen; even down to minute detail, like the trip to the church or wherever. The speeches, the music, people coming up to hug and embrace you and, if you have anything left, plan how you might feel when something unexpected happens, as it almost certainly will.
No one here gets out alive so someday something like this will happen. It’s not necessarily a nice thing to think about but if you think it might work, give it a go.