Recently I tried to think of how many people I’ve ‘spoken’ to since Michael died. In person and by phone maybe 500 or 600? Including emails, messenger chats, whats apps and all the rest, it’s probably closer to a thousand.
If I put aside my own emotions, when I talk to people for the first time since he died it has been a fascinating insight into how people express their condolences to the newly bereaved. And how people choose to talk about Death. It’s not an easy thing for any of us.
What’s been most surprising is how many of us struggle to talk about the fact that someone is actually Dead. I’ve noticed that as the time between the death and seeing/speaking to the bereaved person increases, it can be harder to know what to say. And people seem to feel more awkward expressing themselves.
The most overused phrase I hear is, of course, the inevitable, “how are you?”
Three simple words. So many ways to say it. And how on earth to answer it without upsetting the enquirer?
“Yeah, not bad thanks. I have bills and paperwork coming out of my ears, I can’t get through a yoga class without crying at least twice, I don’t know what to do with all his socks or how to begin his tax return. The sight of a vial of my blood at the GP this morning sent me into an enormous meltdown. Most days I’m dying for a glass of wine by about 3pm, just so that I can feel less. Otherwise, I’m good! How are you?”
The most awkward condolences to date came after seeing someone for the first time, 8 months after Michael’s Death. With much shoe-shuffling and limited eye contact, a pat on the shoulder, they managed to say, “Well, what a year it’s been.”
Seriously, when did we all get so scared of talking about Death? Or talking about our emotions full stop? Of course we don’t wish to upset anyone. But the less we talk openly about this stuff, I really believe, the more difficult and more awkward it becomes.
I was lucky to have some time out a few months ago and visit relatives and friends in Europe. One lifelong friend asked me how I was going and what the grief was like, having had her own grief journey losing her father a few years ago. I told her, “You know, it’s a bit like when I was really, really ill with Depression. Except now, everyone knows what’s wrong and why you look like crap. So you get a lot more hugs.”
I have experienced Depression my whole adult life. It came and went like relentless, intense, low-pressure weather systems throughout my twenties in London. Cold, grey, oppressive, sometimes howling wind, sometimes pouring rain, sometimes all at once. Friends, partners and jobs were all casualties. I have more control over it in my thirties thanks to a much healthier self-awareness and a big toolbox of self-help techniques. The products of a lot of talking therapy, a life-saving psychiatrist and hard work.
But it was always the one thing people couldn’t talk about. Obviously I wouldn’t offer it up in job interviews or meeting new friends in the pub. But in the late 90s and 2000s, it was definitely taboo. Only close friends could handle the D-word and talk openly, bravely supporting me through crippling periods that left me unable to work, socialise, look after myself properly or hold a conversation for months at a time. I really wasn’t a fun person be around when I was at my worst! So who would want to hear an honest answer to, “how are you?”
The stress of hiding it was like a heavy, foggy blanket on my shoulders. I never wanted to end my life, but sometimes I wanted to get hit by that bus in the street. Just so I could have a broken leg or arm and have a cast on my body. Then it would be ok to answer those three words more truthfullly. To admit that actually, I was in pain, I wasn’t “ok” and yes, I could do with a little help.
I was guilty of not talking about Depression too with some people, especially at work. I was scared. I felt like a freak. I had so much to be grateful for in my life but still felt like I couldn’t get my shit together. As I recovered I felt more confident to talk about it openly and was pleasantly surprised by the response of most people.
In October I was in Italy for a few weeks and in Milan for a few days. Of the many stunning cathedrals and chapels in Milan, one was particularly memorable. A small 12th century chapel near a building that was formerly used as a hospital for the very poor. The entire interior of the chapel was decorated using bones and skulls that had been exhumed from a nearby mass grave. I found it very, very uncomfortable to stand among these jumbled remnants of life. Tiny skulls and femurs. Confronting me with Death, yet erected as a place of hope and worship. A place to pray for miracles and give thanks for lives saved.
Why was I so upset? Perhaps yes, Michael’s death was still so fresh. But I can’t deny how far removed from Death we are in modern, western culture. It’s something that is hidden away, hushed up, handled quietly. We don’t talk about it and I’m discovering, we often don’t prepare for it.
Michael and I both had wills. We had talked about what we did and didn’t want when it came to life support, organ donation, burials/cremation and what we wanted done with our ashes. These are tough things to discuss with our loved ones, but I’m so grateful that we had.
Death. Depression. Discuss…