How to talk about death

Picture the scene. A dimly lit pub in Hackney that smells faintly of beer and pork scratchings.

My date is going surprisingly well for someone whose dating history is not dissimilar to an actual horror film.

COMING SOON TO A CINEMA NEAR YOU

THE CHOICE

“would you rather die alone or marry the man who just openly ate his bogey in front of you in the pub….”

“she must choose…..”

“or be eaten by cats”

DUN DUN DUNNNNNNN

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So yeah, the fact that this man is both attractive and not a psychopath feels like nothing short of a bloody lottery win.

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That is, until the dreaded line of questioning kicks off

“So, what do you parents do”

“my mum works in a school and has the unpleasant full-time job of dealing with her train wreck of a daughter”

“(polite yet worried laugh)…Ha! see what you did there! And your dad?”

SIGH. HERE WE GO.

“actually, my dad died a few years back”

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Ding ding ding! Attention please, Attention PLEASE: we have an EXTREMELY uncomfortable young man at table 5, that’s an extremely uncomfortable young man at table 5. All hands-on deck for assistance please.

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I jest, I jest.

I sort of jest.

It’s something you only know if you’ve lost someone close to you. People are monumentally crap at talking about death or any of its neighbouring icky topics.

It’s actually borderline amusing.

Cut back to the now visibly sweaty bloke sat across from me at the pub

“God I’m so sorry”

“Why? Oh my god did you kill him?!?!”

(ps: that one rarely goes down well)

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After every encounter such as this I ask myself the same questions: Should I have said it differently? Should I have brushed over it better? Should I have outright lied?

But I always arrive at the same conclusion. It may not be the most comfortable first date topic but it’s the truth.

Because that’s the reality isn’t it. Whilst I could write pages and pages on how bad it feels to lose the man you love the most in the world no amount of beautifully constructed sentences or prettily worded euphemisms detract from the simple fact. My father is dead and he is not coming back.

And yet, in my day to day, in conversations where the subject arises I find myself trying to bridge the gap, to ease others discomfort.

“It was a really long time ago”

“Everything happens for a reason”

“Honestly I’m absolutely fine”

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It’s not just first dates. I’ve watched colleagues, acquaintances, friends of friends go red and stutter when they ask what my dad does and I reply, ‘he worked in property but he actually died 10 years ago now’. Should I lie? I don’t think so.

I am not embarrassed by my father’s death. I don’t really see the need to sweep it under the carpet for the good of maintaining an affable conversation. And if asked directly I will answer honestly. I’m sorry if that makes you uncomfortable.

Because that’s what it boils down to, doesn’t it? Some unspoken need we seem to have as a society to take something ugly and frightening and mould it into something palatable and pretty.

As a family, we have always been honest. There was no sugar coating, no talk about heaven and angels (thank Christ – or not as it happens) just a raw honesty that this was, quite frankly, the shittest thing that had ever happened to us and probably the shittest thing that ever will.

If it sounds harsh, it wasn’t. I’ll never not be grateful for my mum’s honesty and her willingness to hold up her hands and say, ‘yes it sucks actually but we’ve got each other and now that has to be enough’.

There is no redemption in loss like this and the ‘everything happens for a reason’ clichés only infuriated us. What reason? There is no reason. It just is what it is and that is that.

If it sounds cold, it also isn’t that. I just am perplexed at how ill-equipped we are as a society to talk about death and the ones we have lost without wrapping it up in some sickly-sweet analogy.

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He’s ‘sleeping with the angels’…. OK dude sure.

At my best friend’s wedding, quite possibly one of the happiest days of my life, my sister rested her head on my shoulder and said

“It makes me so sad that dad can’t walk us up the aisle – I want that and I won’t ever have it”

This is how we navigate what is an ever-growing beast. Because the thing with grief is it doesn’t diminish and fade, it just changes and morphs. When we were 16 and 10 our dad not being at our weddings wasn’t the main issue at hand. Now at 27 and 22 it matters more. So, when it hurts we just say it. Simple as that.

As I agreed with her and gave her a hug my brother waltzed past and said

“a) who are you planning to marry, your cat? And b) you’ll have me to walk you which is a shame as I’ll outshine the pair of you old goats. UNLUCKY”

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And normal order was restored. Because being honest doesn’t mean constant doom and gloom and, believe it or not, we laugh much more than we cry.

Why are we so ill equipped to talk about something that is, undeniably, the only dead cert (pardon the pun) in this life. We will all die, we will all lose people that we don’t want to lose.

I say let’s get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Because it’s the conversations that we don’t want to have that ultimately bring us closer together. The moments of rawness that feel so rare in a world where we hide behind screens and pretend to be fine when we aren’t. Life isn’t always sunshine and laughter and to skim over the bits we’d just rather not acknowledge is short sighted and limiting.

The last guy I was dating disarmed me totally by asking in-depth questions about my dad: both about how he died and who he was. Arguably as a policeman death is something he has become more accustomed to than the rest of us. It’s something he encounters in his work day in a way that I just don’t. Still it felt good to talk openly and honestly rather than deflect and make jokes. To say “it was fucking horrific and it still is and it always will be”. To say “I feel fine most of the time and then I feel guilty about how fine I feel”. To say “he was hilarious and bold and the only person who could make me feel safe”. To talk about the fun we had and the good times without worrying that the person listening was wishing they were anywhere else.

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It’s good to talk because talking about death is not the same as wallowing in your grief and remembering someone is joyful as much as it is painful and it’s normal. The fact that he died does not change the fact that he was alive. Why should we lock up our happy memories because the story didn’t have a happy ending? Why shouldn’t we talk about him and how much we miss him?Because it’s sad? Because it’s discomforting? There’s nothing I can do to change that I’m afraid.

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He is my dad. Master of ceremonies, larger than life, life and soul of the party. Owner of ten hundred brown loafers and three million beige cargo shorts – each pair of which he insisted were different to the others. Hideously handsome, incredibly kind, goofy and witty, disarmingly honest and generous to a fault. Giver of the best hugs around and most likely to be found on the sofa calling out to the kitchen – “make daddy a Scooby snack pleaaaaaaaaase”. He was funny and vibrant and he lived and we loved him. To bury that with him would be far worse than anything I could imagine.

This weekend I sat with my godmother at my brothers engagement party and breathless from laughing together at some horrendously inappropriate joke she put her arm round me, gave me a squeeze and said “god I wish your dad was here. I miss him so much”

It wasn’t maudlin, it wasn’t miserable it was just an honest statement of fact.

“yeah me too”

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2 thoughts on “How to talk about death

  1. Hi! I found your blog quite by accident on Facebook and have really enjoyed reading your posts- especially this one! I work for st josephs hospice, and we run a project called compassionate neighbours that trains volunteers to provide emotional and social support to those facing illness and are isolated in the local community. Part of this is developing people’s confidence to talk, about grief, dying and loss. we find the things you point out in your article about people’s uncomfortable reactions daily and it’s been so amazing to see some of the magic that’s come out of the project though our training- maybe eventually more people won’t 😱 At the subject and will feel more confident talking about it. Thanks for such a well put and thought provoking article x

    Like

    1. Thank you so much for this lovely feedback! I’m glad that you enjoyed it and well done on the great work you guys do. From all the feedback i’ve had from other readers it seems like its a subject everyone struggles with and hopefully in time we can become more comfortable around the subject of loss and grief xxxx

      Like

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