Death isn’t beautiful or romantic. It’s not Marley & Me or The Boy In Striped Pajamas. It’s sitting by a bedside, for hours that feel like days, listening to vital signs machines that shrill like Las Vegas slot machines but where no one is winning at this game of life.
Death isn’t always terrifying or harrowing. It’s not The Ring or Scream. It’s doctors rushing you out of a room, overhearing hushed voices whispering, ‘He’s unresponsive, what’s the next step?’ and bedside manners that are most impolite.
Death isn’t rare or that surprising. It’s not always the elderly, or tragically – the young. It’s being diagnosed and within a week taking your last breath. It’s losing 2 parents in 2 years.
It’s a weird thing, being so familiar with death. I’m not a paramedic, or a first responder or a doctor that has to tell 2 daughters that there’s nothing more to do for their father. So how do I know it so well?
I have a ‘Grief’ category on this blog, FFS. Because they are the cards I have been dealt. A familiarness with death that has grown once more in the last two days.
When you have conversations about death with others who have experienced it, there’s often two schools of thought.
At least you had time to spend together and make the most of your last moments.
At least it was over with quickly and they didn’t suffer.
But death can’t win either battle. Because whichever side your experience sits on is always the wrong one.
When you have conversations about death with medical professionals, it loses its emotion and can feel like the strangest meeting you’ll ever find yourself in. With doctors trying to say every other word in their vernacular other than, ‘death’ and you hearing every single word as it.
When you have conversations with each other, those who are experiencing the death, it’s full of emotion. And business. Sadness and administration.
‘I can’t believe we don’t have any parents.’
‘Does he even have money for a funeral?’
‘Do you think he knows and is scared?’
‘Do you think that vending machine will take card as we don’t know how long it’ll be before he leaves us and we must leave.’
‘Why is this happening to us again?’
‘Will we lose the house? Who do we contact?’
And then there are the feelings around death.
The sadness for the person who is dying. Can they feel it? Are they scared? Were they ready? Do they know it’s happening? Are they in pain?
The guilt over your relationship with the dead. Did I make him comfortable? Did he hear that I told him I loved him? Did I spend enough time with him? Even though we had some very deep problems and resentment going back years, did he pass thinking that I hated him?
The overwhelming feelings of loneliness. Your family circle that now represents one other – your twin. Suddenly being the heads of the family. Having to deal with things that parents normally would deal with except you now have none. Having to answer questions your parents answer except now it’s you under fire.
The worry for the one who is left. Will my sister be OK? In 2 years she’s lost a Mum, a baby and now a father – how is she still standing? Can I get bereavement counselling for her? How will she cope not seeing him every day?
The feeling sorry for yourself. And everything life has thrown at you. And the fact you’re basically an orphan (except LOL you’re 31). The pressing weight and constant thought of, ‘Why does all of this happen to me?’
The selfishness of death. This is the last thing I need. I can’t work because I’m too sad so my work will suffer. I have a holiday in 2 weeks, the funeral better not fuck that up. Now what am I going to do?
The mistiness towards the future. Who will walk me down the aisle? What will we do at Christmas?
The admin. The fucking admin.
It’s something that you never see in sad BBC One dramas or American movies where the heroine loses someone. The death certificate. The registering. Meeting the funeral directors. Choosing a casket like you’re flicking through the Argos catalogue. Selecting photos, writing a schedule and printing off Orders of Service. Picking songs for the funeral that are meaningful but not depressive, hopeful but not funky. Calling other family members and having to tell them you’re sorry for THEIR loss.
Did you know you get little booklets? When someone dies, you get given a leaflet. It’s literally, ‘Death for Dummies’ and it helpfully walks you through most of the admin. But it doesn’t call the Government to notify them for you, or the banks to close accounts, or the housing people to see if you’ll lose your family home. It doesn’t tell you what words to use to tell people that your parent has died, you have to find those yourself.
Death isn’t beautiful or romantic. It’s getting back ache from sitting on plastic chairs, sitting under neon lights, hearing wailing from beds just feet away from you waiting for it to happen. It’s listening with all of your might to breathing patterns to see if they change. It’s saying, ‘Are you alright Pops?’ every 5 seconds to make sure they’re still there. It’s playing games on your phone while you wait. It’s being on a hospital ward with 5 or more other people, all looking at you and your person, just ogling. It’s the looks.
The looks from the paramedics who comes in to check a couple of hours after bringing them in. Their faces saying, ‘fuck, he’s deteriorating.’
The looks from the doctors forever walking past the bay – their eyes checking the vital machines signs and then meeting yours with their faces saying, ‘I’m so sorry.’
The looks between each other at the bedside saying, ‘we know it’s coming, what the fuck are we going to do?’
The look into your dying father’s eyes where you can see he is in pain and that he’s trying to fight it but you’re just willing him to drift off peacefully so he doesn’t have to be distressed.
But death is hopeful.
When my Mum passed, I didn’t know if I’d ever feel anything ever again. I didn’t know how to navigate life without her. I still can’t fill the hole that she’s left. But it gave me a new lease of life.
Because when you experience the pain of grief you understand that you’ll never feel a pain worse.
You understand that you have been through the absolute ringer and made it out the other side. You understand that you can take on, work through and make it passed anything that life will ever throw at you. You understand that you are the strongest person you will ever know. And you have hope.
So when the time comes and you lose your next parent, you hope that it won’t be as painful. Because this time you’re not scared. You know the drill. You make it through, just like you did before.
And if you’re lucky, death can be kind.
Because people lose their people just as the sun rises and sets and the shore drifts in and back out again. The only certainty in life, is death. So you have a death wishlist. Things that don’t make it? Awful accident. Long, drawn-out, excruciating illness. Heart attack with an aubergine up your butt. The thing that does? Sitting by your person’s side, comforting them and loving them right until their last peaceful breath.
But death can be hollow.
The messages of condolence that come in just a few flavours:
I’m so sorry
Is there anything I can do?
They would be so proud of you.
I’m here for you.
You’re so strong
Sometimes they don’t register. When people ask how you are, you just don’t know. Because, ‘fine actually – bit shit isn’t it? – Haven’t really processed it yet – Just popping out for a pizza and seeing how I get on.’ is not the romantically, passionate out-pouring of a mad grief that most somewhat expect.
And your feelings that turn on and off like a tap may be turned off for quite a while and you may start to think that you’re strange for feeling hollow. For almost being ok. For actually considering still going to the theatre with the tickets you had because why not? You’re not ill. Grief hasn’t killed you. You’re not crying every 2 seconds. You’re operating.
Death can actually be a light.
At the end of someone’s tunnel.
Shining on to people who step up and are there for you in ways you could never imagine.
Within yourself, highlighting the strength you’ve always had but very rarely use.
My Dad died on Thursday 8th March at 5:20am, with my Sister, Ben and I at his side. He spent his last few hours asking us to, ‘turn the TV off’ and being stroked and kissed by Char and I until he peacefully took his last breath in his sleep.
We didn’t have the easiest of relationships but that’s not a story for today.
What matters the most is this… we will get through the pain, the sorrow, the admin, the funeral, the arrangements, the moving, the sifting through of belongings, the birthdays, the Christmases, the weddings, the ageing and eventually our own passing.
And we will do it knowing we both had parents that came from nothing, who often had nothing but who gave us everything they had within them.
We will get through this having each other. We will get through this knowing that death is never the end. It is a hollow, emotional, emotionless light that will guide us, shape us and push us forward because we don’t just have one parent to posthumously love and make proud – we now have two.
Keith Thomas Jones. 27th April 1946 – 8th March 2018. Night Pops.