It’s been a grief-stricken week, again, around the world. I wonder sometimes if we are in danger of becoming inured to the terrible suffering, either through death, injury or dislocation happening with awful regularity. Whether through sectarian dogma that all too often leads to violence, or corrupt leadership, or that coverall phrase loved by insurance companies, an ‘Act of God’ – maybe an earthquake in China or floods in Indonesia, we read about it, shudder and move on.
This week there have been two incidences in the US that have rocked and shocked the nation. The as yet unexplained behaviour of two young men intent in causing mayhem, laced with ball bearings and nails, at the Boston Marathon. Then a couple of days later, the as yet unexplained explosion in a little town in Texas called West.
Death no matter when it comes is difficult for those left behind, particularly if unexpected and through the hands of evil, or carelessness.
Until a moment, about twelve years ago, I had been frightened by the thought of death. I was with a friend as her husband died, in hospital but free of the entanglements of tubes forcing life into a tired body. Making one last monumental effort to open his eyes, he looked at his wife and silently asked permission to leave. She gave it willingly and lovingly. I had never thought of the dying asking permission before. It was an utterably moving scene that I was privileged to witness, and it has undoubtedly helped me deal with the grief of numerous family deaths since.
We become practised at dealing with the practicalities, of the business of death but not with the emotions of death. And we need to deal with both. Death, like most things, is far more frightening if it’s not talked about, which is why I find the idea of the ‘death cafés’ springing up in Europe and the Americas both intriguing and sad.
Death is on my mind not just because of the horror around the world but because three years ago today my father died. It was an expected death brought about by a lifetime nicotine habit. It was mercifully quick for Dad, too fast in fact to allow me time to get back to Britain due to volcanic ash spewing into the stratosphere and causing a no-fly zone. He did however teach me something, in the brief and breathless phone calls I had with him from the day of diagnosis to the day of death four days later.
“Oh Dad, what a bugger,” I said when I phoned him in his hospital bed, after I’d wiped away the tears his doctor’s phone call had provoked.
“Well sweetie-pie, it had to happen,” he replied then added, “I’d die for a cigarette right now.”
“Not a good turn of phrase Dad,” I suggested half laughing, half crying.
I am grateful to Dad for accepting what was happening with equanimity and humour. By facing his death head on, he allowed me to do the same. It doesn’t mean he gave in, but rather accepted what was inevitable. He was in pain the morning he died, and I am eternally grateful to the doctor who eased his suffering and allowed him to slip into oblivion without frantic attempts to resuscitate.
That word, resuscitate, is one many of us do not want to face, either for ourselves or for our loved ones. I knew, because of discussions had with both my parents that after a long life, neither wished to be forced to live. My mother, in her normal prescient fashion as I waffled around trying to bring up the subject of death, told me, “Just switch the bloody thing off, Apple.”
Death cafés were first introduced a few years ago as café mortels by Swiss sociologist and anthropologist Bernard Crettaz, who was determined to remove the ‘tyrannical secrecy’ of death. Then taken up by Englishman Jon Underwood who held the first death café in London in 2011. Underwood has since written, with psychotherapist Sue Barksey Reid, “a guide to running your own death café”, giving as promised in the title suggestions on how these informal forums can provide an avenue for open discussion on a difficult subject. Lizzy Miles from Colombus, Ohio took up the cause in America, and in the land of in depth analysis, it is no surprise death cafés are taking off.
The sadness I feel about these gatherings is because in cultures not as imbued with the pressure to look young well into our dotage, to demand an extra ounce of life from medicine, the subject of death is not taboo. It is a family affair and like most families, death and grief can be noisy, unstructured, and unrestrained. For those cultures it is an accepted part of life. For the dying there is no pretence about its imminent arrival, and that I think is comforting for the one doing the dying, it allows a certain dignity of spirit.
The tragedy of Boston, West, Newtown, Syria, China, and in every curve of the world where death rears its head violently, and unexpectedly, it is unimaginable for those not directly affected.
All we can do is prepare ourselves and our loved ones for a death that will, no question about it, come at some stage. If in our highly structured and homogenised western world, that means meeting and discussing it with strangers in death cafés, so be it.