Permission to Grieve (Part 2)

Grief is a strange thing, because the idea of loss encompasses so many different things, including the loss of an abstract concept.

I know that an acute grief reaction can occur in women who are expecting to have a well baby, but instead have been told their child has a birth defect – the grief over the diagnosis is just as real as their grief over the well child that existed only in their imagination. In some cases, the pain can even feel as visceral and as violent as if the well child has been murdered.

I once met a lovely and vivacious girl from Australia at a friend’s wedding. The both of us didn’t know anyone else there other than the bride (who was of course busy making her rounds of all her guests), so we just ended up chatting to each other most of the evening. She told me about how she’d worked as a lawyer to please her family, saving up all her earnings in order to pay her way through achieving her dream of becoming a veterinarian. At the time, she was finishing up her final year of veterinary training in Australia. We traded stories about our clinical work. Towards the end of the evening, we got up and danced with the bride and groom, giggling and laughing like old friends. I had to leave the party early, but not before promising that I would drop her a line if I ever headed out to the land of Oz.

It was almost two years later that we were planning a trip to Australia, I remembered my promise and I contacted my good friend (the bride who’d invited us both to the wedding) to ask for her help in connecting the two of us via email.

My friend was completely flabbergasted that I didn’t know what had happened to that beautiful girl. She’d died a few months after the wedding, in a horrific car accident.

I couldn’t believe it. Dead? No way. But it was true. It happened when she was bringing her family back to the Perth airport, after they’d attended her graduation from veterinary school. Her family members all survived with a few injuries, but she was killed instantly.

In telling me the story, my poor dear friend had to relive the devastation and despair that she felt upon receiving the news of the death of her best friend and had been asked to give a eulogy at her funeral. The accident was so terrible and so tragic that it had even been reported in our local newspapers – I’d completely missed it because I’d been pregnant with Little E at the time and had turned into a hermit crab for nine months.

For the rest of that day, I felt utterly miserable but I didn’t quite think that I had a right to feel so upset. So I pushed the feelings away and just tried to carry on with the rest of my day. After the kids were in bed, the Barn Owl asked me why I seemed to be moping around the house, and I just burst into tears.

Debs G: There was a terrible accident and she died!

Barn Owl: That’s bad. Was she your friend from school?

Debs G: No. I didn’t know her at all.

Barn Owl: I don’t understand.

Debs G: I don’t either! I never knew her, and I’m sad about it! And now she is dead and my friend was very sad about it, and I wasn’t there for her! I’m sad about that too!

Finding out about the death of someone you know, even someone you’ve only known very briefly, is always a shock, and it’s important to remember that the right to grieve does not need to be earned. If you feel bereft because death has stolen someone from you, that in itself gives you the right to grieve.

Although I had only known this girl for the space of a few hours, she still left a lasting impression, and that is worth something to me. I’ll always regret not following up on our meeting sooner.

Permission to Grieve (Part 1)

When I was in my first year at University, I met an interesting girl.  Now, this girl was cool.  And I mean cool.  She had an interesting life.  She’d done all these things and seen all these things that I wished I had done and seen.  She was talented – a fantastic artist, singer and dancer.  And I wanted ever so much to be just like her.

We became friends.  And for that first year of University, life was a whirlwind of me trying to impress her with how cool I had become/was becoming.  I did and said a lot of things that I regret now, and did and said more things that I will never regret.

We used to do crazy stuff together – on the weekends, we’d go to Chatswood and busk outside the St George bank.  Not because we were poor or anything, but because it was fun.  And I had a LOT of fun when I was hanging out with her.  With her, I did a lot of things that I wouldn’t normally have done.

She taught me how to live.  She taught me that if I wanted to do something, that I should go out and do it instead of waiting and fretting until the opportunity passed.

But…

She wasn’t a good friend to me.  Things were said (I only regret some of them).  We had a huge fight (it was horrible) and after that, we stopped being friends.

I’ll admit that I wasn’t the nicest to her after the fight either – I was free to others with my reasons for the friend break-up, as it were, and added a lot to the drama surrounding her life.

So, I didn’t speak to her or see her again for almost 13 years.

Last week, I heard that she’d died.  A car accident.  It was very sudden.

I went to her Facebook memorial and there was a great outpouring of grief.  People left well wishes.  And it seemed that from the time we stopped being friends and the time she died, she’d become a completely different person.

A much better person.

Thing is, though, I wasn’t sure how to feel about the whole situation.  Her death made me feel my mortality, but that was really about it.  I didn’t have many good memories of our time together and what memories I did have were tainted by the messy end of our friendship.

Sometimes, however, we need to give ourselves permission to grieve, even if it’s over someone we didn’t know well, or whom we didn’t get along with.  They were still part of our lives.

Whether she’d changed or not, though, her death is still sad.  Still sudden and unexpected.  She had a lot of life in her and though she wasn’t my good friend, she had been a good friend to many others.

Her loss will be mourned and it is a tragic waste that she was taken so young.

So, I cried a little, and then I was ready to face the next day.

Grief, Loss and Small Children (Part 2): Discussing Death

A note about today’s post: When our grandfather (the Aged P’s dad) died, I wanted to write a post about how we talked about death with J and Little E, and helped them process their grief. However, as my own personal grief felt too fresh, I was not able to properly organise my thoughts on the subject, so this post has actually been percolating in my mind for over a year now.

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For the Barn Owl and myself, death is something that we encounter quite often in our line of work as doctors, and sometimes helping patients and their families to prepare themselves for the inevitable is part of the job description. However, managing the impact of a death on an individual and helping them through the process of grief and loss is something entirely new to me.

In our family, we have never shied away from the topic of death. This is because the Barn Owl and I feel that death is not something that should be feared, but should be viewed as a natural part of life. Since J and Little E were very small, we have had no qualms in taking them with us when we are paying our respects at a funeral (which, in Singapore, is generally an open casket arrangement) or when visiting the graveyard or columbarium.

During these visits, we always talked to J and Little E about what happens when people die and it is amazing how much a child can understand.

I remember the first conversation that I had with J on the subject. J was just a little over 2 years old at the time and we were at the funeral of his Godpa’s late grandmother, who was a kindly and well-loved lady. During the funeral, family members recounted stories and memories, and showed photographs of family gatherings where the lady was often smiling and laughing. At the end of the service, I brought J to the casket and he peered down at her face and said to me, frowning, “Auntie there. Not same. Gone.”

“Yes,” I replied, “This is just her body. Her body is dead and she has left it behind. She is not here anymore.”

“Yes,” said J, nodding, “Gone.”

“To die will be an awfully big adventure” –  J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

When our grandfather (the Aged P’s dad) passed away, J and Little E were quite overwhelmed by the funeral wake and services, and we had many talks with them about death and dying during that time, and in the months afterwards.

Some of the questions they had were quite difficult to answer, but we always answered them truthfully, acknowledging their feelings and thoughts about the subject and sharing with them our feelings too. Quite often, we tried to gauge their feelings by the sort of question that they asked, and we would try to address their anxieties whilst channeling their thoughts in a different direction.

Like I said in my previous post, kids adjust to news in a different manner that what we might expect, and they take a lot longer to process information. This meant that J and Little E would repeatedly ask the same questions over the course of several months. As they adjusted to the death of their great-grandfather, the frequency of these questions decreased.

Here are some of the difficult questions that they asked and how we answered them.

What is death? 

Death is when life ends. The body doesn’t work anymore. The body cannot move, or eat, or sleep, or think or feel. It is not alive. It is dead.

Will I die? Will you die? Will (insert name here) die?

Yes, one day, you will die. One day, I will die. I don’t think that we will die for a long time. Everything that is alive in the world will die one day. This is why being alive is important. We should be thankful for being alive, and enjoy the time that we have with each other. This time that we have to be alive is a precious thing, a treasure. Now is the time that we have do things to make our lives mean something, something good, something that matters. Now is the time we have to make good memories.

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”  ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Will I get sick and die, just like Great-grandpa? When will I die?

When you get sick, it does not always mean that you will die. A cough, cold or flu may make you feel really awful, but actually, you are only a little bit ill, just for a short while, then you will get better. Great-grandpa was very seriously unwell for a very long time. It is not the same as when you or I get sick.

Sometimes, if you are very old and unwell, like Great-grandpa, you will know that you are dying. An old person’s body doesn’t always work the way it is supposed to. Everything slows down. It takes longer to get well when you are sick, and sometimes parts of your body will not work the way it should and you have to take medicine to make it work.

Nobody knows exactly when they will die. I hope that you and I will not die for a long time. When we are alive, we try not to think about when we will die, or how we will die. We try to think about what we can do with our life now, what we can do today. If we spend all out time thinking and worrying about dying, then we will be wasting all the time that we have, all the time that we have to enjoy being alive.

I know you feel worried about dying. It is okay to be a little bit worried and scared about dying. Sometimes I feel scared and worried about it too, but then I remember that I have other things to think about which are more important, much more important to me than worrying about dying. If you keep worrying about dying, you will not be able to enjoy being alive. That would be a very sad thing, not being about to enjoy being alive.

“It is nothing to die. It is frightful not to live.” ― Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Is dying a very bad thing? Why are people sad when somebody dies?

Dying is not a bad thing, it is a sad thing. It is sad for us, because we feel left behind and we miss the person who has died, because we cannot see them alive anymore or make any new memories of them. You have many memories of Great-grandpa; some are happy and some are sad, but they are all important because you will not be able to make new memories with Great-grandpa now that he has died.

I feel sad that Great-grandpa has died because he was important to me and I miss him, but remembering his life and talking about him makes me feel a little better. When you feel sad about Great-grandpa, you can always talk to us about it and we can remember him together.

Where is Great-grandpa now?

Great-grandpa’s body is here. But that is just his body. His soul, his spirit, his personality, everything that was Great-grandpa, everything important about him, everything that really matters – all his thoughts, all his memories, the part of him that could think and feel – that is not here. It is gone.

I believe that the part of Great-Grandpa that made him who he was, that part of him has gone to heaven, and the body that you can see in the coffin, is just an empty shell that he left behind.

Where is heaven? Can I go to heaven now?

No. It is not possible to get to heaven. You have to wait until after you die. But you have too many things to do first before you die, you have your whole life to live. You have to patient and wait your turn.

“It’s necessary to have wished for death in order to know how good it is to live.” ― Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo

What are we going to do with Greatgrandpa’s body? What is going to happen to it?

After the funeral is over, we will take Greatgrandpa’s body and we will cremate it. This means that we will burn the body. We will put his ashes into a jar and the jar will be kept in a place called a columbarium. This will be Great-Grandpa’s grave. It is where we will go to remember Great Grandpa. This is what Greatgrandpa wanted us to do.

Not everyone who dies gets cremated. Some people prefer their bodies to be buried in the ground instead. Graveyards are places where people are buried.

Graves and graveyards are quiet places. They are good places for sitting and thinking quietly about the people who have died and remembering what they were like. Sometimes, people will visit graves and spend time tidying it up and decorating it with flowers. They do this because they want to show respect and love for the person that has died, and also so that other people who are walking by will stop and look at the grave and the gravestone. They will read the name on the gravestone and think to themselves, “This person must have been very special to someone when they were alive.”  If you like, we can visit Great-grandpa’s grave together and make sure that it is looking nice.

“But Mother was cremated. This means that she was put into a coffin and burned and ground up and turned into ash and smoke. I do not know what happens to the ash and I couldn’t ask at the crematorium because I didn’t go to the funeral. But the smoke goes out of the chimney and into the air and sometimes I look up and I think that there are molecules of Mother up there, or in clouds over Africa or the Antarctic, or coming down as rain in the rain forests in Brazil, or snow somewhere.” ― Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Again, as with kids, their response and behaviour towards death can be unpredictable. It will probably be necessary to brief them on what is expected of them during the funeral or funeral wake. They don’t have to cry or look sad, but they do have to be mindful and respectful of other people who are in mourning.

Which is why on the way to the cremation service, I overheard J and Little E having the following conversation:

J: Hurry up or we’ll be late!

Little E: I’m hurrying, I’m hurrying!

J: If we’re late we’ll miss everything!

Little E: Okay, okay!

J: I don’t want to be late for the demonstration!

Sir PTerry is Dead. Long Live the Discworld.

On the morning of Friday, 13th of March, the following messages appeared on Terry Pratchett’s twitter feed.

All Good Things Must Come to an End

All Good Things Must Come to an End

…and I cried, because this meant that Sir PTerry, author of over 70 books, including the famous Discworld series, was dead.  The literary world is all the poorer for his leaving this Earth so young.

Terry Pratchett’s books have a special place in the hearts of his readers and in the hearts of the Owls Well crew.  My personal favourites are Reaper Man and the books in the Tiffany Aching series.  Debs favours The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents and Men at Arms.  The Boobook’s favourite books are Hogfather and Thief of Time.  Even the Barn Owl has his favourites, The Colour of Magic and The Bromeliad Trilogy.

It is difficult to put into words how much the Discworld series, and Terry Pratchett’s other work mean to me.  Even now, as I type these words, I cannot help but feel tears streaming down my face as I recall how very alive he was as an author.  His books always brimmed with energy.  In his work, we could see our own world through a fantasy lens, realising the beauty in it while still recognising the terrible and awful things that needed changing. FullSizeRender(8)Back in University, I was able to attend a talk that he held in a small meeting room just off Darling Harbour.

Though the room was packed, he still somehow managed to make his speech feel intimate and friendly.  He spoke about having open heart surgery, about cosplayers at Discworld conventions and even chatted to a few of the cosplayers at the talk.  After the talk, he sat down to sign everyone’s books and I remember asking him if he had any books about Chinese people.  He said he did and handed me a copy of Interesting Times, which he signed with a flourish.  A present from him to me, he said.  I still treasure that book.

Three days later, the announcement came that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and yet he kept writing.  Even after he could no longer read, he continued to write through dictation.  Even now, after his death, there are still a number of books that will be published posthumously. Even though Sir Pratchett has gone, his books and characters will live on.  And for that, we are grateful.