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Talking About Death, Celebrating Life

YODO! No, it’s not a new greeting. It’s shorthand for You Only Die Once, so why not make it a good death? There has never been a better time to get talking about those “face behind a cushion” topics we’d all rather pretend weren’t going to happen. At least, not to us.

The international Death Cafe movement has been encouraging us to share what’s on our mind about death, dying and bereavement since 2011 when Jon Underwood set up the first Death Cafe meeting in Hackney, washed down with tea and sweetened with a bit of cake. Over 6000 meetings in 56 countries have been held to date but you won’t find negativity on the menu.

It’s a safe space run with no agenda, no aim to convert to a belief or sign up to a philosophy of life (or death). No one is under pressure to do or say anything. No long lectures or guest speakers pontificating, no funeral services representatives trying to sell you a plan. Just you, others like you and the facilitator wanting to share what’s on their mind. To find out about a meeting in your area or to see what’s involved should you want to set one up, visit www.deathcafe.org Follow them on Twitter @DeathCafe

Let’s get back to YODO. Being near Birmingham, I shall be attending A Matter of Life and Death Festival (May 10th – 26th), an arts of cultural programme of events with death as a core theme. BrumYODO is a local collective set up with the aim of helping the people of Birmingham have more open and honest conversations about death and dying. The collective describes themselves as “a growing group of artists, undertakers, food artists, hospices, palliative care professionals and generally all-round interesting folk. http://brumyodo.org.uk/matter-life-death/

So why am I so passionate about the need to talk about all things mortal?

As someone who has suffered from death anxiety (thanatophobia) ever since my Grandad died when I was ten (fifty years ago), I discovered that I wasn’t alone. Part of any fear is driven by not owning it. Bringing it out into the open is one way of disempowering that fear and empowering ourselves. In doing so, we add more value and quality into our daily lives by making every moment count.

            I’ve attended a number of Death Cafe meetings which have provided the inspiration for my latest novel, EDNA’S DEATH CAFE, set in the Derbyshire Peak District, my childhood stomping ground. Fiction can often reach parts that other communication channels cannot. We can be alone with a book, argue with the characters, ponder on their words and reflect on their lives, hopefully to find resonance with ours.

            I’ll be writing more about the book, about bereavement and my work as a newly trained funeral celebrant. I’ll leave you with my favourite bit of philosophy. Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside is while we live. Norman Cousins.

Edna’s Death Cafe will be published by Matador in September 2018. Keep up to date with the news on Twitter. Follow @Angelena Boden @matadorbooks

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Flash Fiction - Remembering Mothers

Gordon crept into his mother’s room which had been darkened by the partially closed curtains. A knot of anxiety tightened in the depths of his stomach. He’d seen sheep die and lambs but never a family member. It was the process of it that bothered him. As he inched closer to her bed, he felt a sense of calm around her as if her essence had gone on before her body had finished its final shutting down. As he talked gently to her, telling her for the first time since he was a child how proud he was to have her for a mother and how much he loved her. Her shrivelled hand felt cool to the touch but he was too scared to give it more than the lightest of squeezes.

‘Being with your Mum now is the greatest act of love you can offer her, ‘ said Sadie, handing him a tissue.  ‘I’ll leave you for a few minutes then take you to our staff lounge where you can have your lunch. It’s important to keep up your strength.’

He heard the door close softly behind her, giving him permission to release the tears of a small boy losing his mother. Despite his sixty years he didn’t want to be a grown up. He dreamt of being back on the farm, weaning his pet lamb onto a bottle and being chased up to the bathroom to have a wash. He wanted to taste his mother’s famous cottage pies, packed with beef and carrots and to lick the mixing bowl after her Monday baking marathon. Above all, he didn’t want his mother to die.

Picking up his plastic bag, he went into the grounds and found a bench under a cherry blossom tree. The petals floated down around his feet and he bent to pick up a handful. He sat for several minutes, enjoying the silky feel beneath his fingers, his mind wandering on the moors amongst his new lambs. He didn’t hear Sadie at first.

‘Gordon.’ She sat next to him.

‘She’s gone. I can feel it.’

‘Very peaceful. Sometimes people need permission to leave us. You gave her that. Do you want to say goodbye?’

He shook his head.

‘I’ve said it all.  Where ever she is, she knows what I’m about. She had ears like a bat, eyes like a hawk and a memory of an elephant. She was a pain in the backside sometimes but she was me Mam.’ With that he wept on Sadie’s shoulder.

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Regrets... I've got a few

My father was a palliative nurse who worked into his late seventies, the later years as a volunteer. At the end of his service, his work was mainly sitting with the terminally ill and letting them talk. The urgency of this time, he said, was palpable. The days of exchanging pleasantries about the weather or complaining about the increase in the petrol prices were gone. His patients needed to talk about their lives. What had worked, what had not and more importantly about their regrets.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the biggest ones were not working harder for the big promotion or buying the top of the range BMW when they had a chance.

It seems that most people regretted things they hadn’t done when it came to people, especially family, a big one being sacrificing time with family for trying to be indispensable at work. This led to children growing up too quickly and moving away claiming to have been emotionally neglected. They, ( the children), were determined not to make the same mistakes and to make sure they always attended their children’s school plays, prize giving, football matches. My father told me about the tears that were shed for those lost times and the permanent tainting of relationships.

Others regretted allowing the one person they really loved to get away or staying in a relationship that had died long before because it was easier or it was what other people expected. That was another thing.  Doing what others expected; university choice, career, marriage, children, following the belief and value system of the family.  Follow your dreams and if others don’t like it, tough, was their message.

Having children or not having them is something we decide at the time. Sometimes that choice is taken away from us but that isn’t regret by our own hand. Being afraid to try something new and reach beyond our comfort zone is another regret the dying express. ‘I thought something bad would happen to me, my family, my business… or I didn’t want to take the risk.’ The excuses at the time are plausible but as life ebbs to a close, the fears are put into perspective.

My new year always starts on my birthday. Today. It’s a time I reflect on the things I’ve been too scared to try and the goals for the coming year which are getting fewer as I get older. Like anybody, I have regrets. Here’s a few of them:-

  1. I wish I’d chosen a different course of study
  2. I wish I hadn’t stayed with an abusive husband for so long.
  3. I wish I’d dealt with my resulting depression and anxiety much earlier instead of trying to treat it myself.
  4. I wish I’d made more of an effort to have a social life to prepare me for the empty nest.
  5. I wish I’d learned to relax and I wish I’d kept my mouth shut more.
  6. I wish I’d not fallen out with my brother after my father’s death.

Regret is a powerful moral emotion because it implies a lot of self-criticism. I should have/have not done something. With it comes shame and sadness. Even bitterness.

We end up berating ourselves for a decision that seemed right at the time.  On their death bed, my father’s patients weren’t looking to confess or seek forgiveness. Sharing these deep feelings with someone who wouldn’t judge them was all that mattered. It was in the purging that relief was found.

The decisions I’ve made have brought me to this point in my life. Is it better or worse than it might have been had I made different decisions?  That’s a nonsense question. We are where we are as a former client of mine used to say and I am content with where I am.

End of life is about acceptance. We did our best with the tools and knowledge we had at the time so let it go. If you can do something to change things then I say do it now. Even if you have to swallow your pride. You don’t know how long you have and as my Dad used to say, don’t let the sun set on your quarrels.

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