The trouble with death

We don’t do death well in the west. It embarrasses us. Silences us. We aren’t sure how to talk about it or what to say. It’s up to the person doing the dying to speak for those who aren’t. So if they aren’t okay with it either, it’s like one enormous elephant. Stomping across the room.

When my mum was dying, she chose to believe she wasn’t. Decided she’d be the one to beat ludicrous odds and recover. We all went along with it too. I always thought it was because we wanted her to get better, but now I think it was just that none of us knew what to say. We have no language for illness. Or death. After a friend was diagnosed with cancer, she told me that only a couple of people had mentioned it to her, because nobody else knew what to say.

Unfortunately, Mum didn’t stop at just telling us she was going to live, she actually promised my daughter that she’d be around until she turned ten. That she’d take her to Disneyland like they’d always talked about, and things would be fine. So when they weren’t fine, when she went and died, it left a pretty pissed off seven-year-old who decided her nanna had lied to her. In Mum’s well-meaning attempts at protecting my child from the ugliness of death, all she’d done was give her false hope. And false hope might be fine for the person dying because it means they don’t have to have that horrible conversation, but it leaves a hell of a mess afterwards.

When Mum was moved into a palliative care ward, forcing all of us to stop pretending all would be fine, she decided it would be better for my children not to see her in hospital. She told me she didn’t want them going through the pain of seeing her so sick. I’m not sure that it was actually about them. Maybe she thought it was, but I think it was actually just too painful for her to see two people she loved so much, knowing she wouldn’t see them for much longer.

It meant, though, that they went from seeing her well enough to be walking and talking and laughing with them at home, to being days away from death. And the only reason they saw her at all in hospital towards the end was because I ignored her wishes and took them in. They knew they were saying goodbye and she was furious with me. I’ll never forget that steely glare she shot me, when she saw them in the doorway with all the crafted presents they’d made. I know it hurt her to see them that last time. My daughter sporting a new, very short haircut, and my son grabbing her hands. But for them, had they not at least seen her just that once, as sick as she was, they may never have understood her death. As it was, they were sort of robbed of the privilege of witnessing the stages of death where you adjust to seeing someone growing sicker. And that’s pretty hard to get your head around when you’re just a kid.

Mum died over a year ago now, but my daughter still grapples with the idea that she was shut out. She still doesn’t understand why she wasn’t allowed to sit by her nanna’s bed day after day like I did. She feels like her nanna didn’t want her anymore. Surely this is a failure, not of love or death, but of our complete inability as a culture to understand the process of death and to make it accessible to our children, no matter what age.

My daughter, who is now nine, was incredibly close to her nanna. They spoke daily. Saw each three or four times a week and had her own prize bedroom in Nanna’s house. They went on holidays together. They had a relationship that was totally separate to my relationship with them, and they were as close as a parent and child. Watching my daughter grieve was one thing. That’s normal after someone dies. But watching her struggle to understand why Nanna had cut her off to protect her was something different altogether. The intricacies of those decisions are so adult and so difficult to explain to a child. When a child is sick the only people they want around them are the people they love, so it can’t possibly make sense to them that someone they love so much wouldn’t want them near.

Before my mum died, I would have believed that death and children don’t mix. But now, having journeyed through all the mess and muck and sadness that death throws up, and watching both my kids, even my little one, come out the other side, more capable emotionally than ever before, I’ve realised it’s not about protecting them, it’s about involving them. Maybe the old practice of seeing your dead grandparent in a coffin was not such a grotesque idea after all. Maybe it is important to stare death down, to see it as real and not pretend that it just happens when you’re old, or tell them (even as an atheist) that someone is heading off to heaven because it sounds palatable. Kids believe in fairies. Santa. The Easter Bunny. They can believe that people they love are still with them after death in ways adults never will. So why do we choose to cut them out when in many ways they are better than us at dealing with it all?

My son was only four when his nanna died. He was as close to her as my daughter, but he didn’t have quite the language to express how he felt. Instead he found a bird, a ‘Nanna’ bird, that he believed had come to live in our backyard to see all the things that Nanna would not be around to see. He would show the bird things. Feed it in the morning. Talk to it like it was an extra member of our family. And sure enough, fifteen months on, that bird has followed us, even though we are living in a different house. Stayed with us. Hung out while the kids have grown and changed and learned new tricks. Maybe it’s not even the same bird as that one he first saw just days after Nanna died, but whatever bird it is, for him it was the thing he needed to be okay.

Mum used to be adamant that funerals were no place for kids, that they should be shielded from death in every way. My kids were at her funeral. Front row. Sobbing. They cried and cried and cried. And met her old friends. And drank too much lemonade. And listened to people talk about how much they loved her. They belonged there. They owned that day like she was only theirs. And as sad as it was, a funeral is the place where you realise your grief is not alone. And kids deserve that too.

At my son’s kindergarten yesterday one of the chickens in the hatching box died. Instead of whisking it away before any of the children saw its dead body, the teachers decided to leave it there. They involved the kids (all of them four or five years old) in making death boxes, or coffins. Then they had a ceremony in the garden under the climbing tree. A couple of children wrote things on a little cross and poked it into the ground. Others scattered petals from their favourite flowers. And at the end of the session, when they would usually come together for a book, their teacher showed them a story about the cycle of life. And they talked about death. One little girl explained that everything has to die because we would be too crowded otherwise. Another explained that even books die because the paper gets so old that it crumples and falls apart. One of the children talked very earnestly about how babies can sometimes die, especially if they swallow batteries. And my son talked about being alive and that he too would die one day. Just like Nanna. It was just another conversation to be had. Nothing more. Nothing less. They weren’t embarrassed. Or shy. Or upset. They were just talking.

While I listened, tears in my eyes at their pragmatic and sweet responses, their usual battles to be heard, their hands sticking up urgently as they waited to speak, I was amazed at how articulate they were. How beautifully they expressed what they thought about death. How comfortable they were talking about it. And how much wiser and more insightful than adults they sounded.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Nova Weetman has had short fiction published in Island, Wet Ink, Kill Your Darlings, Overland Express, Mslexia, Cardigan Press, and Tirra Lirra. She won the HarperCollins Varuna Manuscript Award and the FAW Award for Best Unpublished Manuscript. Her first YA novel will be published next year through UQP.

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  1. Thank you, Ms. Weetman for a considered and thought-provoking post. There are a myriad of comments I wish to say, but won’t for the moment. I’ll come back to them. Firstly though, I’ll comment on the first response to your post.
    ‘The trouble with talking about death is that death has no meaning’. Huh! The fact of talking about death constructs, among many meaning-making moments, sense for the participants talking about death. Death has great meaning. Talking about death is part of the process of making sense of an individual’s passing, especially if the death was sudden. If someone is dying over a period of time, the people around them have some time to adjust to their imminent passing. If someone dies suddenly, one is at a greater loss in understanding the person’s death.

  2. The “five stages of dying”? People can talk about and accept the inevitability of death, no argument. Funerals and funerary discourse is for and about the living, consoling and enabling those left behind to make their own sense of death. Death itself has no meaning.

    • Further, my own father informed everyone he was dying, but no one would listen or believe him. As this post outlines, it is difficult for people in post-traditional societies to talk about death and accept death’s inevitability. Why? Because death mostly has no meaning for those living in post-industrial societies. As Camus put it, death makes life absurd.

  3. That was a beautiful read Nova. I think you might have tapped some Kindergarten wisdom (or is it the chicken’s).
    I’ve come to see death as an opportunity. A chance to see through stories. The possibility of no fear.
    Leonard Cohen says it best when he peers through those aging eyes and croons “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

  4. Nice piece Nova. i think everyone has the right to handle imminent death in their own way and sometimes that doesn’t suit those of us left behind. My mother died unexpectedly 6 years ago and I miss her every day. ABC radio 774 had a talkback session on death on Wednesday morning this week and the raw emotion of those calling in was heart wrenching. I know it’s harder for little kids but your kindergarten seems to be a great place for them / him to be . Lots of love, Sue xx

  5. A very insightful and moving story.

    My father (78) committed suicide when my son was 4 years old. Dad was much loved, not just within our family but beyond, and it was difficult to know how to explain his death to one so young. Particularly as more than 1000 people were going to be at the funeral, and we knew that it would be a very emotional occasion.

    In the end, I plumped for (age-appropriate) honesty. I told my son that his grandfather had died of a sickness of the head and heart, and that the reason people were so upset was that they had loved him very much and didn’t want him to leave so suddenly.

    Many people disagreed with my decision and said there was no way a young child should have been told anything or allowed to attend such a funeral. But ten years on, I still feel it was the right choice – my son’s sense of loss was validated (he felt the same way as the grieving adults after all) and he was there to share his feelings with others. (No stiff upper lips in my family.)

    Yes, Dad’s death was sudden and horrific, but I feel the same way about kids being involved in other kinds of deaths too. Being able to be part of someone’s final journey – long or short – can help bring both closure, pleasure and a measure of acceptance to both.

  6. Beautiful piece. Thanks Nova. It’s funny isn’t it – I mean – we’re all going there. And yet – it’s so taboo and sacred and mysterious. To label it as meaningless is as absurd as to say that it never happened to anyone. It will forever be a source of curiosity, wonder, terror and denial. It’s the only thing upon which we can be certain, and yet – we ignore and downplay it. Perhaps it won’t happen to me! I wonder what it would feel like to know you were dying and to feel those around you wanting to somehow share what must be such an intensely personal thing – and so often disempowering. Strong women, used to caring for all those around them, losing their force, needing care themselves… How does a mother allow herself to succumb to that role? Your mum – so determined to protect others and keep her dignity she would even deny herself time with her cherished grandchildren. It’s so very complex – individual – like life itself. I hope I have the guts to embrace it.

  7. Great read Nova, very relevant to our society.
    I went through the drawn out death of my mother 3 years ago with my two girls (5 & 7 at the time) and it was a very daunting, confronting and emotionally wrought time for just me, let alone my girls. I decided to let them be involved in the whole journey with me, but it had mixed results. There were alot of discussions and fear responces but very devided reactions to seeing Mum’s dead body. My eldest girl shut down and refused to talk about it and my youngest went through the expected grieving process…
    I have thought alot about how our society deals with death and am of the opinion that the more you hide it, the more trouble you have resolving it for yourself… but this theory only works if death is open throughout the whole of society, not just one family – as the way we are raised to think, learn etc all counteracts the brutal reality of death.

  8. Thank you again, Nova. I’ve lived through 9 significant deaths in ten years, including both parents and my late-ex-partner – he and I had broken up in early 2011; he died on 31 October 2012; the first anniversary is just around the corner for me. At this point in my life, I feel I’ve experienced too much grief. I hope for the next year or so that no-one close to me dies; at the same time, obviously, no-one has any control over this. So yes, I’m living through grief and deep grief and slowly emerging out the other end (if anyone ever does). I think involving children in the deaths of loved ones is an honourable choice. I don’t know quite where to go from her, so I’ll sign off.

  9. That was meant to read ‘where to go from here’. I should read loudly my posts before I click the ‘Submit’ button.

  10. a wonderful piece on the need to face death head on…..i had a similar experience to that of your children when it came to the death of my grandmother many years ago-left waiting outside the hospital while the adults visited her in intensive care…..i recently felt completely ill-equipped by my life experience,schooling etc to deal with the death of my mother,but visiting her every day in the hospital and being able to talk to her and re-live shared experiences was a very important part of coming to terms with her passing….thank you…..

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