A Hole In The Heart
It’s my birthday this week which has meant celebratory preparations. Some people choose to ignore birthdays for various reasons but for others it’s an occasion to be marked and celebrated.
The key rituals in western society are births, marriages and deaths or hatches, matches and dispatches as they are also known. Births, birthdays and weddings tend to be very reflective and personal to the people being honoured, however funerals tend to have a general format and remain a solemn affair.
I understand the importance of these rituals. These pivotal events in our lives mean support from our loved ones and community is crucial to our wellbeing and progression. Once purely religious affairs now many are opting for humanist ceremonies with a celebrant leading personalised proceedings.
Funerals are evolving to some degree, bright colours can be worn, favourite songs can be played and there is emphasis on recounting and celebrating the person’s life. If these ceremonies are genuinely a celebration of a person and their life, where are the fancy frocks, suits, cake, music and dancing? I went to my Italian friend’s funeral where there was a sumptuous banquet with tables groaning from the weight of vast platters and serving bowls of Italian foods. There was much merriment and hearty feasting, photo’s of my friend were displayed around the restaurant and memories recounted and shared. I recall feeling distinctly angry about people enjoying themselves when I was consumed with sadness and grief so elected to boycott the food. Looking back this was not just a public declaration of my grief but also my subconscious discomfort at such frivolity at a funeral. There exists programming within us that means we have expectations of funerals being sombre.
When I hear the term a hole in the heart I immediately think of emotional heartbreak rather than a clinical, physical diagnosis.
Loss comes in many shapes and forms, the obvious loss everyone can identify with is bereavement. Looking at the definition of bereavement, it applies to a period of mourning linked to the death of a friend or family member.
Two deaths spring to mind that prompted not just grieving on a national scale but a global state of bereavement. The passing of Princess Diana and Elvis Presley had a startling worldwide effect and continue to do so to this day. The significant majority of people impacted by either of these deaths would not lay claim to being a family member or a close friend however their feelings of loss are not diluted because of this. I recall discovering my mother sobbing hysterically when Elvis died. Having never witnessed such an outburst of emotion from my mother my only conclusion was that my grandad must have died. My mother’s reaction and level of grief was not isolated and many years on, collective mourners will congregate at Graceland to continue to grieve and pay respects.
The access to people in the public eye via media means we have a perception of someone presented to us that is not exactly multi faceted. We have grown up with public figures and empathise with their personal and professional challenges which lends a familiarity and the illusion of intimate knowledge of someone. An unexpected death of a public person can have the same shocking impact as it would of a neighbour or acquaintance. A sense of unity amongst people is often created when this happens. The phrase “A nation grieves” was frequently used in the media following Diana’s death. There was a feeling of communal grief attached to her dying prematurely, the circumstances of her death and the thought of her son’s being without a mother.
This demonstrates to me that the death of a family member does not always signify the highest degrees or expressions of distress. There are many complexities and conflicts within family relationships when people are alive which can often be compounded in death. Blood ties do not necessarily mean there are shared values. The dynamics of grieving within a friendship or someone you aspire to and hold dear can be much more straight forward. Where it is a death of someone removed, feelings of sadness can prevail, however there is not the same impact on daily lives as a result of the absence of the person.
In a friendship where there are common interests and shared activities there are constant reminders of the absent friend. There may even be practical limitations to the continuation of a hobby. Losing a companion or partner can often mean radical life changes. There may be financial practicalities or caring responsibilities that mean someone has not only lost their friend, loved one or mate but might need to be uprooted or relocated which intensifies feelings of loneliness and anxiety.
Questions often arise such as “Is sudden death or illness easier to get over?” I don’t believe there is an easier option, I also think it is like comparing an apple to a banana. Sudden death is dominated by feelings of disbelief, shock and trauma, however being an onlooker to a loved one’s deterioration can be equally if not more traumatic. There are arguments to say that an illness allows you to prepare. I am in partial agreement with this, there are things that can be put in place to nurture yourself during someone’s illness but I struggle to see how you prepare for someone being absent from your life. Events can still shock even if they are not surprising.
As someone who has experience of having a child with an acute, life threatening, illness I have unfortunately bore witness to the deaths of several children. People say “It’s not the natural order…” It certainly isn’t but it happens. Death does not distinguish between young or old, good or bad. Premature death or the death of a child is counter intuitive and generally accepted as the worst thing that can happen. Not only is it all shades of wrong but it robs us and the young person of a future. It is not uncommon for loved ones to initiate support groups or charities in the name of their child. In the instance of suicide, accident or murder families often are driven to raise awareness in the public arena and push for change in legislation or practice to prevent others experiencing what they have suffered. This maintains the memory of the young person and ensures their ongoing place in daily life.
People often experience feelings of numbness in the early stages following a death. Heads and hearts tend to pull down the shutters when processing something of such magnitude. This is to protect us until we are able to consider what our life might look like without this person.
There are often multiple, conflicting emotions at play, to laugh or feel happy can feel disloyal or a betrayal of the person who has passed. Feelings of unfairness and injustice often lay beneath angry behaviour. People truly are not themselves when in a state of loss, they may react in ways that would not have been imagined, it’s so important to cut them some slack.
It’s not unusual to want to remain in a state of unhappiness in the belief that this is honouring and demonstrating love for the person. Queen Victoria is a prime example of this.
There are many options when faced with a bereaved person; cross the road and ignore them while thinking, ‘better this than say the wrong thing and upset them.’ Ignoring someone makes them feel worse. There is no right thing to say, nothing will magically erase the pain, knowing you’re not alone can help. Offers of help are often made but not followed up or taken up. Help with practicalities such as providing food, dog walking, transport and childcare. Its easier for people to say no than identify what they need and then ask for help.
I understand that sympathy cards are in existence for people to relay their condolences and let the people left behind know that they are in their thoughts. There is no other life event that exists that warrants the trotting out of platitudes and clichés, the sympathy card excels at this. I want a card to be invented that says on the front, “It’s not a blessing, It’s heartbreaking but you won’t always feel this raw.” Thankfully it is impossible to sustain a heightened state of grief but there are painful phases to go through. Go through them we must, excessive drinking or the use of other mind altering substances merely delays the process.
I have already made some loose funeral plans, I have my three songs to incite an appropriately, cathartic amount of weeping. Attire will be formal, suits, ball gowns and tiaras. The shindig to follow will have a banquet of my favourite foods, great tunes, I also insist upon a glitter ball, party bags and cake!
I reckon the best funerals are the kind of event that the absent guest would have loved to have been there.