Conversation with Sally from England
Kasia - You have experienced many losses in your life, so do you think that we as a society should learn more how to better handle conversations around death and dying and supporting others in grief?
Sally - I certainly think we should. We are frightened of discussing death for all sorts of reasons. The main one being that we feel awkward and fear saying the wrong thing and rather than say the wrong thing, we may avoid the discussion altogether. I think that it is much better to say something, however inadequate it may sound, than to say nothing at all. If we don’t talk about grief and the loss of a loved one, it is almost like denying the existence of that person. I am sure I have been guilty of this myself, despite having experienced losses in my own life and it is important to continually reexamine our ability to deal with the feelings of others when they go through a bereavement. But as a culture and a society we definitely have much to learn about our attitudes to death and dying.
Kasia - The question is, how should we do it? I don't know whether I know the answer to this question.
Sally - I am British obviously and I know only my own culture and I can say that we are quite...wait you could tell me what we are like.
Kasia - Well, when my father died, the most beautiful condolences I received from my British friends. I was also treated extremely well by my British employer and my work colleagues. I was granted a paid compassionate leave, received flowers and a card. Does it say anything about your cultural approach towards death and supporting in grief?
Sally - It is interesting, because we have a reputation for being reserved, don't we?
Kasia - But you are also very polite and diplomatic.
Sally - It is difficult to assess your own culture to be honest. Some cultures are so much more demonstrative and vocal in expressing their grief , which I don't think necessarily comes naturally to us. It doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with how we respond. But that’s really nice to hear that you were well treated at work. Did you notice a difference between the way British and non-British people behaved towards you?
Kasia - Frankly, I think it depends more on your personality and willingness to talk openly about death and dying than your ethnicity.
Sally - You are probably right. And I do think that knowing what it is like to be on the receiving end makes a difference. You are less reluctant to address it and you know what it is like to deal with other people's awkwardness around it. So I don't think you can generalise about culture and you’re right, it is more about your personality, relationships you have with your friends and family and your own ability to emote. When my mum died I was a child, I was 13, so it was completely different. I was from a family who did not really communicate on an emotional level, certainly not with my Dad at that time and as a consequence we didn’t really talk about what had happened. I am not saying that we didn't deal with my mum’s death well but we dealt with it in a very just 'get on with it' sort of way. Quite often you hear that families come together over grief which was not the case with us. This is no criticism of my dad or my sister, it’s about the way we were. I was of that generation where my dad went out to work, he was quite a reserved man anyway and we didn't know him all that well.
Kasia - The family dynamic at that time was quite different, wasn’t it? Was it in the 70s when your mum died?
Sally - Yes, mid 70s.
Kasia - When you go back to this period, do you think that you should have talked about your mum and her death more often? Or is it alright for you the way it was?
Sally - I think we just accepted it and we did not question the way we dealt with it. I mean in retrospect, I could look back and think: ‘Yes, it would have been nice if we had talked’, but we just didn't. In fact my dad wrote us two letters, I can’t remember over what time span, in which I think I learned more about his feelings for my mum than he ever expressed in any conversation we had. But I am not critical of him because my dad managed things incredibly well in lots of ways and he had so much to cope with. To be honest, my memory of that time is pretty fuzzy and I don’t remember the first year really well. Sometimes when trauma happens, and my mum’s death was sudden, your mind blocks out unpleasant memories.
Kasia - Do you remember what you were feeling or what you were thinking when your mum died. Any particular thoughts or emotions?
Sally - I remember when my dad told me but it all goes a bit blurry after that. Mum died in a car accident, we were all in the car and I was in hospital for a month afterwards. It was very hard initially to believe what was going on and I felt like it was just a bad dream. Then it really hit me when I got home and my mum was not there. It was pretty grim and the night I got back from hospital, I made some inappropriate joke just to try to lighten the atmosphere.
Kasia - Do you remember this joke? What did you say?
Sally - It was not even a joke really, I just made some comment about the table being set wrongly. It was light-hearted on my part but dad said something like 'We don't make jokes like that'.
Kasia - It is interesting that you still remember this situation.
Sally - I do remember it which is odd really given that I blanked a lot of that year. I remember moving house, the day the dog was put down and we were burgled twice during our first holiday after the accident. But I don't remember how I was feeling for much of that time and I don't remember the worst bits which is probably a good thing. But I am sure everyone was really kind and it is interesting how your mind can completely block out trauma in order to carry on. It was my way of protecting myself which is not very helpful to you. It is probably a different aspect of grief when it follows a traumatic event.
Kasia - And although you don't have a really good memory of this year, when you go back in your head to this year what do you think about yourself and the whole situation?
Sally - Interestingly, my sister and I had a conversation about this last weekend and we were saying that we think my dad was taken aback by how well we adjusted. So I think I felt a certain amount of guilt about that because he must have thought that we didn’t care but it was more that we didn't know how to share things with him. My way of dealing with everything was to go to friends' houses where it was much jollier and life was more normal. That's why I felt guilty at times because I was deserting the family home. But when you are a child you can be quite selfish and your way of coping is to escape the misery. We were also mindful of not being a burden to my dad. I don't remember what led us to believe that he was upset by our lack of emotion, it must have been something he said. It was probably just down to a lack of communication within the family.
Kasia - As an adult you didn't question the way you dealt with it?
Sally - No, I don't feel that we should have done things differently. I just think we dealt with it the best we could and I don't feel I've suffered long term as a result. We got through it and there probably is some kind of legacy as a result of what happened but I don’t choose to delve into that.
Kasia - And when your father died, how were you feeling?
Sally - Subsequently I got much closer to him. After I left home our relationship just got better and better. I knew for around 6 months that he was going to die so it was different from the sudden death of my mother.
Kasia - It doesn't have to mean that you were prepared.
Sally - I think the way I deal with death may seem quite cold or unfeeling to some people. I manage to put things away in such a way that I can deal with them. There were lots of things to organise after his death so I put aside my emotions initially, sorted things out alongside my stepmother and let it out slowly in a way that I could cope with it. I managed pretty well at the beginning, it’s just how I deal with things and is neither good nor a bad thing I guess but I really did miss him a lot over time and still do. I remember thinking for a long time after ‘Oh my god, I am never going see him again’.
Kasia - How old were you when your dad died?
Sally - 34. 26 years ago this year. Even now I massively mind that I never knew him as an old man. He was 69, it was a reasonable age, but he wasn't old. And I mind terribly that there were so many conversations I felt we should have had that we never got around to about all sorts of things. We had taken a long time to get to know each other and there was so much more to know. But the one thing we really bonded over was music. When I was growing up and in my 20s we used to just sit at home and listen to music, usually with a glass of something in our hands. For ages I found it difficult to listen to classical music after he died because it reminded me of him. I remember going to see the Royal Ballet perform the Nutcracker with a work colleague many years later, a ballet I had been to see as a kid with both my parents.. And at a particularly emotional point in the ballet, I remember being transported back to being that kid when everything was safe and everyone was alive and the tears were just welling up, hoping that no-one could see!
Kasia - Next time I watch the Nutcracker I will be thinking about you and your family.
Sally - And I am glad that I can be emotional because sometimes the way I respond to death and dying sometimes feels a bit cold even to me.
Kasia - So far, we have mainly been talking about how you have experienced your losses but you also must have supported many friends of yours and family members through bereavement. When we spoke last time, you said that you sometimes try to avoid saying certain things because you know that they may not bring any good. What are those things?
Sally - My personal feeling is that every person responds differently to grief and loss. I have my own way of dealing with it which is a gradual offloading but some people are immediately very traumatized by death. So I hope I would never say to anyone 'I have been there so I know what you are feeling' because actually I don’t know how they are feeling and this denies them their own feelings of grief about the person they loved. It may be of comfort that I have been through a grieving process but for that person their bereavement is special only to them. It is about them and not about me. So I hope that I don't do that, I really try not to.
Kasia - The problem is that when we speak we concentrate on speaking and responding rather than listening and giving space to talk.
Sally - Yes, and we are so bad at silence and gaps in conversations. Sometimes you need them. Sometimes you just need to listen and wait for people to start talking again.
Kasia - Cause it may encourage to talk and open up a little bit more.
Sally - I don't know whether this is a little bit off topic but for me the most challenging situation I think I ever faced in terms of supporting a friend who was facing death, as opposed to suffering a bereavement, was a friend of mine who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of 28. He was highly intelligent and articulate and there was no fooling him or hiding from uncomfortable truths. It would take too long to explain my own sense of inadequacy when he told me about his diagnosis and in the early days when he started to lose his mobility and later on his speech. In many ways he made it so easy on those of us who visited him, he helped us overcome our awkwardness in the face of his brutal disease but it should never have been that way round. Somehow he got that. He was remarkable actually. I got better at supporting him, I hope I was a good friend to him but never good enough or so it felt. Some of his friends never visited him, supposedly really close friends, because they just found it too difficult. For them. So what about him?
Kasia - It is a really crucial thing to remember when you commit to support someone who is going through a difficult time. This is more about them, than you.
Sally – That’s exactly the point. And I still feel challenged and that I could do this in a better way so the conversation has to be ongoing about our attitudes to death and dying.