Saturday, 17 December 2011

Star of wander...

I've drifted away from my blog the last few months; wandering off in other directions to see what else is possible in terms of having a voice and sharing thoughts across the blogosphere. Looking back I really regret not continuing this blog at the same time, because I feel like I've abandoned it – left Comfort Blanket lying in a muddy puddle by the side of the bloggy highway. And I also feel I've let you down – my loyal followers – by not commenting so much on your wonderful blogs, where you have continued to inform, entertain and generally shine, week in and week out.
The thing is, I decided several months ago that I wanted to start blogging as myself, rather than behind the name Comfort Blanket. And once I made that decision I put my energies into trying to get that up and running, attaching it to my website, which I'd get re-designed. Unfortunately, in an effort to save pennies, I'm getting it done by a friend of a friend who has to work on it in his spare time. So it's taking a while. But, finger's crossed, it will be ready by January. And once it is, I'll post the link on here so you can find me – if you still want to that is!
As we hurtle towards Christmas, I just wanted to step off the merry-go-round for a moment and wish you all a Very Merry Christmas and a Happy, Healthy, Joyful New Year. And thank you for taking the time to read, and comment, on anything I've posted here the last 12 months. Here's to 2012!

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Picture the past

I posted back in September (Making A Connection - 1st September 2011) about an episode of 'Who Do You Think You Are' and the emotion attached to searching for your ancestors. I finished my musings by saying...

"Alongside the thrill of making a connection to certain people in a certain place during a certain point in history, is the realisation that, like them, we are born, live, love, laugh, cry... and die. Here one moment, gone the next. That is our connection. It's the same journey, just different outfits". 


And, as if by magic, here is a set of incredible pictures, which seem to illustrate the point perfectly. 


http://www.howtobearetronaut.com/2011/10/rephotographing-budapest/

This fabulous website was brought to my attention earlier today by Mister CB (thanks love!). And I adore their clever header  – 'The past is a foreign country. This is your passport' – part-borrowed from author L P Hartley's famous opening words of his novel The Go-Between.


It's your chance to be Dr Who... get packing!




Sunday, 23 October 2011

Marco Simoncelli (20th January 1987 to 23rd October 2011)

Four minutes ago it was announced on BBC Sport that the MotoGP rider Marco Simoncelli has died after a horrific crash at the Sepang race in Malaysia. He was 24.
I was watching the race live this morning. We're MotoGP fans in Maison CB and saw the crash when it happened just minutes after the race started. And, as the BBC reported, it was horrific. Simoncelli fell and was hit by two other riders. As the replay revealed in all its terrible, slow-motion detail, he was run over in front of our eyes. The impact was such that it forced his helmet off, and that was a sure sign it may have been fatal. That and his motionless body on the track. As the commentators struggled to say anything other than "oh no... oh no", we saw a shot of Simoncelli's girlfriend back at the paddock. She was staring at the screen, her hands to her face. I'm not sure I can find the words to describe the look in her eyes.
Like all motor sports, motorcycle racing is fast and contains a huge element of risk. These young riders understand that, and, to many, that is part of the appeal. There are, however, surprisingly few fatalaties when you add together the number of races and competitors over the years. So it is a shock to see it. And in such graphic detail.
I'm not sure if anyone else who reads this blog is even interested in MotoGP, but it's the end of a life and that's what usually moves me to write a post. Compared to his family and friends, my reaction to Simoncelli's death is pretty insignificant. But I do feel shocked and upset. I can't quite seem to switch off the action replay in my head. Or that look on his girlfriend's face.
I visit families all the time who have lost loved ones in accidents. Sometimes they are young. Sometimes their death has been witnessed by others. A death seen by thousands of track-side fans, or millions of TV viewers, doesn't make it any sadder or more significant. They are all tragic in their own way. But this morning served as a sharp and terrible reminder to me of what some people have gone through before I knock on their door.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Shhhhhh...

I feel bad. This has been the longest gap between posts I think I've ever had. But a rush of work, combined with a re-think on the bloggy front, have contributed to a large pause in the conversation.
But silence is good, right? It's actually 'golden' according to Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. And putting a stop to the external and internal chatter that fills our every waking moment is the only way to really engage with our true selves. Or so I read, anyway.
So, perhaps this quiet spell has been a good thing. A blessing. A gift from me to you. Hell, what's to feel bad about? Let's celebrate! But keep the noise down...

Sunday, 4 September 2011

The fallen

Falling Man by Richard Drew
As we approach a decade since the 9/11 attacks, there are the expected news stories, TV documentaries, magazine articles, etc. recalling the horrific events of that day and paying tribute to those who died. In the Sunday Times today was a very interesting feature questioning 'Why America won't talk about the scores who jumped from the Twin Towers'.
In the article, David James Smith investigates the response of, among others,  the media, officials, emergency services and, of course, the families of those who leapt to their deaths. Smith encounters resistance – some feel the term 'jump' or 'jumper' is inappropriate as they were 'forced or pushed out by the heat of the flames'. Smith writes, "To be a jumper, many people feel, implies the act of suicide, an act that some perceive as shameful".  Officially, all the deaths as a result of 9/11, with the exception of the hijackers were ruled to be homicides, not sucides.
Others, including firefighters, are so traumatised by witnessing the sight and sound of the falling bodies they can barely speak about it. The first firefighter to be killed on 9/11 – Danny Suhr – was, in fact, hit by a falling woman. Some families have taken comfort from the fact that their loved-ones decided to jump, as it meant they had taken some control in an out-of-control situation. One mother saying "They were falling into the arms of God".
Of all the photographs taken of those who fell to their deaths, is one known as 'The Falling Man' taken by photographer Richard Drew (see pic above). It is an incredible photograph, and one which has caused great debate over the identity of the individual and whether it was morally right to publish such a picture. Drew has said he "liked to think of the Falling Man as the photographic equivalent of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, representing all those who had died by jumping or falling".
This was a really interesting feature, on a subject which will always remain complex and highly-emotive. And among the thoughts and feelings provoked as I read about these men and women who fell to their deaths, is how must it feel to have to choose your death? Would I have stayed put to be consumed by fire, or let the building collapse on me? Or would I jump out of the window? Suicide is choosing to turn away from life. These people chose one form of death to escape from another. There is no word for that.



Thursday, 1 September 2011

Making a connection

Last night I settled down to watch 'Who Do You Think You Are' on BBC One. I love this series – it's always an entertaining and informative mix of history lesson, practical advice on how to find ancestors, following the trail around the globe, and, of course, seeing 'celebrities' in a different light.
This week it was the actor Larry Lamb. And what a story! He came from a family of well-known showmen and wild beast menagerie owners. One great-great uncle, called James Day, was a lion tamer known as Jimmy Wildbeast (see pic), while his other, more famous great-great uncle was Thomas Day, alias Martini Bartlett – king of the lion tamers. Fantastic! But alongside the surprising characters, was the rather sad story of Larry's mum who had been adopted and always hoped to see her birth mother again. Unfortunately, she never did.
In every episode I've watched over the years, there is always a moment where even the seemingly 'hardened' celebrities start to get emotional. Jeremy Paxman being a case in point. Sometimes it's because they feel sorry for ancestors who have suffered or fallen on hard times. Or perhaps they have met up with relatives they never knew existed. But last night, Larry Lamb became very emotional as he realised he had more in common with his ancestors than just looks or characteristics. After explaining he had found strength from knowing who his grandparents were, he wanted to say something else, but had to take a moment to compose himself. When he did, he said "Because you're just a part of the journey yourself".
I thought his strong reaction to this notion was both interesting and very moving. Like many people, I've attempted to trace my family tree and, alongside the thrill of making a connection to certain people in a certain place during a certain point in history, is the realisation that, like them, we are born, live, love, laugh, cry... and die. Here one moment, gone the next. That is our connection. It's the same journey, just different outfits.


Friday, 19 August 2011

Sew in love

Those of you who have followed me for a while (gawd love yer) will know I take pleasure from putting needle to thread and 'centering' myself with a spot of sewing, for reasons explained in an earlier post
http://thecomfortblanket.blogspot.com/2010/12/comfort-and-joy.html
So when I read this story from across the Pond earlier today, my heart swelled. All these women sewing together, the idea of helping families and playing a role in the life (or, actually, the death) of someone in such a way, the equality in death these garments bring. A wonderful story, a beautiful idea. From what I have read about Jewish customs – in particular surrounding dying/death/funerals/bereavement – I think there is a lot we could learn. Hope you are equally moved by this article from North County Times (nctimes.com)...


SAN JOSE ---- The handful of sewing machines and bolts of plain white cotton muslin didn't look like much, but at a recent Sunday's Sew What? meeting, they kept alive deeply rooted Jewish customs with a meaning thousands of years old.
Inside a room at the Congregation Beth David in Saratoga, a small group of women sewed all morning and into the afternoon, cutting and stitching pattern after pattern of the same outfit: traditional Jewish burial clothing.
"Everyone, whether rich or poor, is dressed the same this way," said Betty Menkin, the group's founder. The clothes, which include a shirt, pants, a robelike jacket, belt, head covering and burial sheet ---- for both men and women ---- are all made of white fabric and emphasize equality in death.
Menkin was inspired to create the sewing group in 2004 after hearing about similar ones at a national Jewish conference. The draw for the participants, she said, is being able to contribute something, even peripherally, to ease the transition for the deceased's relatives.
"We sew these garments, and we hope they'll never have to be used," Menkin said. "But when the time comes, we've lent a helping hand to the family. Every person who helped sew the clothing has touched the process."
Traditional Jewish burial also involves a washing and dressing of the body and a vigil until burial. The prescribed plain clothes, simple casket and graveside ceremony are meant to keep the funeral humble, and each step of the burial is clearly delineated in Jewish tradition ---- something that the bereaved family finds helpful.
"People in general have dealt with deaths of family members for eons," Menkin said. "Judaism developed a set of rules about how to proceed, and it's comforting to have a guidebook, a recipe. It gives structure when you're grieving, especially if it's the first time."
Currently, about eight or 10 of Beth David's congregants undergo traditional burial each year, but the number may grow, said Beth David's Rabbi Philip Ohriner.
"As word spreads of more people choosing to do so, the more comfortable others feel in doing the same," he said.
Menkin said the community-based burial traditions ---- including having community members act as shomer, or vigil guards, with the body, and handle burial preparations ---- allow the congregation to re-adopt a role in a practice that is otherwise parceled out to private businesses such as funeral homes.
And the garment sewing, while just one part of the process, can be an important healing step for those who participate, she added.
Menkin recalled that a woman who'd been sewing shirts for the group was called to her father's bedside where he was dying of pancreatic cancer. As she sat with him until his final hours, she finished sewing his shirt by hand and found that the tangible action helped her come to terms with his death.
Another group member, San Jose resident Christel Sanders, said that when her husband died in 2007, she'd also been very comforted to know that details of his burial such as his clothing would be taken care of by those around her.
"I started sewing these because at the time, it seemed like the right thing to do," she said. "But after (my husband's) death, it took on a new meaning."

Friday, 12 August 2011

Look for the good

Watching people steal from charity shops, mug a young man who thinks he is being helped, set fire to businesses which are already struggling to survive, etc. has left me feeling as incensed as the next person.
So, after several days of watching and listening to the news, and getting more angry and despairing by the minute, I was really grateful this morning to come across the following comment/blog, offering a more hopeful and positive perspective. I hope they have the same effect on you...

http://www.actionforhappiness.org/news/riots-show-why-the-happiness-agenda-is-vital

http://helengraves.co.uk/2011/08/why-i-love-peckham/






Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Head space

The thing about being sat on the back of a motorbike for 2,062 miles is that it gives you time to think (it also gives you time to develop numb buttocks, creaky knees and ear ache, but we won't go into that...)
As someone who is always jotting down ideas and making notes, it's frustrating at first – all that time to let your mind run riot, but no means of retaining any little flashes of inspiration. Just relying on the old grey matter to 'hold that thought' until pen and pad come to hand. But once I got over the need for notes, it was good to let those thoughts and ideas run wild, free and uncaptured.
France flashed by, Spain sweltered, and the white cliffs of Dover have welcomed me home. So now I can attempt to unravel 14 days of 'thought spaghetti' and see if there are any useful musings among the meatballs, so-to-speak...


Saturday, 23 July 2011

Au revoir

I'm off on my jolly holidays, mes amis, to relax, re-charge and drink a cocktail or three. Look forward to catching up with you all again in a few weeks. In the meantime, enjoy the heatwave which is bound to hit the shores of the UK the minute I depart...

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Fast cars and fairways

Last week I watched a really good BBC tribute to golfer Seve Ballesteros, who died of brain cancer earlier this year at the age of 54. I'm not a fan of golf, but I was a fan of Seve. There is no doubt he had the skill, dedication and passion to become one of the biggest names in the game, but it was his charisma, flair, exuberance, charm and strength of character that made him a cut above. And, may I add, his Latino good looks.
In addition to footage of his greatest golfing triumphs, Seve talks about his cancer. There is a beautiful moment towards the end of the programme – and his life – where he says, in that wonderful Span-glish accent he had, "I don't want you to feel sorry for me. I have been the luckiest person in the world. I have so much luck... and this thing that has happened to me is a little thing compared to other people who have tougher times, and don't have the opportunity to feel life as I did." What courage... You can still see Seve: The Legend on BBC i-player until 11.24pm on Sunday.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b012lt4d/Seve_The_Legend/
At the opposite end of the sporting spectrum to golf is Formula One. And, while Seve strolled the fairways, another young man with as much passion, flair, skill and Latino va-va-voom was proving to be the fastest man to ever sit behind the wheel of a racing car – Ayrton Senna. And last night I went to see an incredible docu-film about him called Senna. http://www.sennamovie.co.uk/
Seve and Senna were both teenage prodigies who burst into the sporting spotlight bearing the love, hope and adoration of their countrymen and women. They were both out-spoken, enchanting, individual forces of nature. And both died young. But while Seve's death was un-related to his sport – his cancer one of life's 'unlucky' twists of fate – Senna's luck ran out on the race track, as he lead the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
Senna was the last driver to die at the wheel of a Formula One car. Seve was not the last man to die of cancer. Similar beginnings, different endings, but both inspirational in their own way.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Honest to goodness

When someone you love has died from an illness – one which you, and they, know will only end with their ending – it is often too painful to begin to imagine what they must be thinking or feeling. Partly because, unless you are the one staring death in the face, you can never really understand how that feels, and also if you let you mind wander in the direction of their physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual pain, your sorrow will overwhelm you.
So when I visit a family to arrange a funeral service, I always tread carefully when it comes to discussing how death occurred. While it's not necessary to share details with everyone on the day of the funeral, it does help me to understand how the family are feeling and what their loved one went through, and it's crucial in helping me provide the most relevant words of comfort for them during the ceremony. There are also times when a few words about the cruelty of dementia or the speed of cancer bring a reality to proceedings and a relevance for others attending, which I, personally, think is a good thing. As long as the family are OK with that, of course.
I went to visit a young woman recently who was in her 20's. Her father had died of cancer and, with her parents divorced some years earlier and no siblings, she was left to arrange the funeral. In my capacity as a celebrant, I was, understandably, concerned about how our meeting would go. At such a young age, would she be able to cope with talking about her dad, his funeral, and be able to make the necessary, emotional decisions? But, I was in for a surprise. And this was all due to the honesty with which she approached and talked about her father's illness. I won't go into details, but what stayed with me most about our conversation was the fact that she said "Dad was frightened". It was so heart-wrenchingly frank. I felt terribly sorry for him, and for his daughter, but also admired her for being able to get those three words out without falling to pieces in front of my eyes, which, under the circumstances, she had every reason to do so.
I'm not making any judgements with this post, as there is no right or wrong way to discuss such a sensitive issue. Some will tell you how their loved-ones coped, others won't. And that is absolutely fine. But those words stayed with me for quite some time.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Moving on

We have arrived – safe, sound and fully techno functional – in our new home. Hoo-ray! It's been sunny every day since we moved in, so much so that we're wondering if we haven't stumbled across a unique ecosystem. Perhaps Mother Nature has simply decided to display a sky that's as blue as the language which preceded the move we thought would never happen. Either way, it is a joy. And we're happy.
Interestingly, the emotion I felt on leaving our old home rather took me by surprise. It shouldn't have done, as it is a loss of a sort. But we'd only been there for four years, and, while it had been a happy four years, I wasn't particularly sad to be leaving. But that all changed after THE longed-for phone call came through to say the monies had cleared and you can now pick up/drop off the keys. Things went from calm to anxious as we hurried to pack the last few remaining essentials (kettle and milk) before dashing out of the front door behind the removal men. Just as I was turning the key in the lock, my other half said "this is it then" and I suddenly felt this huge wave of sadness, and horror that I was about to just run out of the door without some sort of meaningful leave-taking. I opened the front door again and stood in the hallway, taking in one last look around. So we said "goodbye" to the house, thanked it for all the good times, and left...
As I drove away I thought about the sense of panic I felt at not having said goodbye. I did think to myself, if I feel like this over a house, how does it feel to hear a loved-one has suddenly and unexpectedly gone forever? Forgive me for making the comparison between a house and a life. But loss is loss. Some losses are immense, and some are momentary. This was momentary but it made its point.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

We interrupt this broadcast...

A miracle has happened! We have finally exchanged contracts in the not-so-enjoyable game of house buying/selling, which has gone on far, far longer than we could possibly have imagined. But now, it has finally come together - hooray! So, this time next week, the removal men will be (carefully) packing their van with our belongings, in between (several) cups of tea and (one too many) biscuits. And we'll be on our way to our new home!
So, I'm going to be taking a little break for a few days from the land of Blogs - both in terms of posting and commenting - in order to get ourselves from A to B in the smoothest way possible. And hope (with all my might) that the promised broadband support will show itself on arrival, as promised, and normal service can resume. I look forward to communicating with you all from the new Comfort Blanket HQ some time very soon!

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Friday, 10 June 2011

From little acorns...

I've just returned home from leading a funeral ceremony in a garden. The garden belonged to the much-loved man we were there to pay tribute to. It was filled with a colourful array of flora and fauna, family and friends, as well as his three little dogs who sat at my feet during the whole service. At the end we planted a nine-year-old oak tree sapling, which this man had grown from an acorn.
The combination of saying farewell to this seemingly wonderful man, in the garden which was the heart of his home, as the birds sang, the sun shone, and everyone shared stories and laughter, has left me feeling so uplifted I barely know what to do with myself.
And what did everyone say to me afterwards? "I had no idea you could do this sort of service in your own garden. I wish I'd known when my mum/dad/husband/friend died..."
Yes - you can have this sort of service and I wish more people did. We're a nation of garden lovers after all. We did have a short committal service at the crematorium beforehand, for the immediate family. But the garden ceremony was the opportunity to have all the tributes, poems, readings, speakers, the family wanted, without having to squeeze it in to a 20 minute slot. And it was perfect.
Hopefully, the more this type of two-fold ceremony takes place, the more other people will embrace the idea. There may not be many just yet, but from little acorns...

Sunday, 5 June 2011

There IS life after death

Almost every funeral ceremony I write does, at some point, promote the belief that while there is a part of our loved one that cannot remain with us, there is also a part of them that lives on in our hearts and lives. I refer, of course, to the life and love we shared, the memories we have in common, and the influence they had on our lives. But your loved one could also live on in the hearts and lives of complete strangers, who never even knew of their existence until they ceased to exist.
I'm talking about organ donation. That final act of generosity almost all of us are all capable of fulfilling, but only 28% of us have signed up to (according to the Organ Donation Register). I know that agreeing to donate your organs is very much a personal choice. But for me, it's something that doesn't take too much thinking about. If I am dead and someone else's life, or quality or life, could be saved and improved by using the organs I have finished with, then please take them. The thought of my heart beating life into someone else's body, or my eyes being used to see the world once again, has no negative connotations. In fact, I think it is rather beautiful and extremely comforting.
The Organ Donation website at http://www.organdonation.nhs.uk/ukt/  is great. As well as information on how to quickly and easily register, there are also lots of really interesting statistics, true-life stories and frequently-asked questions. I know organ donation can be a sensitive and emotional issue, and it's not really my place to try to influence you if your mind is set against it for whatever reason. But, as at today's date, there are currently 7,548 people waiting for a transplant. So, whether you have a donor card or not, I think it's certainly worth a click...

Friday, 27 May 2011

Rise and shine

Considering the seemingly random nature of bookings I receive, both in terms of the number of funerals and the cross-section of society, it never ceases to amaze me how patterns can emerge. Some months the ages are almost identical, other months it will be cause of death. This month I have led three funerals for elderly men, each of whom were never married, had no children, and all the arrangements were made by their nieces.
When you arrange a funeral service, you are dealing with both the death of someone, and the events of their life. And, sadly, that's when you see how some people's lives are anything but rosey. For one of these elderly gentlemen, having learning disabilities saw him banished by his own family to an institution at the age of nine. He was told he'd only be staying for two weeks; he was there for 50 years. Thankfully the care, love and kindness that had been missing throughout most of his life was present during his final years, thanks to a compassionate niece and the dedicated nursing staff at the care home she found for him. And this was the focus for our ceremony.
When it comes to life, we all experience the good and the bad, the dark and the light, the happy and the sad. When it comes to funerals, we have to find ways to shine a light on every life lived, even those who seem never to have emerged from the shade. It's a challenge at times – you want an honest reflection of a life but without dwelling on the sadness. But for me, the darker the life, the more determined I am to find the positives, and give them their day in the sun.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Instant comfort

In true Comfort Blanket spirit, here's a link to a lovely idea, which was sent to me by my good friend ric-rac.

http://lilsonnysky.blogspot.com/2011/05/instant-comfort.html

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Hand-made... with love

Back in March, I published a post with some thoughts on the many ways people 'stay with us' after they have died. See http://thecomfortblanket.blogspot.com/2011/03/always-something-there-to-remind-me.html
In this post I mentioned a lovely lady who was a potter and whose funeral I had led, exactly eight week's ago today. Well, this afternoon, at the same time and in the same chapel, I lead the funeral service for her beloved husband.
It's not often you have the privilege of meeting the person whose funeral you are leading. But I had, of course, met this charming man when I arranged his wife's funeral ceremony. And, as you can see from my previous post, he very much left a deep impression on me. This inspirational couple had shared 70 years of their lives together, even working alongside each other in the pottery – she designing and crafting, while he fired and glazed. They remained very much in love and were often seen in the village during their final years, strolling along hand-in-hand. Their togetherness earning them the nickname 'the Love Birds'.
It's not uncommon for a spouse to die within a short space of time after their husband or wife. They even have a name for it - 'the widowhood effect'. Last year researchers from St Andrews University studied more than 58,000 married couples. Their findings suggested that 40% of men and 28% of women die within three years of their partner. The study took into account a wide range of causes of death, but even after making allowances for factors such as cancer, smoking, accidents etc. scientists found 'powerful evidence' that many widows or widowers were more likely to die because they had lost their spouse. (Sunday Times 14th November 2010)
I'm not suggesting this is the case here. We don't really know why this man had died so soon after his wife - he was, after all, quite elderly and had one or two health issues. Although nothing that had given cause for immediate concern. But what we do know is that they had both lived a full, rich, happy, colourful life, surrounded by family and friends who loved them dearly. I only knew him for a few hours, but what luck to have shared a lifetime...
Before I left the chapel today, their children presented me with this beautiful teapot, made by the Love Birds, as a 'thank you'. Despite protesting that I merely did my job, they insisted that I take it. So now, I too can join the family and friends of this talented pair who have pieces of pottery to remember them by. What an honour...

Monday, 16 May 2011

To the very end

Dying Matters Awareness Week starts today, and to launch the event the results of a survey have been published, confirming what we all know – death is still a taboo subject. You can see the results here:
http://www.dyingmatters.org.uk/site/dying-survey
I do appreciate what Dying Matters is trying to do but what would have been even more thought-provoking, and useful, would be to know WHY people don't want to think or talk about death. Although you could argue "well that's obvious isn't it?" I think the results could be interesting and, perhaps, even more revealing than the expected responses of "it's too morbid, scary, depressing, painful" etc.
As an aside, I was surprised and impressed by the son of a lady whose funeral I led recently, when he asked if he could go 'behind the scenes' after the service and witness her coffin going into the cremator. This is something anyone can do and is common practice among Hindus and Sikhs. But this is the first time I've had a family member make a request. His brothers and sisters, and his dad, didn't feel it was something they wanted to do. He just said, by way of explanation, "I want to accompany her right through to the end" – and he did. Good for him.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Are you receiving me?

Those of you who follow this little 'ol blog regularly (for which I kiss you on both cheeks) will know that I often have the odd gripe about crematorium chapels, and the limitations it puts on being able to provide a really 'good' funeral service. So you'd think I'd be happy when the much rarer opportunity to lead a graveside service comes along, wouldn't you? Well, having done so yesterday, I'm afraid I felt restricted by that too. "Is she never happy?!" I hear you cry. Well, here's why...
First of all, there's the issue of trying to create a nice 'grouping' around the grave. Yesterday, as is common in council cemeteries, we were part of a row. So although I could stand at the head of the grave, no-one could stand either side of it because you had an existing grave one side, and the huge pile of freshly dug earth the other. So already there is this 'distance' between you and the family/friends.
Secondly, there is the challenge of being heard. You try to raise your voice in a way that isn't actually shouting at people but loud enough so those who always seem to hang back (no matter how many times you invite them to step forward) can hear you. Depending on the location of the cemetery, you also have traffic noise to contend with and, sometimes, the distraction of the odd visitor who is tending a nearby grave. The trouble with 'semi-shouting' is that all your careful crafting of the content of the service – those specially selected words, phrases, quotes, poems, readings – lose some of their subtle effect. And there is no music to do what music does best at such times. Another barrier to making yourself seen and heard is when the coffin bearers are stood in front of you during the most emotional part of the service - the committal.
Thirdly, there's the awful fake grass 'matting', similar to that used by greengrocers, which is laying around in different size pieces. I appreciate it is doing its best to hide the fact that we are all standing beside a six-foot hole in the ground. But when the disguise is haphazard, it can look like a bad episode of Ground Force.
Finally, there is the weather. Yesterday was windy but sunny. The forecast was much worse...
It wasn't a disaster – the family did say afterwards that they thought the service was lovely and went as well as they hoped for. And I'm sure that, not having had a lot of experience with graveside services, many of the above issues may improve over time as I learn how to position people, speak up etc. But I do think the layout of council cemeteries remains a challenge. I have led a few services at my local natural burial ground, and they were certainly a much nicer experience. Both for me and the family, I think.
Once again, I feel it is a case of celebrants and families trying to make the best of what is currently available to us. Although any tips from those of you who have much more 'graveside' experience than me would be most welcome!

Pencil power

Here's a touching blog post I came across the other day...

http://richbailey.blogspot.com/2011/04/something-really-different.html

Friday, 6 May 2011

Seven lessons from 7/7

This is a really thought-provoking and moving article on the inquest verdict of the 7th July 2005 terrorist attacks on London.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/may/06/seven-lessons-7-july-bombings

Thursday, 5 May 2011

One woman's grief

Last month, Matt Cardy from Getty Images was named Photographer of the Year at the 2011 Press Awards. This was one of his winning photographs. The caption reads 'A woman clings to the hearse carrying her cousin, 20-year-old Private Douglas Halliday, whose body was brought home from Afghanistan'. When I looked at this young woman with her head and hands on the glass, I got a real sense of the 'distance' between the living and the dead – the hearse being a physical barrier that simply echoes the emotional one. Very, very moving.

http://www.pressawards.org.uk/modules/entries/images/entries-00877-00177-l.jpg

And the happiness keeps on coming...

Having pledged my support to Action for Happiness (see last post) I've just received a brilliant newsletter from them. Full of updates and ideas, including how to start your own Happiness Group locally. When I clicked through to the link, it listed this website as a resource – Random Acts of Kindness
http://www.randomactsofkindness.org/ 
It is fantastic! Among the many touching ideas is one from a lovely lady called Holly whose friend Steve is terminally ill and can no longer travel. She has asked all her other friends to send Steve a postcard, either from the town/city they live in or if they go away, saying something like "Hi Steve. Thinking of you..." I thought that was a great idea. I did have a fleeting thought that is there a danger of upsetting the person because the postcards are a reminder of what they can no longer do? But then I imagined if I was ill, and all these postcards kept arriving from people who were thinking of me, how I would feel. I think I'd feel extremely touched and very grateful.
Goodness me – just by joining the Action for Happiness gang I feel extremely uplifted, inspired and, well, happier!

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Action for Happiness

I first became aware of Action for Happiness when they partnered the BBC in January for a week-long Happiness Challenge. I scribbled down the web address after seeing the launch on Breakfast News, then promptly rushed out of the door and head-long into another week. Now it's May and I have finally taken a look at their website
http://www.actionforhappiness.org/
Any movement that focuses on building a happier society where "people care less about what they can get for themselves and more about the happiness of others" gets my vote. The website informs and inspires – I especially like the set of happiness posters, one of which is pictured
http://www.actionforhappiness.org/happiness-posters
You may already be switched on to this – I am, as I said, a little late in getting to the party. But now I'm here, anyone care for a dance?

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Hearts and flowers

In the build up to Friday's Royal Wedding, I've enjoyed watching one or two of the many TV programmes looking back on royal weddings of the past. (Well, I was enjoying them until I realised that it's 30 years since Charles and Diana got married. Yes, 30 years! There's nothing like a cultural reference to shock you into realising you're not as young as you were). But, aside from the frocks and flowers, pomp and ceremony, the thing that most impressed me was the tradition of the bride to lay her bouquet on the grave of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey. This was started in 1923 by Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, whose eldest brother Fergus, was killed in the First World War during the Battle of Loos in 1915. A completely spontaneous, heart-felt gesture at the time, by a woman who had watched the young men of her generation head to war and never return, not even to be buried. Elizabeth left her flowers on the way to the alter, whereas subsequent royal brides have placed them on the way back. Either way, it's a sensitive act and, sadly, while men continue to die fighting for their country, is still as relevant today as it was then.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Roll away the stone...

I've been sat in front of my computer screen for an hour trying to compose an eloquent blog post about 'resurrection' but every attempt to get my point across has so far sounded a bit, sort of, preachy. This is frustrating, and quite the opposite of what I'm trying to say, which, in a nutshell, is...
It's Easter Sunday. Some people are in church celebrating their belief that Jesus has risen from the dead. Some people are at home eating chocolate. Some will do both. I'm not judging. But you don't have to be religious to believe in resurrection. We all experience 'rising again' or being brought 'back to life' after periods of loss, heartache, and the end of our world as we knew it. So, rather than Easter being divided into those who believe and those who don't, how about everyone acknowledging that there is hope and life in spite of death. Because it's happening all around us, every day. Not just once a year...
Not quite as poetic as I'd like to have put it. But I hope you get the gist. Happy Easter!

Friday, 15 April 2011

Way to go, Walter

When it comes to our longevity, I believe it's as much to do with luck and genes as it is about the things we're able to control, such as exercise, eating, etc. Having said that, there are things we can do to make whatever years we have as fulfilling as possible, both for ourselves and those we share this crazy little planet with. And so, with that in mind, I salute Walter Breuning – the world's oldest man who has just died in the US at the age of 114.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/8452976/Worlds-oldest-man-dies-aged-114.html

When asked the secret to a long life, Walter suggested:
1. Being kind to others
2. Eating two meals a day
3. Keeping your mind and body busy
4. Embracing change
5. Not being afraid of death
I hope people take these suggestions to heart when they read/hear about Walter across the media today. In particular the idea of being kind and not afraid of death. Walter said, "We're all going to die. Some people are afraid of dying. Never be afraid to die. Because you are born to die".
Well said, Walter. Life only really starts once you accept that it ends. Move over Bruce Springsteen – 'Born To Run' is out. There's a new anthem in town...

Sunday, 10 April 2011

All the fun of the fair

There is a saying "One day your life will flash before your eyes... make sure it's worth watching". My life flashed before my eyes this weekend when I went to our local spring fair. The first 'flash' happened when my friend (who has no sense of motion sickness) persuaded me (who can't even sit in the back of a car without going green) to go on a ride with her. It was a ride designed to let your stomach know you were alive, your heart believe you might not be much longer, and your head wish you were anything but. It was ghastly.
However, after making it back to terra-firma and taking a (long) moment to compose myself, we all walked around the fairground, taking in the sights, sounds and smells – candyfloss, bright lights, goldfish, music, fluffy toys, waltzers, tin cans, dodgems... And mingling through the multi-coloured mayhem were couples, families, and groups of teenagers, all out for a good time. It took me right back to the days when the fair arriving in my home town was one of the highlights of my childhood/teenage years. The rides may require stronger hydraulics (and stomachs) now, and the music isn't quite so easy on my ears, but the sense of excitement and wide-eyed wonder that I used to have came back to me in a flash. And it was worth the watch...

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

SOLD!

Good news friends and followers, for we have just accepted an offer on our house. Now we've just got to find a new Maison CB! I shan't bother you all with blow-by-blow accounts of surveys, solicitors and such-like – this isn't Facebook, after all. Just thought I'd share my news as I did tell you when we went 'on-sale' in February. http://thecomfortblanket.blogspot.com/2011/02/handle-with-care.html
Exciting times...

What do you live for?

Mr CB has just e-mailed me this clip. It's an advert from a company doing its best to pull at our heart strings and show it is in touch with humanity. I tried not to succumb. However, despite the dodgy guitar and Rocky-like weight training bit, the tissues were out...  

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vksdBSVAM6g&feature=player_embedded


Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Always something there to remind me...

Two things happened this week, which neatly fit under the banner of 'things people leave us when they die'. Although, I will point out, this isn't a post about wills and probate.
During the closing words of every ceremony, I try to provide comfort to families with phrases along the lines of "Fred did not disappear with the end of his life and your relationship with him is by no means finished. He will live on in your hearts and lives, becoming as much a part of your future as he was of your past", that sort of thing. But along with the loving memories are the more tangible reminders of the life we shared with someone. Here are two examples...
Firstly, I led a service for a wonderful lady who was an extremely talented potter. Her work, which was infused with her love of nature and wildlife, was exquisite. Her husband and son took great pride in showing me her creations and, over the course of several hours, they would take it in turns to run out of the room, returning with a teapot or statue, which they handed to me with big smiles and bursting hearts. After the ceremony itself, several friends and family members told me they had pieces of pottery this lady had made and given to them as gifts, which they used every day. Now that decorative bowl, coffee pot or vase would appear even more beautiful to them than it had before.
Secondly, I was chatting to a lady yesterday about her mum and I asked if I could see a picture of her. When she bought the picture in, it was as if her mum was sat right there opposite me, so real was the likeness between them. This has happened many times before, but for some reason yesterday it resonated with me more than usual. I thought about how I have my dad's eyes and hair, my mum's hands and feet, and my nan's nose. When I smile I look like one sister, and when I frown I look like the other. My tastes and attitudes have been influenced by all my family. And my loud laugh, well, that's mine I'm afraid...
But my point is that we can still see and feel people after they've gone, through the things they have created – whether that's a fruit bowl or a baby. It's a comfort to see these things reflected back at you. Well, all except the grey hair anyway...

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Pondering participation

Here's an interesting conversation I had with a funeral director this week, while we were discussing the content of an Order of Service. It went something along the lines of...
FD: "I'm not being critical of civil funerals, because I think you all do a great job, but some people come away from non-religious services feeling like they haven't really been to a funeral".
CB: "Why's that?"
FD: "Because they haven't been able to participate in any way".
CB: "I encourage families to participate as much as possible by sharing stories about their loved ones to include in tributes, by writing tributes, reading tributes, poems, and readings. They choose music, sometimes play music. They help to carry the coffin. It's all participating, I would say".
FD: "Yes, but that's only close family and friends. With a religious service, everyone gets to join in with hymns, or repeating and responding to prayers. But this way, people feel left out".

Now, I'm not sure how much of that is his view and how much of it is the view of those attending. I have to say, I have never heard anyone express such an opinion but that doesn't mean they weren't thinking it. But I thought it was an interesting comment, and something to ponder as we (myself and fellow members of the 'Let's Improve Funerals' brigade) try to uncover people's needs and wishes.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Two-wheeled wonder

I love getting out on my bike. As well as giving my lungs and legs a hearty workout, it's a chance to have a jolly good muse about things, while, at the same time, enjoying a front-row 'seat' at the latest seasonal show the countryside has to offer.
On today's outing (pictured here, courtesy of my cycling companion Mr CB), I was thinking about how nervous I was when I first told my loved ones I was considering entering the funeral business. For aside from the obvious images flooding into their minds of corpses and inconsolable relatives, was their knowledge that I am known (and, thankfully, loved) for being sensitive and, at times, prone to feeling a bit blue. They worried that my new career would have the same effect on me as Gwyneth Paltrow's Oscar did on her (ie. tear duct overload). And, I admit, I was worried too.
But, as my bicycle wheels turned, I realised that something strange, and rather wonderful has happened since I became aquainted with 'the dark side'. My life has brightened up. I've been so busy immersing myself in funerals and bereavement support, and writing my blog posts about how 'grief can provide opportunity', that I hadn't realised I've been undergoing my own transformation. I'm a happier person than I used to be. The heady cocktail that appears to have given me my new-found inner glow is, I think, made up of a measure of doing something I enjoy, a squeeze of making a difference to other people, and a splash of realising how death gives life meaning. Add a slice of fruit and a small umbrella, and the mix is complete. Although we can probably leave the small umbrella out – that small, grey cloud that hovered over my head seems to have disappeared for now. The outlook is dry and bright...

Saturday, 19 March 2011

After the rain...

I've been too busy to blog this week. Partly because of work, but also because I've been glued to the TV watching the news reports from Japan. Like many people, my overwhelming feelings have been a mixture of sorrow for those who have died, wonderment at what our natural planet is capable of, and complete admiration for the dignified way the Japanese people are dealing with the aftermath. What a sharp contrast to the reports of aggression and violence in Libya that always followed the words "and now for the rest of today's news..."
There is a Japanese saying 'name futte ji katamaru' – this literally translates to 'after the rain, earth hardens', meaning 'after a storm, things will stand on more solid ground than they did before'. I don't think the Japanese need adversity to help them build character; they have that in spades. But I do hope the ground beneath their feet soon settles.
April sees the start of Japan's cherry blossom season.  These beautiful trees that bloom en-masse like clouds before quickly fading are hugely symbolic, representing not only the transient nature of life, but also emblems of love, affection and good fortune. Every year Japanese families eagerly follow the blossoming forecasts and then, when the time comes, head to their local parks and shrines to hold flower-viewing parties. Isn't that beautiful? This year may be different – the transient nature of life has already shown itself with brute force. But I'm sure this symbol of Japanese spirit, wherever it still blooms, will continue to provide its people with a sense of beauty, comfort and hope.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Body talk

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the delivery of my funerals, ie. how I look and sound when I'm reading my script, but trying not to look like I'm reading my script. If you know what I mean? And wondering how I can improve.
Something interesting happened at one of my funerals yesterday. I usually stand at the (dreaded) lectern with my hands resting close to the edge, ready for page turning etc. But yesterday, without making a conscious effort to do so, I moved my hands towards the centre and, sort of, leaned in a bit. It seemed to make a huge difference. I felt more relaxed and 'chatty' as opposed to 'scripty'. I'm not sure why it made a difference, or indeed, whether the moving of my hands had anything to do with it. But it felt good! I'm going to try it again at my next funeral on Thursday. I may have imagined the whole thing, but it's amazing how the tiniest of movements take on a whole new meaning when a chapel full of people are staring at you...

Thursday, 3 March 2011

One from the Comfort Library...

I love books. My passion for reading began with Miffy Goes Flying and has consumed me ever since (although the type has got smaller and there are less pictures). So I'm really enjoying the current series of TV programmes showing as part of the BBC's Year of Books. I mentioned in a previous post about the excellent Faulks on Fiction, and now I am equally hooked on the nightly showings of My Life In Books (well-known personalities discuss the books they most love and why). Tuesday night's programme with the brilliant Jeanette Winterson was particularly good and still available on i-player if you want to see it.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00z7sgp/My_Life_in_Books_Jeanette_Winterson_and_Alastair_Campbell/
So, in the spirit of bloggy sharing, I thought I'd recommend a book that I have read and re-read because I think it's uplifting, funny and very beautiful. It's called Stargazing – Memoirs of a Young Lighthouse Keeper by Peter Hill. It's an account of Hill's experiences, working on various remote Scottish lighthouses for six-months in 1973. It's really evocative (even more so if you read it on holiday on the Isle of Islay, like I did) and full of great characters and landscapes. The Daily Telegraph described it as "A generous book... as full of lost dreams as a starry sky on a foggy night". You may have read it – if so, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. If not, here's the link to Amazon where you can pick up a used copy for a ridiculously cheap 1p. Enjoy!
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Stargazing-Peter-Hill/dp/1841954993/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1299153836&sr=1-1

Here's looking at you kid...

This is Bogie. A black and white cat, named after a star of black and white movies. My sister rescued him from an unkind owner 12 year's ago, and it took a lot of love and gentle coaxing to stop Bogie cowering behind all items of furniture, before he could relax for the first time in his little life. He, in turn, showed his gratitude by being ridiculously cuddly, loyal and affectionate. They shared a house, shared their lives, and now Bogie has died. He was very old, his tail had been lost in a car accident, he was becoming deaf, and, in recent months, had developed a growth on his nose. He wasn't in pain but it was clear that, before long, he would be. So, before his quality of life diminished, my sister agreed with the vet that Bogie's time had come. And, last night, after a sardine supper and much tickling of his belly, he was helped on his way. So long little fella...

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Off piste anyone?

Don't let the heading and pic fool you... this isn't a post about skiing. No, the 'off piste' to which I refer is actually to do with a desire to break away from what feels like a funeral service 'comfort zone'.
As someone who enjoys writing and talking about dying, death, funerals and bereavement (and doesn't usually shirk from honest, heart-felt views on the same), I do feel I'm stuck in a 'play it safe' groove when it comes to writing and delivering funeral ceremonies. I have a yen for breaking free and trying new things, but I think I'm having a bit of a confidence crisis. And I'm confused too.
There are various things going on here. Firstly, I've only been working as a civil celebrant for nine months, so my ceremony content so far has been very much guided by training manuals and handbooks, as well as 'listening in' on those more experienced than myself. The services I've led up until now appear, thankfully, to have been well received, by both families and funeral directors alike. But I feel, having been inspired by things I've read, seen and heard (many, many inspirations coming from my fellow bloggers and followers) I want to take it up a notch. That 'nine-month' time period perhaps lends itself to a, sort of, gestation analogy – I have been growing with each new booking, feeding on information, developing through experience, and now I'm ready to 'arrive', fully-formed and with a unique style of my own.
I am, of course, aware of the sensitive nature of the work I do; that it is very much led by the beliefs and wishes of the person who has died and their family, and not a platform for me to take centre stage, sharing my thoughts and views like some kind of Comfort Blanket Road Show (now, there's a thought...)
But, therein lies the rub ... when a minister delivers a funeral service, it is an accepted fact that they believe in God, eternal life, and so they share those beliefs with everyone. They have, of course, been invited to do so, because those beliefs are (supposed to be) the same as those of the deceased and their family. It's what the minster represents; what they stand for.
When a civil celebrant delivers a funeral service, it's not about what we believe in. And I think that makes it harder to link together all those aspects of the ceremony that have been requested by the person who has died and/or their family. Especially the opening and closing words. The general theme (alongside recalling a person's life and conveying love and gratitude for all they meant to us) is that when someone we love dies, they live on in our hearts and minds for as long as we remember them. I do believe that, and I believe it's a notion that can comfort those left behind. So I find various ways of getting that point across, both in my own and other people's words. But what else could I be saying? How could I be saying it? And, more to the point, what do people actually want to hear? Are they happy with these ceremonies because it's the non-traditional alternative they really wanted? Or could they have had something even better but no-one knows quite what that would have looked or sounded like?
I know what I sound like – a broken record. Here's another post where I'm saying the same thing – "I think it's time to do something different but we don't really know what people want". If you paid a subscription for my blog you'd all be asking for a refund, crying "it's the same stuff every week!" Just as well I'm incognito...

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Handle with care

When I think of comfort, my thoughts always turn to home in some way – a sunny room, a comfy chair, a favourite mug in one hand, a favourite book in the other. Moments of cosy contentment that I particularly savour in the restful, familiar, secure surroundings of my humble abode. Moments that are essential after a day of funerals or an evening of hearing the sad tales of the bereaved and lonely.
However, my homely oasis of calm and cosy contentment is about to have its rug pulled out from underneath it – quite literally – as our house went on the market today. We've decided to leave our nest in the heart of town and look for somewhere with a little more space and the much-missed joy of off-road parking. The plan is to remain within the same region and budget. But anyone who has experienced the wild, unpredictable, roller-coaster ride that is buying and selling houses, knows that even the best-laid plans have a habit of taking all manner of twists and turns.
I've moved quite a few times, but this next move is, I hope, going to lead to the perfect home for my OH and I to settle in for many, many years. And it's for that very reason, I know the next few weeks/months are going to be as frustrating as they are hopeful, as infuriating as they are exciting. And so, with promises to myself of staying calm, emotionally stable, and away from the knife drawer when the estate agent pops in with his invoice, I once again enter the conveyancing fray...

Monday, 14 February 2011

Love laid bear




"If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day, so I never have to live without you."
Winnie The Pooh

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Not why, but when?

I may get myself in a bit of a pickle trying to tackle this subject, and come across as either very cold-hearted or grossly misinformed, but I'll give it a go anyway... I want to talk about our acceptance of death. The reason I'm dipping a toe in this shark-infested pool is because it seems to me the higher our life expectancy goes up, the lower our ability to accept it will ever end. Understandable, of course, if the gap between arrival and departure is longer than ever.
But what I've been pondering lately is the fact that, despite being able to live longer than ever, there are still plenty of ways death can prevent you from getting a free bus pass. We don't all get to grow old. It's always been the case and it always will be. But, as our suing culture gets more and more out of hand, so does our inability to accept that illness will strike randomly, accidents will happen, and people will make mistakes. And we are all blessed with free will – the free will to eat at McDonalds every day but not call Suing Is Us when we become so big that we have to be lifted from our beds by a crane.
I know that anger, rage and the need to lash out is all-consuming (and sometimes helpful) when you have lost a loved-one 'before their time'. And I'm not being insensitive or ignorant of this fact. The point I wish to make (badly) is that there is no 'before our time', there is only 'our time', when and how it comes. Perhaps if we replaced the 'why me?' with the 'why not me?' we could have a better 'relationship' with death. Perhaps by accepting the randomness of death, and the reality that we all stand the chance of being hit by a falling tree, or the intricacies of our inner workings failing to compute, we can be less consumed by anger and more appreciative that we're actually lucky to be here at all.
Naive? Probably. But I certainly mean no harm or insensitivity. Just trying, as ever, to ease the burden...

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

To boldly go... Part Deux

Last month I posted some thoughts about the 'potential' of grief (To boldly go where no man has gone before - 4th January). There's probably a way of linking that so you can just click on it, but I am a techno dullard. Sorry...  In this posting I said "By potential I mean a chance for us to go so deep within ourselves that, in spite of re-emerging from our grief cocoon bruised, battered and alone, we are also given an opportunity to see life with new eyes". 
Well, this weekend I was watching the excellent new TV series 'Faulks on Fiction', with author Sebastian Faulks feeding us delicious literary morsels about fictional heroes. During a discussion about Robinson Crusoe, and the struggles he faced with isolation and loneliness, Faulks interviewed former-hostage Brian Keenan, who said: "You have to have it all stripped away to get to whatever is left – your pure essence. And you drink very deeply of that pure essence. It can make you drunk... but it gets you back to yourself, and maybe even a better person than when you arrived at that desolate foreshore". I thought that was beautifully put. And he, of course, would know. Brave man...
I also heard an interview on Radio 2's Jeremy Vine show last week where a father who lost his son described his grief as being "a tsunami of the soul". That's a powerful statement, isn't it? I had to stop what I was doing for a minute when I heard that. 
I do try, on this little blog of mine, to have a go at describing the sometimes indescribable. So I just wanted to share these quotes with you as an example of what happens when someone really does find the right words! 

Monday, 7 February 2011

Arise, Sir Bright Side

I absolutely love history – I like reading about it, studying it, watching historical documentaries and films, and visiting places of historical interest. And it's where my interest in dying and death springs from. Ever since I can remember I've been fascinated by people's reaction to possible or impending death – whether it's a knight in armour facing a cavalry charge, the King of England placing his head on the block, or a Tommy waiting for the whistle that sends him over the trenches. It's not the politics, the science or the military tactics which make it interesting for me. It's the people stories, the human aspect, the behaviours, the emotions, the feelings, that hook me in. And wondering, as in all situations where death has to be faced, how I would fare under such circumstances.
A period of history I feel particularly passionate about is Tudor history, which has a fantastically heady mix of great characters, stories, and locations. As well as our brilliant writers and presenters, like David Starkey and Simon Schama, who bring it all to life today. And when I say 'heady' mix, I wasn't joking – the executioners during this period barely had time to sharpen their axes between bookings.
We cannot begin to imagine how those men and women felt, standing on the scaffold, paying the ultimate price for having offended Big Hal. Some begged forgiveness, some cried, and some had to be chased because they wouldn't put their head on the block. But hats off (quite literally) to Sir Thomas More, who bravely approached the scaffold steps and greeted the Lieutenant of the Tower with a little joke: "I pray you, Master Kingston, see me safe up. And for my coming down, let me shift for myself". What a trooper...

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Mission impossible?

There is a quote from E M Forster's A Room With A View which has stuck with me since I first read the book many years ago. Mr Emerson (played so beautifully by Denholm Elliott in the excellent 1985 film) says to Lucy Honeychurch, "It isn't possible to love and to part". So simple, so true, and so painfully visible to me during this busy period, as I go from widow to widower, trying to help them say goodbye.
There is one lady whose husband has died and, with no children, and no other family close by, she is – as you would expect – feeling very much alone, and scared of everything from pension forms to filling the car with petrol.  It's at times like this I wish we had Community Grief Police – a swat team that could swoop in, lead her to safety and show her how the pilot light on the boiler works.
I know many bereaved people have family, friends and neighbours to help them through, and this lady was, perhaps, a sad exception. Although you'll be surprised how many people struggle on their own because 'they don't want to bother anyone', even if they offer to help.
Perhaps we could have some sort of flag system or window sticker that says 'This Home is Grieving', and the whole street then takes it in turns to cook meals, mow grass and make lots of cups of tea.
I know – you're thinking that might be a bad, even tasteless, idea. People don't want the whole street to know their business, etc... But just think, if there was such a system, that would really make death and grief a part of daily life, a part of our awareness on a regular basis, a part of our community. There may be pockets of our fair Isle where this sort of thing happens (without the need for flags or stickers) perhaps in rural villages, like Ambridge (note to self: The Archers is fictional). But what about those rabbit warrens of new housing estates, where everyone keeps to their own little box? Or terraced roads, where your car can cosy-up, bumper to bumper with the one next door, but you don't know the name of the driver.
OK, now I'm starting to sound like The Campaign For Bringing Back The Good Old Days. I'm delirious from staring at my computer for too long. But the point I'm making is this – if you'd lost a loved one and the lady from number 22 popped round with a home-made pie, how would that make you feel?

Saturday, 29 January 2011

How to get it rite...

I went to see an incredible film last night called Of Gods and Men. It is a French film, based on a true story about a group of trappist monks who must decide whether to stay or leave their monastery when their Algerian community comes under threat from fundamentalist terrorists. You can see a clip here: http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi3877411353/ It is a film about faith and ritual, brotherhood and community, love and fear. It is both gentle in it's appreciation of the simple, quiet life of a monastery, and powerful when depicting what is happening outside, and later inside, its walls. And, when the film finished, I couldn't move out of my seat.
This film has appeared at a pertinent time for me, as I've been thinking a lot about ritual. I was brought up as a Catholic. As a child I went to mass on Sundays and relevant Holy Days, and I went to Catholic Schools. It wasn't being forced on me in any way. It was what we knew as a family, and it was something we did together as a family, as did most of my relatives and friends. Once I was old enough to make my own mind up, and decided there were aspects of Catholicism that I felt weren't in keeping with the idea of accepting people for who they are, I drifted away from religion. But I have very happy memories of going to church and have no regrets about it being a part of my life.
I realise now what I loved most was the sense of ritual and the comfort it gave me – the lighting of candles, the chanting of prayers, the singing, the joining of hands and voices, the heightened relevance to certain times of year and, of course, that sense of faith. I don't mean to sound all deep and theological. For me, this isn't about God. It's about wanting to recapture that sense of ritual –  having little observances in my day, week, month and year, that go beyond the every-day rituals of getting out of bed, into the shower, eating breakfast, etc. There are, as I've mentioned in previous posts, things in my life that bring a sense of comfort and contemplation, like walking in the woods, baking cakes, listening to music. And certainly leading funeral services stokes the gentle fire that is keeping my sense of ritual alive and warm.
But I still feel I'd like to do something else. Meditation is certainly on the list, but there is also nothing stopping me from joining my hands together in my own version of prayer, singing out loud, lighting a candle in my own little 'shrine'. Nothing stopping me...  except, perhaps, my own sense of feeling this might be an odd thing to do, maybe? Well, I think I need to get over that. I left 'organised' religion because it was too rigid in its thinking (and the small matter of not being sure there was a God). So if I want to create some rituals that are more Comfort than Catholic, I think I'll just quietly get on with it...

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

I've thrown my comfort blanket out of my pram...

I do try to face each day with an air of serenity and calmness. I was doing quite well so far this week, considering I'm really busy and working with several families who are each, in their own little way, being a tad difficult. And I'm not being insensitive to their grief, you understand. I also have one or two very sad stories on the go and it's requiring some effort on my part not to get too 'wrung dry' by them.
So a challenging week under any circumstances. Then my recently-purchased printer stops working. So that gets shipped back and a new one on order. Then my phone starts playing up, and in an effort to get it sorted today I spend a total of three hours trying to get help from my phone provider. In the course of their 'help' the total contents of my phone - contacts, pics etc. get wiped off forever. They can't be retrieved. I load it all back on over the course of the afternoon. It all gets wiped off again. As at 9.57pm, I'm still re-entering my contacts. One... by... one...
So, as a result, I'm livid, tired, behind with work, feeling guilty that my OH spent his evening helping me sort it all out after his own hard day at work, and I have polished off half a pack of chocolate biscuits.
However, I do feel better for having shared my moany old thoughts with y'all. Normal, cheery service to resume shortly...

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Sunshine over my shoulder

We've had some beautiful sunrises and sunsets this week. And I've almost missed each of them. Yesterday morning I went for an early run. I just reached the brow of a hill, ready to descend back to the old homestead, when I turned my head to look at the view behind me and there it was – the most incredible red sky. It had been there all the time. This afternoon, driving home after taking a funeral, the sun was just lowering on my right. Then I had to do a left turn and spend the rest of the journey knowing there was a sunset of magnificent proportions behind me.  As soon as the traffic stopped at some lights, I grabbed my phone and took this picture of my wing mirror. A bit shaky, but you see what I mean...
Sunrises and sunsets are not only natural wonders to behold, they are also loaded with meaning (and not just for weather-watching shepherds). They symbolise beginnings and endings, old and new, arrivals and departures: "How strange this fear of death is. We are never frightened by a sunset." George MacDonald
For me they are, like all nature's visual treats, a little morsel for the soul. Delicious...