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?