I was lucky growing up, not having to deal with death. I remember my grandfather dying but he’d abandadoned my Gran, my dad, his sisters and brother years and years before I was born so I’d never met him. Death was spoken about all the time in my house (along with blood, guts and gore that goes with being in a family of doctors); but I didn’t have to deal with “death”.
I avoided anyone connected with a death. I didn’t know what to say so I said nothing and pretended it hadn’t happened.
I don’t remember exactly when that changed but my grandfather (the nice one who I definitely did know and love dearly) dying was a turning point. Suddenly it wasn’t an abstract concept it was real. And I did know what to say to someone connected with a death. “I’m sorry for your loss” is a platitude we can spout but what a mourner really wants is for you to acknowledge that the person they lost was a person, did exist, is remembered and that the world is different without them. Just the opportunity for that to be accepted, I think, at least I hope, helps a tiny bit.
But now I’m a grown up (sadly at 40, I think the time has finally come to admit it) and death is at every turn. I have been connected with some pretty shitty deaths in the last few years.
What can I say to a friend who loses her baby before his first birthday?
What can I say when a child of 7 in our school is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour?
What can I say when a man I worked closely with for many years, liked and respected, dies?
What can I say when my childhood best friend’s sister, whom I grew up with and thought of as part of my own extended family, dies while pregnant with her first child?
What can I say when my mother in law and much loved gran to my children, loses her long fight with cancer?
Somehow I found words. No doubt the wrong ones. But words were found.
But words are failing me now.
Rhys has been in my house. Rhys has played with my children. I have hugged him. A long time ago of course when he was young enough to allow such things. He is 16 now. He nods at me. He says hello when we passed in the street. I have listened to him when I was in his house and he was talking to his mum.
Rhys and Mack were both 3 when we became neighbours. That’s 13 years of watching him grow.
Rhys is a lovely young man. Always polite. Always smiling. A million times more chatty than my own 16-year-old. His mum has told me of mother-son battles and of the odd “incident” in school. A normal healthy teenager.
A teenager with his whole life ahead of him.
He worked hard for his exams and will be getting his results in a few weeks. I’m sure he will have done well. He was organised and is getting ready to work hard for his a-levels. He wants to be a pilot. I have never doubted for one moment that he will be one.
And then he’s gone.
What do I say now?
For two days now I’ve seen life carrying on. I’m still fighting battles about the wrong colour cardigan and only wanting to eat crisps and chocolate. I’m still passing children in the street going to school. Life is carrying on.
Except it’s not.
Life has stopped.
“Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.”
What do I say now?
Jo (Rhys’ mum) told me tonight she is getting a crumb of comfort reading Facebook memories, looking at photos and hearing how much he was loved.
And I suppose she’s the expert now. An expert in a field no one should ever have to participate in.
So I will follow her lead. I will endeavour to share my happy memories of him so that he can live forever in our hearts and minds. And you know what, I didn’t know him well, but I can totally see him smiling at the idea of us all keeping him alive forever. Teenagers think they are invincible and now he is! Apparently we’re due a few days of sunshine. Definitely sent by Rhys. He was a ray of sunshine. He’s sent us some sun to get us through these very dark days.