I remember clearly. We sat by her well used kitchen table as she busied herself making us some tea. Twenty minutes prior we had notified her that her husband of many years had died in the night. We cleaned him and lifted him back into bed and asked if she wanted to say goodbye. I cannot remember now, but I think she did. Tears and prayers followed and then in typical British fashion she set about making us tea as we awaited the police so we could ‘green up’ for the next case. This was my first experience with death, the dead and a survivor.
Last week, I experienced death once again, in a more personal way. My friend Jack, already placed in home hospice, died. Despite his obvious prognosis I still found myself ‘rocked’ when his daughter called to tell me that her father had died in the night. I immediately began to cry and felt lost for words. My stomach felt empty and I managed to crackle through a very tight throat ‘I am sorry your dad has died, and I will miss him.” I grieved intuitively and went with my sadness and sense of loss. As a male and healthcare professional it seems our society would challenge my intuitive response and yet after doing my own difficult work and owning a conviction to remain true to myself and my emotions I was able to allow myself this genuine sadness because my story-telling, twinkly eyed friend had died and I grieved.
I gathered my composure throughout the day, yet at times I found myself crying again. As I walked through my neighborhood later, I was struck by how everything seemed so visceral; leaves falling from the trees, the transient autumnal colors, and the babbling stream that I’d walked by so many times before. Somehow, all of it seemed so much more beautiful and relevant with Jack’s death.
For me, the week passed as usual, two days of counseling internship and the rest of the week in my paid position working with chronically ill patients and their families in the hospital. I stayed active in my grieving, for the most part offering thanks and thoughts throughout each day. On the day of his funeral, I put on my tie and pressed my pants and headed to the memorial service to pay my last respects. I cried openly through the hymns and religious passages. It felt good. In a typical British manner, I came prepared with two handkerchiefs, having attended too many patient funerals in the past few years and always forgetting to bring something to dry my eyes with and blow my nose upon.
During the wake I began to feel a strength and courage and gratitude that felt familiar. In hindsight I recognize that I was finding peace. I was moving through my own grief process. I found solace in my friend’s good life, and thankfully unusually good death (at home surrounded by his family), his beautiful family and friends, the wonderful shared stories, lasting memories and a feeling of kindred spirits. I was beginning to let go of my grief and notice, once again, death’s valuable lessons to the living.
Death motivates, humbles and clarifies for those of us who pay attention. Death is an inextricable part of living. Death reminds me that we are all mortal, and that we’re advised to live our lives as well and as fully as we can. As an existentialist this makes sense to me. Absolutely, I will miss my friend and I truly look forward with gratitude to the stories and memories of Jack that I will remember personally and share with his wonderful family. Having spent a considerable amount of time learning and understanding the grief cycle and types of loss, and working with clients experiencing different facets of the grief and loss puzzle, Jack’s death still affected me uniquely and once again death emerged as a loyal teacher. These lessons have faired me well in both my personal life and as a budding therapist. I grew from this experience, re-focusing on my counseling career choice and writing, on my family and friends and pursuing life. I have been given a personal reminder and renewed empathy for my clients managing all types of loss (especially the death of a loved one) in session. And for these lessons, and resulting benefits, I am grateful...
Did we drink tea at my compatriot’s wake? Absolutely. Did it remind me of that first death some twelve years ago? Yes. The reminder was just as potent then as it was this past week. I will miss you my friend. Thank you to all who venture before us for this gift…
Christian Billington is a counselor in training. He is passionate about end of life issues, grief and loss, trauma and the development of training to better prepare the emergency services for what they experience in the field.