accommodating death

It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens (Woody Allen).
I’m not a big Woody Allen fan so it annoys me when I have to attribute something clever to him, but fair’s fair.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about death in the last three days. A very dear friend, whom I have known for over 38 years, died on Friday morning from cancer of the oesophagus. She was my age (59) and put up a very tough fight in the last few months, but it was too late and it was her time to go. Her beloved aunt, who nursed her at home for the last few weeks, told me that Shona had died propped up in bed, with her glasses on and her tablet open in front of her, presumably watching something on Netflix. Her dog, Cayley, was lying next to her licking her hand. Shona and I had in fact spoken just the night before via whatsapp, and the last message I had from her was four kisses. For the first time, her exhaustion and acceptance were apparent in her voice.

I’m not trying to make this about me, but I have come to realise that that actually is what death is about. The person who has died has gone, they are no longer suffering or in a bitter struggle for survival, they are at peace. We all have to die one day. We all know this. It is the impact of Shona’s loss on my own life that I must endure, and find a way to accommodate.

A group of us celebrating Shona’s 53rd birthday at Forrie’s, Shona is the one in the light pink Chinese top:

I was brought up as a Catholic, I went to mass every Sunday and confession once a week. My father (who died at 46 from cancer of the pancreas) had the last rites at home, although he ended up dying in hospital. At 17, I did not question the concept that he had gone to be in heaven. I believed in heaven and all the other stuff until I was 18, to wake up one morning and realise that none of it made any sense to me any more.

Before anyone jumps down my throat, I’d like to make something clear – I am not criticising anyone who is religious (of whatever faith). My best friend is a practicing Catholic and she knows I am an atheist. I respect her beliefs and actions. I respect anyone else’s beliefs, as long as they don’t result in prosthelytising or causing harm to anyone else. I think the development of religion was a necessary evolutionary step for human beings. I truly wish I did still believe in the faith that my parents had, it would be comforting in so many ways. But I just can’t – I can’t force it, any more than I can force myself to be taller or shorter. I also do not say it lightly – I have read a great deal about religion, atheism, spirituality, human psychology, history, evolution, and as much science as my head can manage to absorb.

About seven years, I made Shona some fingerless mitts for her birthday. She was always so bright, smart, witty and sweet, and her life was difficult in many ways that I have never had to contend with. She was tougher than she looked, and at the same time more fragile than one would usually guess.

I would love to think of Shona “somewhere up there”, with my dad, my grandparents, Philip, and the many other people I have loved who have gone from my life. But in the end, for me, it all comes back to the impact on my own life and emotions. Shona’s death compounds my continued grief for my dad and for Philip, but it is all the same to them – they are no longer ill and in pain. I must live with my losses and find a way to give them space in amongst all the other things that make me human. I hope some of those things include empathy and consideration of others, but right now, it is just overwhelming selfish grief.


25 thoughts on “accommodating death

  1. katechiconi

    When a friend dies, it becomes a sort of responsibility; your job is to keep their memory burnished bright and full of life in your remembrance. The real thing is not there to remind you again and again why you love them; it’s for you to remember each day and keep them vivid. I’m so sorry that you’ve lost such a dear and lifelong friend, but it seems to me you have a wealth of wonderful memories to bring out and burnish. To me, that is the very essence of immortality, to be held in the memory of my friends. Mind you, I do also like the idea of all my dear ones clustered around the Pearly Gates waiting to cheer me in when my time comes…. I don’t think I’m afraid of death, as such, I’m just afraid the process of leaving it all behind will be painful.

    1. Nice Piece of Work Post author

      Yes, some wonderful memories of Shona. She was one of a kind. Pearly gates, you say? They sound very pretty and I’m sure St Peter would be an interesting chap to meet, I just don’t think he’d let me in ;)

      1. katechiconi

        You and I will just have to sneak in around the back, or dig a tunnel under the wall. We have too many important people in there to miss out.

      2. Nice Piece of Work Post author

        Your comment is the first thing that has made me laugh in 3 days. Sneak in round the back! – I doubt you’d find we’d be the first ones to think of trying that, I’m sure you’ll find there’s a roster of lesser-known saints standing guard, like St Lucy, St Jude or St Anthony. I must admit to sometimes having a quick word with St Thomas, patron saint of parking. Oddly enough, he’s often come through for me ;)

  2. Rainbow Junkie

    So sorry to hear of your friends death. I lost a friend to cancer a couple of years ago and it does leave a hole but it is good to remember all the good times you had together. It looks as if you can share those memories with other people which is also good. It is sad to let go but all the good of the past is part of you now.

  3. insearchofitall

    Oh Jill, my heart goes out to you. Very few understand the real impact of grief. It marks our very essence and takes it’s time in it’s easing. You don’t “just get over it”. It’s part of you. Sit with the grief and feel it fully. I also understand about the religion thing. My “in search of it all” has always been for spiritual understanding. I gave up on religion so very many years ago but continued looking for answers. I finally found them in the science of quantum physics. It makes sense of it all. I am deeply sorry for the loss of your good friend. As I am standing at that threshold, trying to decide whether to go through that door, I fully ‘get’ the fear of how we leave this world. I held my MIL and mother’s hand when they passed. They were remarkably different. I never cared for Woody either but the quote is perfect. I am here for you.

    1. Nice Piece of Work Post author

      Thanks, Marlene. You are a smarter person than I – I have tried to get my head around quantum physics, starting with John Gribbon and even progressing to a little Feynman but my remaining brain cells are already overloaded and there is no hope for a breakthrough! I can live with that. My understanding of chaos theory is limited to the mess in my garage. It seems I can live with that, too!
      I do not fear being dead, but of course wouldn’t want a painful or lonely death. I don’t mind too much about when it comes, although I believe my mother and a few close friends would feel a loss. I certainly don’t want my mother to have to endure any more emotional suffering than she already has.
      Perhaps I should say I am more of an agnostic than an atheist? As Christopher Hitchens once said, “I love surprises!”. Nothing is certain, is it?

      1. insearchofitall

        I’ve found that there are simpler versions of those answers and also I find that listening to those books rather than reading is easier. With PTSD, we don’t have the bandwidth to take in information like others do. The answer is really simple. Bodies die, energy does not. We are in essence, energy changing form. Your friend will be whispering in your ear if you stay tuned to that channel. I still talk to my mother. She hides things to say hi. :) Then she gives them back. I grieved in a shell shocked way when she died. I knew it was coming but somehow, it knocked me down. Darned if I can explain it. The only thing certain is change so you’d better like surprises. ;) Giant squishy hugs.

  4. cedar51

    Oh, Jill I read this post late last evening but couldn’t take it in…I’m so sorry you’ve lost a great friend. And I realise how difficult it must have been to post about death and then beliefs. But as many have commented, keep the memories alive for long as you want…
    I’ve spent quite a few decades trying to find my way in the personal belief structure but I think I might have finally realised I’m in the agnostic arena – I take snippets from various beliefs and hope that I’m making the right choices on various matters.
    Take care…

    1. Nice Piece of Work Post author

      I think each of us just needs to do whatever feels right for us (I’m excluding fanatics and fundamentalists and suicide bombers here, obviously, because they endanger the lives of others). I do sometimes wish I hadn’t had certain religious beliefs shoved down my throat since the age of 4, but there we are. At least my reading of literature was enriched by knowledge of biblical references!

  5. nanacathy2

    I am extremely sorry for the loss of your friend, she sounds a great pal. Memories can help but sometimes they can be overwhelming. I’d say celebrate your friendship, plant a rose or shrub in her name, meet others who knew her and grieve together.
    I’m also sorry you lost your faith, I am so glad I have mine. It helps me when the loss of my parents and only brother hits me. I have a photo I took of the three of them sitting on a wall waiting for me- to take the picture- but I think that sometimes they are sat on a wall just waiting for me to finish whatever it is I have to do in this life. God bless you.xx

    1. Nice Piece of Work Post author

      Shona was indeed a great pal.
      Missing is hard, but I often think of what my dad might think or say about something I do. Being Swiss-German, his sense of humour was obscure – might be partly where I get mine from. He usually got me, and vice versa. He was a real mensch. The church was packed at his funeral, standing room only – surprising for an outwardly quiet man.


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