Demystifying Death; the silence of emptiness.

I sat last week and listened one year on from the day since Joan’s husband had died as she recalled the ups and downs, the tears and laughter that had been her year’s journey of grief. She had so many thoughts and memories which came tumbling out almost without ceasing, not least as she told me she needed to talk because when folks asked how she was she knew that it was just a passing off the cuff remark and that it did not really mean that they were wanting or prepared for an outpouring of truthfulness in all its raw and contradictory reality. So, she grabbed the chance of an anniversary hour and spoke and spoke and spoke.

It is unfair to try to summarise anyone’s mourning and grieving in a phrase or even anecdote, but one thing Joan said to me struck a resonance of recognition within me – that her grieving was all about ‘the silence of emptiness.’ I have often reflected over the years in this blog about the nature of emptiness and loneliness as it affects people as they grow older and age and as relationships change and come to a physical end, but there is in truth something unique about the emptiness of living in the absence of a loved one. There is something about silence stripped of sound, of energy and purpose which arrives when someone you love has died.

Joan talked in a way that spoke to me of all the moments I know and have myself experienced. The phone call you start to make before you come to the realisation that there is no number to call that will end up with you hearing that voice; the days when in excitement and happiness you rush home to talk and share but as you open the door you know that the crushing emptiness of silence will be all that will greet you; the fragile forgotten moments when you used to just gossip and opine, argue and agree; the rituals of a week whether the midweek night out at the cinema, the Friday night glass of wine, or the Saturday morning walk – all now accompanied by absence and silence and emptiness.

Now life seems full of the manic desire to fill every moment with activity and action in a failing attempt to forget just for a moment. And to top it all the sense that beyond a few people there is no one out there who really understands what you are going through and your sense of self-guilt that you aren’t further down the road, that you are still back at the first step on so many days, that sleeplessness is more often your night-time companion, and that there seems to be a never ending path ahead. That first year – and the next and the next – in the calendar of absence and loss seems to tick inexorably slow.

I sat there and listened not trying to do anything other than to be present so that the tears and sound might find some solace, but as I did I thought to myself why is it that personally, individually, and as a community we are failing still to give place to those who are lost in grief, real attention to those whose pain is locked silently within them, and have and are continually failing to offer true solace and compassion to the bereaved.

Nearly 6 years before the time I spent with Joan a handful of folks met together in May in Glasgow to talk about the sad state of bereavement support in Scotland at that time. Our concerns were that as individuals and as professionals we were continually coming across people who were broken by grief and a system of health and care, workplace and community, which seemed so inattentive to the needs of the bereaved and the grieving. We knew the personal and societal cost, the economic and community burden which resulted from grief unspoken and an inadequacy of effective bereavement support.

Out of those early discussions we set up the Charter Working Group which resulted in the creation of Scotland’s National Bereavement Charter for Children and Adults. Since then, we have continued as a group to raise the profile of bereavement and the importance of changing the way in which we support those who are grieving. We have developed guidance, and animations and videos, held webinars and seminars. All of this rooted in the conviction that good and adequate bereavement support should be a fundamental characteristic of our society. Indeed, our premise was and was and still is that bereavement support should be a fundamental human right.

Six years on it saddens me that I can sit with Joan and still have to conclude that Scotland is a country where we simply do not do death and dying, grief and bereavement well. I still have that hope and aspiration that Scotland could be that nation, our communities could be those places, where the bereaved are able to talk without a sense of burden, where businesses and organisations do more than tick the box in their offering of support and practical care; where we talk openly and honestly, emotionally and rationally about what it means for us to grieve and to mourn. But we have a huge distance to go and in part one of the things that holds us back from the achievement of the Charter’s aspirations, is that we are still too silent in our talk around death and dying, grief and loss. We are still as likely today to cross over to the other side of the road when we see the bereaved approach rather than to stay and be present.

That is not to deny the amazing work that is happening in communities and cafes, in pubs and parks, in theatres and church halls across Scotland. There is more chatter about grief and in no small part that is due to the work of Good Life, Good Death, Good Grief. This brilliant programme holds an annual week in which it seeks through small local projects and events, using the ordinariness of the commonplace and the creativity of the arts, to get us talking about death and dying. Demystifying Death Week is starting on the 6th and across Scotland this week in many places and spaces near to where you are you will have the opportunity to experience an honest conversation. As Good Life, Good Death, Good Grief says:

‘People usually want to do the right thing when someone they know is affected by serious illness, death or grief.  But often they can feel awkward offering help or worry about making things worse. People can have questions about serious illness or dying. But often they don’t know who to ask. Making plans when you’re healthy means there is less to think about when you’re ill. But people can put off making plans until it is too late.

Demystifying Death Week is about giving people knowledge, skills and opportunities to plan and support each other through death, dying, loss and care.’

My hope and aspiration live on. We can and must become more comfortable not just with talking about grief and loss but putting our words and platitudes into practical authentic living. I hope in the days and months ahead we might all continue to shatter the silence of emptiness around grief.

I end with some of the words of the British author and educationalist Abi May who also writes a grief and loss blog and who in a post entitled ‘Griefbursts and silent screams’ wrote this:

I screamed today.

A silent scream.

Nobody saw.

Nobody heard.

I clenched my fists

And breathed in deep

A silent scream

Nobody saw.

Nobody heard.

There were no words.

None to speak

None to say.

I closed my eyes

Shut them tight

My face was creased

And stretched

Muscles tense

But soundless

My silent scream

Came from the heart

From a place so deep

There are no words

I didn’t cry

I just bore down

I screamed alone

Without a sound

There is no why

Nor where and how

For what, it can’t be said

But for whom.

I screamed today.

A silent scream.

For her, that special one

The one who long is dead.

Donald Macaskill

Photo by Ann on Unsplash