Life and Death

My grandfather died two weeks ago. It came as a big shock to me. He was one of those solid sort of characters that despite increasing health issues seemed like he would be around for ever. I miss him horribly, even though I wouldn’t have seen him any time soon anyway, but I guess that is what grief does. It points out what cannot be.

This though, raised for me a multitude of realisations. Firstly, I have been growing increasingly afraid of death. Not so much for myself (I am scared of it in as far as I still have things I want to do) but for my husband and children. I cannot bear the idea of them not being here anymore. I don’t know how I would live with that grief.

This however, has led me to think about, read about and talk about death and it has helped me to begin to unpick some of these fears and feel slightly more life in myself.

As I mentioned last week, I am particularly unwell at the moment. My mental health is debilitatingly bad and I can feel myself withdrawing from life. I would quite happily die to be honest, but, at the same time I don’t want to. This is the juxtaposition of having a clinical mental health diagnosis. Circumstances have a huge impact on your illness, but do not trigger it. My life is good, I have a lot to live for, that I want to live for and yet the idea of living for one more day can often lead me to the pits of despair.

However, all this thought of death has, I think, been helpful. Obviously I say this having only had two weeks of it and goodness knows whether it will prove to have any long term impact on my thinking, but here is where I am at currently.

In the Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis there is a point where Screwtape is talking of fatigue. How it is more dangerous to have someone give in to the daily grind, to accept that they don’t know when things will improve. Screwtape tells Wormwood “To produce the best results from the patients fatigue, therefore, you must feed him with false hopes.” I read this a week ago, and since I have felt calmer. Fractionally more in control. It seems to me that this is true, when you are expecting that things will change soon, that all the pain is going to end and a moment of relief will finally appear, you become angry when that is not what happens. It is a feeling full of despair to realise that the pain you feel is going to continue when you have had a moment of hope that it will end.

This is where I have been living. I have been expectant that things will lift, the kids will have less illness, the depression will ease up, the anxiety will lessen and I will start to feel slightly more alive and less like a zombie marching through an exhausting world wondering why so many others don’t seem to be on the verge of collapse in every moment.

This last week though, things shifted for me. Don’t get me wrong, I am still in a desperate place, still very ill. The idea of almost everything causes me to spin into a panic attack and yet, I am calmer within it. I know that sounds like a paradox but somehow it works.

I have always felt very much ‘in the moment’ in that if I am sad I cannot remember what it means to be happy and vice versa, but I have had my head in the future or the past. Always longing for something that is not now. What I seem to have been doing (and by no means consciously, that maybe will come with time if habit builds) is acting in the moment. So, over the past few days I have done things. I normally get overwhelmed by the length of my to do list and panic and do none of it. Last week I cooked a meal from scratch, yesterday I prepared our dinner in the afternoon, so the cooking process was broken down. Yesterday I changed the billing information on various accounts to my new card and sent a letter I had been needing to send for two weeks.

These are very small things, but this is the paralysing reality of living with the illnesses I have. These very small things are mountains. However, by thinking of them one at a time, I have found that I am getting things done. Normally, when I get a bit of momentum like this, I tend to then start ambitiously expecting it will continue. This time, I haven’t even thought about it. When I remember a job I need to do, I am doing it and not planning ahead.

This has given me a vague but not overinflated sort of hope. Maybe I am not so lost after all.

Back to thoughts of death though, this sort of living by the moment, literally has made me feel more alive and less afraid of death.

The Screwtape Letters and Smoke gets in your eyes by Caitlin Doughty have both had a huge impact on me and my fear levels over the past few weeks. Caitlin talks about life as a mortuary worker. She talks about how distanced we are from death in our culture and how unhelpful that is.

For me, the combination of her very frank detailing of the realities of being around death daily, the thought inducing Screwtape and A Grief Observed (also by C.S. Lewis) have had the effect of connecting me with death. Making it more normal and inevitable has helped me talk about it, think about it both in terms of my own death, that of my family and what I would want to happen to my body.

This place of thinking deeply about life and death, how I live, the inevitability of dying and of those around me dying, has, somehow, helped me focus not on ‘living life to the full as it may end any moment’ but more, today is now and that is where I have some sort of control. Focussing on these small things has, over this past week, enabled me to grieve for the loss of my beloved Grandfather, see a glimmer of hope – not that this episode of depression will pass, but more that I can survive it and find a level of contentedness in the moment I am in.

How this will last however, when that panic rises at the thought of stepping out of the front door, remains to be seen. For now, life and death go hand in hand, and need to be viewed as such.

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