Coping with death – and (literally) a new bucket list

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There’s nothing that makes you stop in your tracks and re-evaluate life more than the spectre of death.

My wife’s mother passed away three weeks ago. It was not unexpected but nothing fully prepares you for the reality, does it?

One early morning phone call set into motion a flurry of activity. There’s a lot of logistics involved in planning a funeral. Not as complex as a wedding, sure, but it’s tough when the organising needs to be done by grieving family members at short notice to short-term timelines.

Anyhow, the last few weeks have given us the opportunity to observe how each of our kids has coped with the situation. It has also made us think about things we need to do that we’ve been ignoring or putting off.

The sensitive one

Aged nine, seven and 4½, our children unsurprisingly responded to their Nanna’s death in different ways.

As the eldest – and by far the most empathetic and sensitive of our kids – Isaac was both the most knowledgeable and the most questioning. Not just about the circumstances of the death but also in the way he tuned in to his mum’s feelings.

We allowed him to choose whether he wanted to attend the funeral. He did, out of respect and curiosity in equal measures, I suspect. His behaviour in recent months hasn’t always been great – he’s a nine-year-old boy, that seems to go with the territory – but he was exemplary all day. He spontaneously put his arm around Heather’s shoulder when the tears started flowing during the eulogy. And even when he got bored during the wake, he sat patiently and quietly until I took him off for a walk and a chat.

He barely remembers it but Isaac has dealt with death before. He was not quite four when his Nanna’s partner passed away but even then his innate curiosity and sensitivity meant we had long conversations about it. I can still remember him furrowing his brow, deep in thought, and saying to me, “Daddy, I’d really miss you if you died”. I well up thinking about that even now.

The indifferent one

Kara is closer to five than four but she has been largely unaffected by events. It’s too broad a concept for her to wrap her mind around. Even rhe reality that she won’t be visiting Nanna regularly any more hasn’t sunk in yet. Maybe it will eventually. 

I’m a little surprised – even a little disappointed – by her lack of reaction, as she had quite a strong bond with her Nanna. On the other hand, I envy her remaining cocooned in her bubble of innocence and hope she remains there a little longer.

The reflective one

Toby reacted exactly how I would have expected him to as a son who takes most obviously after his father: quiet, introverted, reflective. I think I may have seen a mini-version of how I will react when my parents eventually come to pass.

At seven, he’s old enough to comprehend what occurred, although I think he was more outwardly traumatised when he watched the episode of Top Gear when they killed off the original Stig. He certainly didn’t express any desire to attend the funeral. (I can remember being just a few months younger than he is when I went to my first funeral. While it didn’t leave any emotional scars, it certainly left some memories seared into my brain.)

Inside that busy little head of his, the cogs were whirring and the emotions were churning. Over the past couple of weeks he’s been climbing into our bed during the night much more and we’ve seen several inexplicable emotional outbursts, both of which I’ve put down to him processing his sadness in his own way. It’s exactly how I react in moments of extreme emotion or stress: internalise, process, release (or explode, depending).

Comparing the way the three kids responded to the news, it’s a useful reminder to us that they will often react differently to the same event and, as such, they need to be handled on an individual basis.

The grown-ups

In the midst of all this, Heather remained focussed and practical as she took on the lion’s share of the organisation. Communicating and organising with family and friends. Processing paperwork. Clearing out her mum’s room at the nursing home. Booking a funeral director, crematorium and wake. Choosing flowers, readings, music and coffins. Pretty morbid stuff – literally.

There were tears at the memorial service, of course. But I think the most unsettling thing was returning home afterwards with the single biggest box ticked off.

It’s like the day after you complete a big project. You’ve been focussed on the details of a specific date and, now you’re there, there’s no plan for tomorrow. Or when you realise you’ve been holding your breath and finally breathe out. It’s that moment when you ask yourself, “Okay, now what?”

What we’ve done is to think about what needs to be done to prepare for the future. Your own death is not something anyone wants to plan for but I can’t now imagine dying next week and leaving Heather to second-guess whether I want a burial or a cremation, what music I would want or anything like that.

Some of the to-dos are obvious ones, others less so but equally important. Finally make our wills (which I’ve been putting off for years). Take more photos of us, not just the kids. (There are only three photos in existence of all five of us and a small number in which Heather or I appear.) Fill in the blanks in my knowledge of my parents’ history and make myself have the discussion about funeral arrangements with them. Write down my own preferences for myself (musically, anything but Hanson’s MMMBop, please).

So much to do, and only a finite amount of time to do it in. It’s the ultimate bucket list and one no one wants to make. But it’s an important one nonetheless.

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