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Architecting Life

A Better Way to Think About Death


Resting in peace. No longer with us. Passed away. Gone to a better place. Kicked the bucket. Up there sucking oranges. Pushing up daisies. Carked it. Gone to meet her maker. Six feet under. In a better place. Sleeping with the fishes. Gone to the big house in the sky. Checked out. Lost. Finished. Popped off. Departed. Croaked. Gone. Or my personal favourite, living-challenged.

I think you get the point. I mean dead.

Unless this guy has his way we will all end up ‘living challenged’ at some point in our lives (presumably the end). And yet most of us rarely discuss it. Why is everyone so down on death?

Death too sensitive. Too morbid. Too awkward. And – likely – too scary for us to discuss on a regular basis – if at all.

Which is kind of a shame.

Because while it is scary to think about our – or our loved ones’ – demise, it’s also a fundamentally human thing to do. To die. And it’s tough when you’re the one left to deal with death. Especially if you’re left to do it alone, without really knowing how you’re supposed to feel. Because no one else will talk about it openly and honestly. Instead we wrap it up in silly euphemisms like, ‘in a better place’ and use tired phrases that have lost all meaning, like ‘RIP’ to make it feel like we’re dealing with it and discussing it, when really we’re compartmentalising. If we were a bit more open and honest it would feel okay to mourn. And you would know who to talk to about how you are feeling. Instead, it’s hidden. Almost taboo.

When Death Strikes Too Close to Home

My Nana unexpectedly ‘kicked the bucket’ in October.

We were super close. Growing up, I was the shy, unpopular kid and she was my best friend. I adored her. I spent almost every moment of every day with her – even following her into the toilet so we could, “chat some more”. Not once did she show even a hint of frustration or anger towards me – even while she was trying to pee. I’m pretty sure she cherished me as much as I, her. She told me stories my parents wouldn’t tell me, and I told her secrets I couldn’t tell my parents. She always treated me like her peer and I treasured her for showing me that respect. Until I moved away to university it was rare for me to go two of days without seeing her. I would visit her after school, and I used her house as my bedroom when I started going out because it was closer to the action than my own.

As you can imagine, helping to organise – and attending her funeral – was the most stressful, emotionally mixed time of my life. It was also the most surreal experience in my life. Because one thing was blatantly, painfully, almost irritatingly clear – NO ONE WANTED TO TALK ABOUT DEATH. Sadness, pain and death surrounded us, but no one would talk about it. Or even call it what it is – death. It’s the reason we were all in the same place at the same time. There was a very important person newly missing from our lives, and yet no one seemed to know how to talk about the dead woman in the casket!

Writing about Death

“For those of us who cannot believe in God and afterlives, this is just one of the things you lose forever when you lose a person: the ability to make them happy.” — Derek Thompson

Why is it so hard to write about death? I tried to write a reading for Nana’s eulogy. Everything I tried to write sounded so cliché – it’s been done to death (bad pun).

What I wanted to say:

I’ve been scared that you would die from the moment I realised it was possible. Now you’ve done it. You’ve died. And I guess there’s no going back.

Never again can I make you laugh, make you proud, or tell you how much I love you. And that is probably going to mess with my head…

To be honest, I’m feeling sort of numb, a little bitter and intensely lonely now. But it’s not the type of loneliness that anyone one but you can fix. You made yourself indispensable and then had the indecency to leave without notice! I hate you for doing that to me. And I hate myself for hating you.

I feel sick that I was too proud, or embarrassed, or ‘busy’ to tell you more often what there are no word to say – how much I love you and how much you mean to me. Because now it’s too late… I hope you knew anyway.

I’m also pissed off that you didn’t finish writing in the “Grandma Remembers” book I gave you. You had since 1989. Slack. Very slack.

I’d also like to remind you that you told me you’d see me in March…

What I ended up writing was a little more traditional. A lot more vanilla, but still honest:

Nana, You were the matriarch of our family in every sense of the word. We all turned to you with our problems. You would patiently listen, without judgement, and offer your ever-wise advice only when we wanted or needed it. You were wickedly funny, gentle, loving and mild-mannered – save for approximately once a year – the only time any of us saw you angry.

You taught us valuable life lessons, like:

  • You should never hate anyone. And reserve immense dislike for an unfortunate few.
  • No matter how serious the injury, it’ll heal up before the hole in your bum. And,
  • On a cold day a hot black tea will warm you up. On a hot day, paradoxically, it’ll cool you down – something to do with perspiration – not sweat, only pigs sweat.

You used to say that being a good person is to treat others with kindness and respect. By that, or any, definition you were one of the greatest people I know.

You were our Little Old Grey-Haired Nan, our Nana Nita, our Nan and our Mum, but more than anything you were our friend. A friend we’ll always remember.

How to Talk to Other People About Death

You know something is weird when even your friends don’t know how to make you feel better.

“Sorry for your loss” is actually what someone (who I consider one of my closest friends) said to me.

I appreciate the sentiment. And I realise that it’s an awkward situation. But what you want from your friends when your Nan has just died is a hug, a genuine question about how you’re feeling, followed by a laugh. Not a sterile, meaningless commiseration. Never say “sorry for your loss”. Ever.

You know what I think we should all say from now on?

“I heard your Nan died, how are you feeling?”

It seems too blunt to say ‘died’. And it will sound severe. But you know what? Death is severe. It rips and tears its way through you in the same way the blunt word, ‘died’, rips and tears through the air. Say it anyway. It’s not insensitive – it’s a real, honest way to discuss death. And asking how the other person is feeling gives them an opportunity to really discuss how they’re feeling. That’s a chance you don’t get very often.

Get Cozy with Death

I’m not suggesting you talk about it all the time. Or let it consume your thoughts. Just do me a favour and get a bit more comfortable with death. Think about and discuss death with your family and friends. What song would you like played at your funeral? What would you like to happen to your body? Cremation? Burial? Personally, I’m getting cremated, and using the ash to create a diamond – because I’ve always been a sparkly thing at heart.

I’m not going to say anything horribly trite, like, “make every day count” or “what would you do if today was your last”

But I will say this: Death will happen to you. It will also happen to everyone you love. Probably sooner than you want it to. So instead of wishing your time away, wanting someplace in the future where everything is perfect and ideal. Try to enjoy the time you have now. Just a bit. And remember to always tell the people you love that you love them.

Yeah. It’ll be weird.

But if you don’t make it perfectly, crystal, laser-focused, clear that you love the shit out of them? That they’re one of the best people in your life? And you wish you could squeeze them till they pop?

You’ll hate yourself – and feel immediately nauseous – when you realise missed your chance.

Happy 89th Birthday to my Nan and my best friend. I'll have more than the daily recommended daily intake of wine for you. xxx

Happy 89th Birthday to my Nan and my best friend. I’ll have more than the daily recommended intake of wine for you. xxx

Has anyone you loved just gone ahead and died? Is it time we were more open and honest about death? Let me know in the comments.

  • Emmak8

    I think that death is a really hard topic to think about, let alone talk about. Personally, I have such a fear of death, I almost didn’t read your post.

    Glad I did, though partly wish I hadn’t – was thought provoking, but you made me cry by the time I was only part way through! Think it hit a little close to home.

    When a close friend lost someone recently, the first thing I said was, ‘I’m sorry’, which I think was okay. I WAS sorry. I was sorry that someone so important was now missing from my friend’s life. I was sorry for the person who had passed away, that their life had ended. I was sorry for all the other people who were going to miss them. Mostly, I think I was sorry that my friend was sad and that there was absolutely nothing I could do to fix it. Much as I’d like to, I can’t bring people back from the dead.

    I’d like to think I’d never have added the ‘for your loss’ bit. Seems stiff, impersonal and strangely formal…especially given how informal interactions between friends are these days.

    Older people seem to handle things differently though. They are still of that generation that send sympathy cards. I’ve never sent one in my life (apart from the times my parents may have included my name) and right now, can’t see a time I’d ever really need to. I’d much rather do thing in person or send a heart-felt text message or make a phonecall. Strange as that may sound to some, I think something personal like that means much more than a Hallmark card, with some mass-produced card, filled with pre-printed rubbish. I know that’s the way I’d rather people handled it if I was the one who’d lost someone.

    • Brodie Norris

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Emmak8. Glad you stuck with it, though I’m sorry to make you cry!

      I’ve been reading a little about death anxiety lately, and it’s fairly common. It can also lead to anxiety in other areas of life in some cases. I’m not sure what the answer is, but if you think your fear of death is a serious issue, you should investigate further.

      As for your friend, you absolutely said the right thing! Saying “I’m sorry” is totally reasonable – just never ever say, “for your loss” afterwards! You’re right, it sounds very stiff – and from a close friend it sounded so wrong!

      I agree it’s always best to go the personal route with sympathies – Hallmark can’t say what you want to say.


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