Rethinking the Unthinkable

My Mum’s been to hospital a lot recently. She’s past the worst and recovering nicely, but she keeps talking about her mortality. I try and pretend it’s not a big deal and move the conversation on, but in the quiet moments of my day my mind floats over to the ‘What If?’ world.

What if Mum died tomorrow?

I slap the thought away and picture her in my head the way I’ve always seen her: strong and safe. It’s wrong to even think about her death, right?

Well, maybe not. Thinking isn’t anything near feeling. We’ll never be able to feel the loss death creates before it’s happened. So why are we so afraid of thinking about death? Why does the word scare me with dark images of decay, depression and loneliness. I’m starting to realise just how important it is to think about the unthinkable (and not just hers). So how do we begin to even think about it?

When I think of death, the first person I think of is my Papa. In my grandfather’s final days, instead of following his usual, english inclination to avoid expressing his feelings, my Dad to his credit (and my mother’s encouragement) found the strength to tell his father how much he loved him and how thankful he was for his generous support. Confronting loss is the only path to acceptance. My father exposed his feelings in his goodbye, making it meaningful and emotionally cathartic. They say the only way out of grief is through it and I agree with that.

Though in my experience, goodbyes don’t always have to be teary-eyed. A few years back my friend suddenly passed away. Sophia was a performer with colourful heritage, so her funeral was totally unlike anything I’ve ever seen. But the most remarkable moment was when we all stood up at the end and gave her a big, cathartic round of applause. That ceremony wouldn’t have suited everyone, but it was perfect for Sophia. When it comes to grief, you can’t create a blanket prescription that will heal everyone, but if you listen carefully to it you could find the right cure for you.

Part of what shocks me about my mother’s frank talk of her own mortality, is the existential challenge of acknowledging one’s death. An old uni friend once told me she suffered from crushing Thanatophobia, regularly being paralysed by dreams of dying. Luckily I share the same outlook as The School of Life, who believe our fear of death should be seen as useful: it diminishes our fear of failure, which in turn encourages us to achieve our goals. In fact, in the olden days people used to buy a skull and place it on their desks to keep them focussed.

While my Mum would never agree to a skull, a few years ago she acquired (a floral) walking stick. Around the same time she uncovered a deep desire to reveal her inner artist, graduating just this year from Central Saint Martin’s Fine Art course. Like probably many other mature students, the cold chill of mortality actually ended up igniting a fire under her ass. The more I think about it, the more I feel my Mum’s desire to talk about mortality is a source of strength, not something to be feared.

The last time my Mum raised the subject of her mortality, I attempted a joke about what I had to inherit from her. But this lead me into the minefield of legacy instead of the safe haven of humour. What even is legacy? Not wealth or power, but the lasting effect we have on the people around us, according to my Mum. I had joked that I wanted her to leave me all her valuable tapestry cushions that she taught herself to handmake. But knowing all jokes harbour a deeper truth, I’ll admit the real value in those cushions are how they symbolise my mother’s ambition to learn, creative eye and powerful patience. All characteristics that I achingly value and try to emulate. But while I may know what those cushions symbolise for me, she doesn’t. She won’t know what message leaving them to me would send.

Of course like the terrible majority of us, Mum doesn’t have a will. But even if she did, the impersonal way we transfer our possessions and responsibilities betrays our fear of death. According to Farewill only one in a hundred UK wills include personal messages (or four in five if written with Farewill). So even if you have had the foresight to write a will, the last message you’ll send to your loved ones will probably be impersonal instructions about wealth and duties. Of course those things are important, but surely too crude to be the crux of your final message? Money, a house or a business can’t say thank you, I’m sorry, or I love you.

After reflecting on how we think about death, I feel it will inevitably affect how I communicate. An old friend of mine once heartbreakingly spoke of how important it is to say you love someone as often as you can. It was the last thing she said to her Mum and she had no idea she would have a heart attack the next night. You’ll never regret saying you love someone.

So the next time my mother mentions her mortality again I’m planning to be brave enough to hold the conversation. Thinking about death shouldn’t be the dark, ugly taboo that haunts us. Facing up to death helped my Dad come to terms with losing his father, empowered my mother to be the artist that she is and helped me realise I really need to make sure my Mum leaves her cushions to me (and not my brother or sister). So actually, the unthinkable is really worth a think.