DR TONY FITCHETT, a GP in Dunedin, New Zealand, for more than 30 years, had attended the deaths of many young patients, and thought that he understood the effects on the family of such a death. When, however, his 26-year old son, Marcus, and Marcus’s friend, Rachael Gloag, were both killed in an accident, he found himself submerged in a deep and disabling flood of misery.
Writing became the way of processing what had happened for Dr Fitchett, for many years a lay representative on the Anglican Communion Council on behalf of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia. The accident happened in 1996. Marcus, an outstanding young doctor, and Rachael, a highly qualified nurse, were on a two-year working holiday when their hired car hit a logging lorry on a blind corner in British Columbia.
In the continuing torment of sleepless early-morning hours after Marcus’s death, Dr Fitchett poured his grief into poems of lamentation. They were triggered by key events such as Marcus’s funeral in St Paul’s Cathedral, Dunedin, where he had sung in the choir as a boy, and where now
The voices rose, not with, but for
our boy, our golden lad,
and packed cathedral, silent, wept
for lad and lass cut off
He sees a student doctor in the hospital foyer, and “for a moment it was you.” The Church’s calendar brings the anguish of Good Friday, Remembrance, the Presentation in the Temple. Most of all, it is the agony of what will never be, as he watches young oarsmen on the lake where Marcus, a national rower, exulted; or when he experiences hallowed but searing moments at a concert by candlelight in St Martin-in-the-Fields, where, listening to the final chord resolve itself, he knows that there will be no such resolution for Marcus and Rachael.
“Poetry is quite a good medium for working through painful issues, as one goes on revising for a long time,” he reflects. “That tearful process helped me to come to terms with what happened at a gut level, deeper than the initial — merely intellectual — acceptance of the deaths.”
Buyenlarge/SuperStockUnwelcome guest: death visits a child, Antique skeletons of AmsterdamHE HAD no thoughts of publishing As Well as Joy: Elegies for Marcus and Rachael until Rachael’s father suggested establishing a trust in their memory. Others thought that publication would be helpful to those who had suffered a similar bereavement. Because the proceeds went to the Trust, Dr Fitchett was able to promote it “shamelessly” to medical colleagues and at church gatherings.
In 2002, he addressed the World Organization of Family Doctors Europe on journalling as a response to grief, and as a therapeutic tool. Empirical research had borne out anecdotal evidence that the death — and, in particular, the unexpected death — of a child caused pain and despair of a quite different order from other deaths. Studies had shown families to be so devastated that no interventions were at all effective in relieving pain and despair.
Two groups in particular have valued his book: parents whose children have died, and doctors and clergy who care for bereaved patients and parishioners. “One of the difficulties the bereaved face is the feeling that no one understands what they are going through, unless they have gone through it themselves. Reading and re-reading has, for some, been supportive, because it was written by someone who is suffering in the same way,” he suggests.
GPs can be the only easily available professionals who have ongoing contact with a bereaved family, he points out. “We can use that opportunity, by offering them opportunities to talk about their dead children, to know that they are not forgotten, and to express their feelings of grief and despair, which persist long after the event.”
WHEREAS Dr Fitchett could begin to work through his grief in the immediate aftermath of the deaths, Canon Alan Hargrave has, only this year — 15 years after the illness and death of his 21-year-old son, Tom — written One for Sorrow: A memoir of death and life (Books, 6 October).
He writes about the experience because he has read “too many sanitised accounts of death that simply do not ring true”, and also in the hope that others might find in it some key to help unlock their own grief. Most of the books that he was given about coping with grief were unfit for human consumption, he says; and they often depicted people “strengthened, renewed, and rejoicing following the ordeal”. The worst ones painted a picture of a God who loved Tom so much that he was “‘taking him for himself’. . . What kind of despotic, despicable God is that?”
The book is a brutally honest account of his own struggle — particularly as a priest in the public eye — to live through the loss. He writes of terrible brokenness: “I have always been someone dependable, the solid rock beneath [our children’s] feet: but now I am sinking in the quicksand.” He writes of the enormous act of will required to get out of bed each morning; of “agonising over questions for which we have no clear answer”.
He recalls turning up to church with his wife, Annie, and sitting at the back, “silently weeping” through the service. Afterwards, “someone we hardly know, but who has clearly heard all about us, comes up behind us and lays his hands heavily on our heads and shoulders. He prays fervently in a loud, cheery voice, thanking God for victory over death, praying that the Holy Spirit would fall upon us with his power, and that everything would turn out OK, and we’d go on our way rejoicing.
“He means well, but I cannot bear it. My anger surges to the surface. If I had the strength, I’d get up and deck him!”
THE beauty of a book written at this distance is that resolution does come — but not with pat answers. There are many days when Canon Hargrave cannot honestly say that he believes in God at all, but he finds comfort in reflecting that Jesus, for the most part, defined discipleship “by trust in him and by what we do rather than what we say we believe”.
He finds something redemptive in the idea that his and Annie’s experience may be of help to others. He thanks God for Tom’s precious life. There are moments when he “suddenly glimpses the glory of God again”, and, in between those moments, he will “do my best to walk the walk, both when God seems close and real and when he doesn’t”.
He concludes that “getting over it” is not about not feeling the loss. “It is, perhaps, about not being paralysed, immobilised, debilitated by the grief any more. It is about being able to live again. We feel we owe it to Tom to make the best of the gift of life.”
KEVIN TOOLIS is an Irish writer and filmmaker whose insights are gained from years of reporting on the Troubles in Ireland, and conflicts and death in the Middle East. My Father’s Wake: How the Irish teach us to live, love and die is a rage against the denial of death in Western society, a fierce and passionate plea for a return to old ways. The wake, he believes, “is the best guide to life you could ever have”.
At 19, he had seen his brother, Bernard, die bleakly from leukaemia in a city hospital. Toolis describes his death as “a hand grenade of rage and grief and loss that went off, blasting outwards. . . We said goodbye, and left him in the hands of the matron, the hospital, and the Western Death Machine. . . The next time I saw my dead brother was in the funeral parlour. Bernard was a wound we never bound up. A grave I could never close.”
The dead in the city, he reflects, “dwell in a separate realm from us. Spirited away from their dying places in ambulances, housed in mortuaries, dissected behind closed doors, passed along in unmarked vans to undertakers, encoffined, buried, or burnt unseen. Disappeared.”
He spent years pursuing death as though to immunise himself against it, “drawn towards something I still cannot define: human sorrow, lives taken, grief, the mortal aftermath, and the realm of the dead”.
HE RECALLS his first attendance at a wake, on the small island off the coast of Ireland where his family had lived for 200 years.
Taken along by his mother as a boy of seven, he had to stand on tiptoe to reach over the coffin edge and kiss the corpse. “The wake was going on all around us. . . My mother’s death-teaching was already over, swallowed up in the domestic chatter of shared lives on an island where the sight of the dead, in their very ordinariness, was as natural as the rain showers of summer.”
He highlights the contrast between Bernard’s death and that of their father, Sonny, who died, “a piteous wreck”, from pancreatic cancer, but who had lived all his life in a community that knew how to die. There is matter-of-factness around the tender, age-old rituals of the shared wake, in which death is a further binding between the dead, the living, and the dead-to-be. “If being born amidst those who will love you is the best hope of life, dying within a community is the last,” he suggests.
We cannot all go back and die in the ancient gatherings of the Celtic rite, he acknowledges, “but we can carry much of the Irish wake with us in our hearts. A rite that survived the fall of Troy and a thousand generations before the rise of the Western Death Machine can easily survive the transplantation back to our cities of glass and concrete. We need to find our way again with death.”
OTHERS, too, have found refuge in ritual — religious and secular. For Geoff Mead, the author of Gone in the Morning: A writer’s journey of bereavement, writing was “simply what I needed to write for myself to soothe my grief”; but with the added hope that it might also have something in it of value to others.
His wife, Chris, had been an artist, and the healing power of art is evidenced in this account. Over many months, he travels to scatter her ashes in “a long peregrination” to her favourite places — a journey in which he is “following my instincts, letting her go slowly and mindfully, at a pace my heart can just about cope with”.
DEATH by suicide raises a host of issues. Albert Y. Hsu has brought out a revised edition of a thoughtful and practical handbook and study guide, Grieving a Suicide: A loved one’s search for comfort, answers and hope. His father took his own life, and he believes that those left behind experience a trauma on a par with soldiers in combat.
Grief is normal; trauma is not, he says. He emphasises the need to relinquish unrealistic desires for full explanations. “Many survivors feel a sense of responsibility for their loved one’s death. ‘If only, if only, if only . . .’”
He tackles head-on and with compassion the questions that Christians agonise over: most particularly, “Is suicide the unforgivable sin?” Christian pastors and chaplains “often find themselves caught in a tension, wanting to offer comfort to a grieving family but unable to affirm, with any confidence, that the lost one is in heaven”, he says, working patiently through the theology and pointing out that even Roman Catholicism holds out hope for those who take their own lives.
SURVIVORS, he declares, do not need simplistic answers to incomprehensible questions. “We need the loving presence of others to keep our life going. We need companions on the journey. We don’t need the pain to be minimised; we want others to be willing to be with us in our pain and grief.”
His book offers no platitudes. There is a list of ten things not to say to a suicide survivor; and the wisdom in a chapter on the spirituality of grief could apply to anyone bereaved: “Far from being an experience that alienates us from God, grief can prompt us to apprehend deeper spiritual realities. We are never completely healed. After all, we still carry the scars. But grief that has done its work in us will help us experience God’s grace more fully.”
Titles mentioned here are:
As Well as Joy: Elegies for Marcus and Rachael by Tony Fitchett, published by the Rachael Gloag and Marcus Fitchett Memorial Medical Education Trust, and available to order from the CT Bookshop;
One for Sorrow: A memoir of death and life by Alan Hargrave (SPCK, £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9));
My Father’s Wake: How the Irish teach us to live, love and die by Kevin Toolis (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £16.99 hbk (£15.30));
Grieving a Suicide: A loved one’s search for answers, comfort and hope by Albert Y. Husu (IVP, £9.99 (£9));
Gone in the Morning: A writer’s journey of bereavement by Geoff Mead (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, £12.99 (£11.70)).