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Death and my teenage self

by
21 May 2020

A new book explores stories of early loss. In this edited extract, Madeleine Davies revisits her own childhood experience

Madeleine Davies

Madeleine Davies and her mother

Madeleine Davies and her mother

THE idea of death is so enormous that, if we dwell too much on it, it can feel as if it’s going to swallow us up. When I woke up one November morning, knowing that my mum was likely to have died during the night, I sat in bed just thinking about the sheer strangeness of it all.

Researchers think that, until we are about eight years old, we don’t fully understand what death is. Young children aren’t able to grasp that death is permanent, irreversible, and universal — that it happens to everyone and it can’t be undone. As we grow up, death may become our greatest fear. It’s also something that many of us try to avoid thinking about.

For some people, the answer to coping with their fear is to minimise death. A popular poem read at funerals is “Death is nothing at all”, by Henry Scott Holland. It begins: “Death is nothing at all. I have only slipped away to the next room.” A few summers ago, at a festival, I heard another poet, the Revd Malcolm Guite, ranting about this poem. “Death isn’t ‘nothing at all’! Telling people it is just makes them feel guilty about their sadness,” he said.

Malcolm had also discovered that the poem had, in fact, been taken from a sermon by Holland, which said a great deal more about death than those few lines. In fact, it described death as a “disaste”’. It’s called “The King of Terrors”, and I found it a brilliant summary of some of my own fears about death. We are afraid because it’s so mysterious, Holland observes. While we are here, alive, we can’t possibly experience what happens when we die.

But, at the same time, we should hold on to our belief that death isn’t the end. Even if the idea that those whom we love are simply in “the next room” isn’t helpful, God has promised eternal life. Just because we don’t yet know all the answers doesn’t mean we need be afraid; if we believe that God loves us, we can trust him beyond death.

 

IN FILMS, conversations with people who are dying are often dramatic. Sometimes, there is some vital piece of information that needs to be shared, or a race to the scene where time is running out for a final encounter.

In the last weeks and days that my mum was alive, I don’t remember her giving me any final words of advice. By then she was extremely tired; so it’s hard to know whether she simply didn’t have the energy or if she might have felt that I was too young for some conversations. But I wonder whether there was anything left for me to say or to hear. My mum and I had always been so close; we had always told each other that we loved each other.

My memories of November 1994 are of sitting next to my mum on my parents’ bed, enjoying being close to her. That last week that she was alive was the week before my 12th birthday, and I felt urgently that I needed a special, significant gift from my parents — something to help me remember. So my dad and I went out to H. M. Samuel and bought a ring — a small gold one with a heart containing a tiny diamond. I used to tell people that my mum had given it to me, even though in reality she was not well enough to give me a present, although I still have a card that she managed to scribble a line on.

I wore it for years, and it’s even slightly bent in shape, because I used to fiddle with it anxiously a lot when I was at school. The ring is much too small for me now, and I keep it in a box in my wardrobe.

Being with someone who is dying is an intense experience, and one that many people don’t have to face until they are much older. I remember the contrast between the calm, competent nurses who looked after my mum, and the nervous, fearful manner of friends and relatives who came to visit. It felt as if we were suddenly operating in a different time zone from the world around us — as if a distant horizon that had occasionally come into view over the past two years was suddenly right in front of our noses. We were on the receiving end now of visits, carers, frozen meals, and so much practical concern.

I don’t remember resisting the news that my mum was dying, although I do remember my horror and fear. Research suggests that this makes me a bit unusual: it’s common for younger teenagers not to realise or acknowledge that a family member is dying, even when it seems obvious to those around them.

A few years ago, Professor Grace Christ, a researcher, interviewed 80 families with a terminally ill parent: a study she wrote about in her book Healing Children’s Grief. She found that many of the young people aged 12 to 14 showed “adamant optimism by avoiding facts and feelings”. They often avoided information about their parent’s illness, unlike younger children who earnestly tried to seek it out.

Professor Christ learned that this behaviour was related to a desire to deny what was happening, and also to a fear that talking about the illness might lead to a loss of emotional control in front of others: often her interviewees preferred to cry alone in their room at night.

While it’s important to spend time with someone who is dying, it’s also important to give yourself permission to taste the world outside, take an opportunity to breathe and clear your mind a bit, and focus on your own thoughts and feelings.

 

I DID not want to go to my mum’s funeral. We had it in our church, a modern building that stood by the side of a busy road, lined with banners embroidered with Bible verses, and normally full of families singing, chatting, and chasing down errant toddlers. Afterwards, we drove to the village where my mum had lived before meeting my dad, so that she could be buried in the churchyard of the little stone church where they had got married. It was the first funeral I had ever been to.

Madeleine DaviesMadeleine Davies

The sight of my mum’s coffin lying on a stand at the front of our church was horrifying to me. It wasn’t that I believed that she was still alive inside that box. It was the thought that the physical part of my mum — the warm, soft body that had hugged me so tightly — was going away for ever.

I found everything that had been done to try to make this event beautiful — the flowers, the polished wood of the coffin — somehow disturbing. Everything was tainted by death. The first thing I wanted to do when I got home was wash it all off.

I feel slightly funny about sharing that story, because most of the people I’ve spoken to believe that going to a funeral is an important thing to do. It’s apparently very rare for teenagers to regret going to a funeral, and I suspect that, if I hadn’t gone to my mum’s, I might feel sad about that now. Like a baptism or a wedding, a funeral is an ancient tradition — something humans have done for thousands of years as they’ve tried to make sense of death.

“The thing about a funeral is that there’s a long wisdom of humanity about needing to mark these events and saying, ‘This is the day we say goodbye,’” Malcolm Guite, the poet-priest, told me. “I think we do need outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual things. The thing about holding a piece of earth and letting it go, or dropping a rose, is that you may not want to do that, but actually there is a letting go of the immediate closeness of everyday physical contact. Of course, you are not letting go of love.”

A funeral forces you to face reality — to do something that might be healthy and necessary, but is still deeply painful. I sometimes think that losing someone early in your life means joining a club that you never wanted to be part of. However much you learn from the experience, however much it shapes you, you would still rather it had never happened, that you had never needed to become stronger, wiser, or more compassionate in the first place.

 

A NEW awareness of “what matters” can sometimes be quite lonely. A death can make you ask enormous questions about life and your own purpose — questions that might never have occurred to the people around you. While losing my mum made me hold the people I love close, it has also removed a sense of safety which I should have had for longer: I learned at age 12 that the world is a risky, uncertain place.

If I could travel back in time and talk to my teenage self, I think I would tell her that so many of the things that she worried about didn’t come to pass. But, even today, I often find that moments of deep happiness are accompanied by an underlying hum of anxiety — “Is this too good to be true? What if it’s taken away?”

I know that I have a tendency to let my mind wander along dark paths, worrying about future losses and my own mortality, but I also believe in the God that my family and I sing about every Christmas in the small, candle-lit church in the village that’s one along from the town I grew up in:
 

Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings.

 

This is an edited extract from Lights for the Path, published by SPCK at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop special price £8; CH Bookshop: 0845 017 6965). Listen to an interview with Madeleine Davies about the book on the Church Times Podcast.

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