There’s been a bit of an existential theme happening with my kids lately, and they’ve wanted to talk about death and dying and the universe.
My older son wrote a poem about a child’s funeral. He came up and read it to me and, naturally, it prompted a conversation. We talked about the sadness of a neat and empty bedroom after someone has died, and I told him about my sister’s room after her death. Every time I saw her bed neatly made up, I longed to see her lying in it, and when I spotted the empty chair at her desk, I wanted her sitting in it.
We talked, too, about how anything belonging to the dead person becomes precious. He laughed when I told him how I didn’t want my sister’s dirty stockings to be washed, because then her smell would be gone.
I told him, too, how I felt her presence around me for a long time after she’d died, as if she’d stayed close until she knew I could cope on my own. After my father’s death, I felt his presence in the same way. Even now, I feel him sometimes, as if he’s in the room with me, just to the side and outside my field vision. The sense of him can be so strong, I believe he’s really there and if I turn and look, I’ll see him. It’s always disappointing when he isn’t.
In the car on the way home from school the next afternoon, my younger son asked me if I’d ever tried to imagine an infinite universe.
I said I had, but couldn’t.
‘No, me either,’ he said. ‘I think it must end. It can’t go on and on. And then I think, what’s at the end? A wall? And then what’s beyond the wall?’
(I love the conversations I have with my kids when I’ve got them to myself in the car.)
And then he moved on to the topic of death. ‘Do you ever try to imagine what it’s like after you’ve died?’
I said I did, but I couldn’t imagine that either.
‘I think it’d be like when I’ve been sent to my room and I have to sit on my own and listen to everyone else outside having fun and I want to join in but I’m not allowed to.’
It brought tears to my eyes, not just because he’d obviously spent considerable time thinking about this, but because I felt so guilty for ever having sent him to his room.
That night my daughter who’s studying Medicine called. She’s been doing Palliative Care and finding it emotionally taxing and very tough.
She told me about a lady on the unit who was about the same age as me. She was a mother of two teenagers and had been recording a video for her children because she knew she wouldn’t live much longer. But she had to stop because the disease had progressed to the point where she’d become confused. The day my daughter called, she’d become unconscious and the doctor had told the family the end wasn’t far away.
On the walls of her room were photos of the lady with her children, when she was healthy and happy.
‘I feel so sorry for her kids,’ she said and started crying. ‘I just keep thinking, what if it was you?’
I was moved by my daughter’s empathy for this lady and her family, and when she’d finished crying, I said, ‘You’d cope if it was me. And this lady’s children will cope without her.’
I told my daughter that I used to be overwhelmed at the thought of a member of my family dying—the fear and anxiety kept me awake at night. It was something I couldn’t imagine ever getting over.
And then it did happen and, almost to my surprise, I didn’t crumble. I survived. What’s more, within a few years I found I could be happy again. Even more than before.
This life doesn’t always deliver what we order, and it sometimes throws us horrible curve balls that we don’t want. We don’t know why, but, I told my daughter, there’s always a reason. It’s not always evident at the time and can take a while to declare itself, but we find it if we look.
The day after my sister was killed, two policemen arrived to formally notify us of her death. As they left, one of them said, ‘Every cloud has a silver lining.’
His words didn’t go down very well at the time, as you can imagine, but he was right. Good things did come out of her death, and continue to come from it, even though I couldn’t have conceived it at the time. I’m a better person, I was a better doctor, and I’m a better mother and writer because of that experience.
I now look upon her death as a gift, a very precious gift.
I told my daughter that it would be the same for her if something like that happened to us, even though she can’t imagine that now.
‘Besides,’ I told her. ‘I’d stay close to you, like my Dad did with me, until you were able to cope on your own.’
All life’s experiences make us who we are and who we’re meant to be. I wouldn’t be without any of mine, the good and the bad, especially the bad—they’re the enriching ones.