Hay Festival 'Talking About Death' debate
Updated: Jan 16
Last summer I read Cathy Rentzenbrink's book 'The Last Act of Love' a true story about the tragic death of her much loved brother Matty. She wrote with such honesty and compassion that I recommended the book to many of my friends and clients. After reading the book I felt compelled to get in touch with her and I offered to create her a keepsake cushion.
Sadly she didn't have any of Matty's clothes so the process that I had always used, (to make the keepsake out of cherished clothes) wasn't possible this time. After several emails I was able to ascertain that there were indeed certain materials that were favourites: a brown leather jacket and 'the the t-shirt' reminded her of Matty along with corduroy and denim. Red hearts on white cotton reminded Cathy of her bedding and she loved the colour blue. It was a start, so after hours of trawling through charity shops and the local haberdashery I finally gathered the materials to create a cushion. What I particularly loved about this keepsake was the way it made me think outside of the box.
Last Sunday, around 12 months after reading the book, I got the opportunity to meet Cathy as she was joining Julia Samuel on the stage for a debate entitled 'Talking About Death' at the Hay Festival. I was not disappointed. Far from it, I was inspired. During the debate I listened to Julia Samuel's opinions and discoveries, gathered from her 25 years working with clients as a grief psychotherapist and Cathy's personal experience with the death of her brother and the way it affected her, her parents and the relationships she went on to have with men.
Cathy talked honestly of how, looking back, she was drawn to men like Matty, but of course the relationships never worked out as she was after a boyfriend not a brother. She also spoke about the awkward times at university when others would ask her 'Do you have any brothers or sisters'? It flawed her every time. She didn't always want to tell the story but she didn't want to deny he had existed either. If she did feel brave enough to tell the story of her brother's death, she would sometimes receive a "I only asked do you have a brother or sister?" look. Not exactly encouraging or empathic.
I was shocked to see how many of the audience had experienced, as Cathy had, the hand signal (like pushing you away) She said it felt like they were saying " don't give me your pain", "don't remind me that I am going to die."
It is a fact that people instinctively draw away from sadness. Another example of this is when people you know choose to ignore you (when you are grieving) or purposely avoid you and cross over the road. I have often heard this from my clients. It is beyond me how anyone could be so insensitive! I know society in general struggles with 'knowing what to say, or what to 'do' but ignoring those that are grieving is snubbing them. It sends out the message 'that those who are grieving make others feel uncomfortable or awkward.' This should never be the case, it should never be the norm.
One of the questions asked was what can people do to help those who are grieving? Cathy advised friends and family to be practical - cook meals, do laundry, collect children from school etc. Also be kind, be patient and don't take things personally- when someone is grieving they are often in a state of shock and angry too.
Julia commented on the fact that for many people they believe that the intensity of their suffering directly equates to the depth of their love they had for the one who has died, " I want to stay close to them therefore my suffering will never end." I find this concept so sad. This belief could be seen as heroic but surely it would restrict anyone who is grieving from any future happiness whatsoever? Your life can never be the same when a loved one dies but by allowing yourself to grieve you can eventually come out the other side and live a different life, you don't need to intentionally choose to suffer indefinitely.
A lady in the audience brought up the topic of Death Cafes, which I believe originally started in Switzerland, but can now be found worldwide and thankfully closer to home in Malvern and in Hereford too. This brave lady had been given a terminal diagnosis and found the Death Cafe a supportive place. She felt at ease to voice her concerns, ideas, beliefs, wishes etc.
So many of us in society don't want to talk about it. It's almost like "if I don't talk about it then it won't happen". I really liked Julia's suggestion of asking those who know they are dying if there is anything that is worrying them? Do they have specific wishes for their funeral? Do they have a bucket list?
Finally I agree with Julia and Cathy that we, as a society, need to find a way of living with suffering. For so many of us, we suffer in silence. The Grief Recovery Method believes that grief should be seen and heard and this is especially important where children are concerned. If as a parent we hide our true pain away from our children they will grow up believing that this is the correct way to deal with any future heartbreak, any loss and they in turn will teach their children the same. And so it goes on.
What an inspirational talk and to top it all I had a wonderful hug from Cathy!