Lessons in Dying: Guest Post by Gareth Batterbee

Lessons in Dying

Do they do lessons in dying? If not, I can’t help feeling that someone should, after all it’s a life skill that we all need. I may be wrong. I don’t read many blogs (well, none outside this one really) and I’ve never written or guested on one before so there could be a huge subculture that exists out there just talking about death, but I doubt it.

I’m a fully paid up member of genus “British Male” and I think I’m genetically bred not to talk about it. Instead I have sport, more specifically football, of which one manager once said “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” I can see why we don’t do it, after all when you’re having a great night out no one wants to talk about last orders or the time of the last bus home. But it seems really self defeating and unhealthy.

Just over a month ago I lost my Dad to Alzheimer’s. It shouldn’t have been a shock. Like Tay Sachs, no one has found a cure and the best we can do is to make the exit as painless and dignified as possible. I’d known the day was going to come for years but I didn’t talk about it in the hope that it wouldn’t happen. Is this a Western or a specifically male approach to death I wonder? Because yes, Alzheimer’s is a shitty way to go and yes, you see the person you love gradually disappear but then I can’t say that’s worse or better than someone being shot protesting for a change in government in Syria or having cancer or being hit by a drunk driver or anything. What I do know is that I really desperately wanted a way to fight it, to beat this “unnatural” state where someone was stealing my Dad, but there wasn’t one. So I locked it off in a bit of my brain marked “Open later/never”. And when he died, the shock and pain was on a scale I really hadn’t expected. Six weeks on, mere days from my 35th birthday, I still have these waves of sadness and so, in a break from 35 years of learned habits and many generations of British resolve I’m going to talk about it and tell you what it was like to be there.

It was normal, it was natural, it was sad and it was strangely peaceful. Mum and I were at Dad’s bedside and had been for 24 hours because he’d been diagnosed with bronchial pneumonia. We’d been dozing for only a few minutes and simultaneously woke up to a deep silence. We both knew what it meant but there was a moment of just not wanting to break the quiet. We kissed Dad, still warm (and I’m thinking as I type that that’s maybe too much information but then that’s the whole point), we went to tell the nursing staff, I wondered whether I should close his eyes like they do in films (I didn’t, a nurse did), we hugged and cried, as much in relief for him finally being free from pain as in sadness, and then about an hour later I took a taxi to the station and came home. And then, 4 hours later, in the comfort of my own flat with no one around to see my embarrassment (after all, I’m a man – grrrr!) I cried like a 6 year old.

“I want to know if you have touched the centre of your own sorrow, if you have been opened by life’s betrayals or have become shriveled and closed from fear of further pain! I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it or fade it, or fix it.”

The Invitation, Oriah Mountain Dreamer

I first read The Invitation about 7 years ago at a friend’s wedding. I don’t know the author. I’ve read nothing else by her. I don’t know what inspired her to write, what drew the words from her pen, what events touched, moved or inspired her. I thought it was interesting, beautiful, clever, thought provoking. But this bit? This bit I did not get. Why would you not want to fix pain? What possible scenario could you have, I naively imagined, where you were so powerless that all you could do was sit there? Why give up like that? Man up! Do something! Anything. Please. Someone?

Finally, by Dad’s bedside, I got it. You can’t trade pain. You can’t switch it to some surrogate pain outsourcing company. You can’t offshore it to a cheaper third party. It’s not a commodity. It’s yours. And you can choose to dwell in it, and drown in it, or you can fight it and wear yourself and everyone else out fighting ghosts, or you can sit with it without moving to hide it or fade it or fix it. You can acknowledge it, and not make it wrong. And when you don’t make it wrong, and unnatural, it loses some of its power. I’m getting there.

So back to death.

What would happen if we talked about it? Well, probably less stress for a start. Maybe we wouldn’t spend so much of our lives and money on trying to cheat it, or at least cover up the hair loss/wrinkles etc that whisper that it’s getting closer. Maybe we wouldn’t try and kill ourselves having a good time and trying to forget that it’s round the corner. Maybe we’d be more alive. I’ve never been anywhere with more lust for life than I saw in Mozambique in 1998: 4 years out of civil war, malaria, cholera, landmines, bad roads and more ways to die than I could imagine, which seemed to fuel a will to live that left me speechless. Maybe the person in the shop who asked Em about why Ronan was so sleepy would have then been able to talk to her about it and make that interaction positive for both of them. And maybe we’d all live like we were part of something bigger, rather than like the world revolved around us.

Yesterday I had a first date and within 20 minutes said the words “I lost my Dad last month”. Contrary to my initial fears around tossing out that particular verbal grenade (the dating etiquette literature is strangely mute on the subject of discussing recent parental death), the sky didn’t fall in, she didn’t run off in shock or assume that because I was talking about my emotions I must be gay and we had a good time. It came up naturally in conversation, we talked about it, we moved on. It was quite “un British”.

Tonight I watched Hero, which in my opinion is the most beautiful film ever made, an opinion I will defend to the death or until someone shows me a more beautiful film. In it people die, and other people are sad, but they don’t make the deaths anything other than natural and part of the way the world works. I’m guessing that’s an Eastern thing – I know there will be people reading this critiquing my slipshod use of East and West when it’s way more complex than that: forgive me/get over it 😉 What I mean is that the more I see of cultures outside of the “developed”, Western world, the more I think they’ve got a more developed way of dealing with death.

So what’s the answer? A dying syllabus in schools? Death coaches? No need, just talk about it. Acknowledge it. That’s the thing I’ve come to love about this blog and the thing that’s been so helpful to me over the last few weeks. It’s utterly uncompromising. Ronan is dying. Emily and Rick are hurting. All the other Tay-Sachs parents we hear about are hurting, and every human being who reads their words feels some of that pain. No one is apologizing for it, or making it something that it’s not. No one is boasting that their pain is the most, the biggest, the hardest to bear. There is no saccharine, wide-eyed Disney ending on the way. No one has “the answer”. Everyone is doing what they feel they need to do. It just is. And that is the healthiest, most natural thing in the world and I feel immensely privileged and humble to be allowed to share in it.

6 responses to “Lessons in Dying: Guest Post by Gareth Batterbee

  1. Gareth, thank you for being willing to share your thoughts and struggles so soon after your father’s death. First of all, I want to extend my sympathy to you in your loss and that of your family. Your words are comforting because you just talk about death and the pain of losing someone and the fact that all of us who love Ronan, Emily, and Rick are willing to walk with them as we feel their pain and be with them knowing that we cannot take away the hurt, only help them to be less alone with it. We each, in our own way, surround them with our love and hope. Thank you for your insights and generosity on behalf of Rick, Emily, and Ronan and all of us. Kindest regards, Susan Gorman

  2. I love the clumsy, slipshod, unapologetic way you have written this post (I hope that comes off as a compliment). My mother and I have both had cancer (my mother twice, two different kinds) and yet we two are both still alive and waiting to see when the other shoe will drop. After my mother had cancer for the first time (I was in 3rd grade) I decided that if I were ever to find I had cancer, I would just let myself die rather than go through the barbaric treatments. When I was diagnosed with the same cancer at 29, I wanted to just die. But I found that my will for survival was a separate entity, and much more stubborn than I. Ever since, I worry every day that I will be diagnosed with cancer again, and this time it will not be curable. At the age of 42, finding myself to be (amazingly) still alive, I adopted a daughter born with a severe cleft lip and palate. During her second surgery, she stopped breathing four times and nearly died. She, my 75-year-old mother, and I are all still alive today. For now. I think that we all wonder how much time we have left. Having death hanging over your shoulder is a strange burden to bear. And yet…we will all die in our time. My daughter has three more major surgeries to face this summer. I do not enjoy the anticipation. And yet…life has been so good. SO good. Who am I to complain?

  3. Friend, well said and said well!

    Being quite dim, my light bulb moment came about 20 odd years ago when death paid an unexpected visit and it was simply this, ‘Oh I get it, death is part of life, not separate from it’. Re-orientation to this concept enabled me and recent deaths have been easier in this context.

    Do they hurt any less? Not one iota. Do I cry any less? Nope! But I wouldn’t outsource my grief because if I do that, what else do I outsource with it? We have to say yes to death to say yes to life.

    Here’s to you and your Dad!


  4. Bravo Gareth. Great post. Thank you for sharing your experience, and adding to the British ‘accents’ on the blog. (I guess we’re all making ourselves felt abroad in any case, in this week of the Royal Wedding 🙂 .) I love what you said about the first date, especially.

    Should one teach folk how to die? In Ram Das’s book, ‘Still Here’, he talks about how Tibetan monks prepare for dying. It sounds a bit like antenatal classes. Your body knows what to do, all by itself (just like giving birth) but your mind doesn’t, and you need to learn what to expect, to learn how to handle the fear and the sensations. The other monks come along when someone is dying and help them in the way (it sounds like) a midwife might. It reassured me, somehow, to hear that there might be a point where you’re just really thirsty because the body is doing what it does to prepare for death. But just knowing what it’s like…. that’s not enough to make it un-scary.

    I love what Maia says about her will to survive being more stubborn than her. For all my own common sense attitude to my body, to growing older (grey hair? wrinkles? Bring it on…), I know I am disguising a massive will to survive, to stay young, to cling on to this planetary existence. Saying yes to ageing, saying yes to death…. well, that requires confronting my own grief, nuzzling my way in to the loss of my youth and saying goodbye to my loved ones. I’m scared of all that….

    Gareth, thank you, thank you, for bringing all this in to the light, and sharing your experience. In so doing, you’re acting a little like those Tibetan monks that accompany the one who is dying on the first part of the journey. You’re making it more possible for all of us to travel this path, as accompaniers or as ones facing death ourselves.

  5. I enjoyed this post and agree whole heartedly about just talking about it. I felt most honored to be a part of this most important part of a life. We grow up with this notion of how grieving people are supposed to behave and that label is tough to live with. My 34 year old husband passed away 2 years ago and I’ve since thought numerous times that what I did for the first year was learn how to be a widow. I didn’t know because no one talks about it. How do you answer the question “Are you married?” or “How many children do you have?” I have been tongue tied on many occasions trying basically to be tactful. I hate blind siding some unsuspecting well meaning soul with “I used to have 3 kids but 2 were my step-children and they’re not really mine anymore because their Dad, my husband passed away” I mean sheesh! 🙂 Thanks for sharing.

  6. Gareth, thank you for this post, it is very brave. Once a therapist told me that the only way to get over “sad” was to go THROUGH it. It seems a bit like this type of pain. But it’s very, very hard and I applaud your honest sharing of thoughts about it.

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