Death as life’s companion

We’ve just had our annual local death festival Pushing Up Daisies. A festival intended to encourage us to have more conversations about death, dying, bereavement, loss and grief and build a local community where we support each other as citizens and rely less on different professions to deal with death and dying for us.

I love that I live in place that has a festival like this.

When I was a toddler – probably 3 or 4 years old – I had an intense dream that has stayed with me and from which I have drawn different meanings at different times in my life.

I am walking in a small town with my mum. It is dusk, nearly dark and there is no one else around. I begin to hear the deep sounding beat of a drum. It is far away. Distant. A monotonous slow and steady beat that I can feel in my bones. And I feel scared. Something is coming. The beat comes closer too quickly and suddenly it’s upon us. A procession of skeletons – only I don’t know what they are, I’ve never seen skeletons. Walking dead, searching the streets, searching for us. And I know instinctively that we have to get away. So I get my mum to run with me, through the streets, along a railway track, away from the sound of the drums. But I can feel them chasing us now. Without rushing they are following us as if they know we have no where to go, no where to hide. My mum and I run to a mountain and we find some secret caves near the top. We can see the skeletons approaching. Slowly. Gracefully. We withdraw deeper into the mountain. And as my mum holds me I can hear the sound of the drumming surrounding the mountain and there is nothing but the beat.

I still remember waking up terrified. Not for myself but scared that the skeletons were coming for my mum. I remember struggling to explain what I had dreamt. How significant it felt. And I remember how the dream stayed with me as a young child. Vivid and important.

When I was 7 my mum and I went cycling around Denmark for a week or 10 days. It was an amazing experience. We slept in a tent together and we visited all kinds of places. On a bright hot day we went to a monestry. A beautiful old place that had partly been turned into a museum. In the graveyard they had opened some of the graves and covered them with glass so you could look down into them. I wasn’t tall enough to look over the edge so my mum asked me if I wanted to see. I didn’t quite understand what it was that was in the graves but I was curious. She lifted me up and I was looking down at a skeleton.

I completely freaked, twisted myself out of my mum’s grip and ran off out of the monestry and out to the road. In a brief moment I had felt the skeleton looking at me and all my terror from the dream returned. We were in danger. I remember marching along the side of the road in the sun and the dust. Furious. How could my mum take me to a place with skeletons? Didn’t she know how much they terrified me? Did she not know about my dream? Did she not know me inside out – all my thoughts and feelings?

I don’t know if I managed to explain to my mum what had happened. But I remember the painful realisation that my mum and I were separate beings. That she didn’t know my thoughts and feelings and that there were things about me that she wasn’t aware of. A different kind of loneliness entered my life.

A couple of years later death became my companion. I started considering taking my own life. At first I didn’t quite understand why and I quickly became full of shame and guilt. So much self-judgement for this longing I felt deep inside me. Longing to die. I can look back and totally understand why this young me would feel like dying but back then I just thought there was something wrong with me, that I was selfish and weak for thinking about taking my own life.

During Pushing Up Daisies I did a workshop named ‘How can I live when I feel like dying?’. I did a 30 minute talk where I reflected on things that helped me stay alive during the years where my death-longing was with me most of the time.

My teenage years and early 20’ies were spent just surviving myself. Everything I did was aimed at keeping me alive. Trying to focus on things that brought meaning to me in the here and now. Which was mainly creative activities and self-expression like dance, singing and painting. Around 22 I reached a point where I’d had enough. I kept thinking ‘what kind of life is this, constantly focusing on surviving myself and waiting for things to change?’ I didn’t feel alive and I didn’t want to live if I couldn’t find a way to get beyond surviving. So I tried the one thing I hadn’t tried already; I asked for help.

I quickly found out that telling people I thought of taking my own life wasn’t the way to get help. Not for me anyway. When I went to mental health services asking for help with my suicidal thoughts and feelings they just didn’t take me very seriously. I didn’t come across as someone who needed help urgently. However when I mentioned that I had experiences of hearing voices things started happening. Some useful stuff and some less useful stuff and I went on a journey of learning to navigate services wisely and safely.

I still have a relationship with death. It’s an important relationship. Thinking about death and dying has probably been one of the things that I’ve found most useful. Just diving in there and allowing myself to consider death, really feel my longing to die and ask myself questions. Why do I want to die? What do I hope will happen? What will I do if it doesn’t? What can I do once I am dead? What will happen to my mum if I take my own life? What will other people do and think and feel if I take my own life? Do I want to be missed or forgotten? Do I want people to feel guilty for not taking more care with me while I was alive? Do I want to punish the world by leaving it? Do I want to punish myself? What is a good reason for dying? What if I die and then return to live this life again? What will dying feel like? What will it be like to drown or hang or jump off a bridge? What will it be like to take an empty syringe and inject air into my veins? What will I feel? What will I think? What if I regret when there is no way back? What if dying doesn’t bring me peace?

And thinking deeply about death has changed how I relate to life. It has made me focus on meaning above anything else. I do not want to waste my time chasing achievements or goals that do not bring me meaning in the here and now. I prioritise looking after myself because I know that it is the only way I can be of use to my friends and contribute to the communities I am part of. Relationships are the single most important thing to me but I can’t be present in my contact with others if I am overwhelmed and anxious.

Another thing about death that I really value is the certainty of it.

Everything in life feels unpredictable to me and I experience a lot of unsafety and overwhelm. I myself am very unpredictable. My mood is incredibly changeable and my energy levels fluctuate so much that I can make a plan for the next couple of hours only to find that an hour later I am so exhausted I have to do things differently. I never know when I might have brain fog or a migraine and be unable to do much but sit around and wait for things to get better.

But death – death is so wonderfully certain. It’s the only thing I know for sure will happen.

And when I feel powerless, knowing that it is ultimately my choice whether I live or die gives me the sense of power and control that I need. Firmly believing that I am in my right to take my own life if circumstances become unbearable, has given me the strength to keep going. So in some weird roundabout ways – even though I don’t wish it on anyone else to feel like I have felt at times – allowing myself to feel suicidal and get close to death has helped keep me alive.

Along with endlessly repeating clichés to myself such as:

If you’re going through hell keep going.

This too shall pass.

If you fall and have to crawl make it part of your choreography.

You know what you have but you don’t know what you’re gonna get.

I still live through phases of feeling like dying. While I am in a committed relationship I have decided to step away from the option of taking my own life. I had a long conversation with death about it and death accepted that we have a less intense relationship. But I am also acutely aware that I don’t know what life will throw at me and at anytime everything can change.

When I die one day it may or may not be by my own hand. I am okay with that. I don’t judge myself for feeling like dying anymore. I am not scared of dying – I rather look forward to it and that feels liberating. You live life differently when you are not trying to outrun the skeletons and the grim reaper.

In the Pushing Up Daisies week you can volunteer to be a Daisy. You can be someone who wears a Daisy badge which means you can be approached and are up for talking about stuff related to death and dying. My mum’s name is Daisy but she doesn’t like her name much. I however like that I can be a Daisy – it feels like coming full circle. Being in a town where daisying is a thing you do.

I vow to daisy for the rest of my life because I believe we need to talk about death – as well as pain, illness, vulnerability, fear and all sorts of other uncomfortable things which are usually linked to death and dying in one way or another. Death shapes our lives whether we admit it or not.

Life would not be life without death so why not face it, feel it, think about it and celebrate it?

A tsunami of acknowledgement to everyone who made Pushing Up Daisies happen for the fourth time.

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