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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Grieving every day

As far back as I can remember I have experienced times of intense sadness. Feeling like a heavy weight is dropped into my solar plexus and at the same time as if some creature is clawing at my insides. It makes me feel exhausted and restless at the same time; exhausted with the unexplainable emotional pain and restless to make it shift. Mentally restless to understand it, figure it out and come up with a way forward. Physically restless because the pain is so uncomfortable; a sense of loss, violence and meaninglessness. As if I’m too empty and too full at once.

When I was younger the big question was always “why?”. 

Why am I feeling like this? What have I done? What have I not done? What have I done wrong? Is it me? Is there something wrong with me? Why would I be feeling like this unless I’ve done something wrong? 

I would be looking for what I might have missed. Scrutinise things I’d done, choices I’d made and how I’d treated people. 

As I grew older I became more aware of this individualised idea of happiness that seems to have rooted itself in our western minds. That we alone are responsible for our happiness; that happiness is something we can just choose, something that happens if we think the right thoughts or chant the right chants. Many seem obsessed with happiness and how it’s achieved and how to spread the happiness vibe. It’s a bestseller.

Grief, sadness and pain doesn’t seeem to have much value. They are responses to be gotten over or fixed. Find the cause and get it sorted. Pain is just a messenger about something you need to look at. Then you can be happy, be your true self free of pain. Happiness is the way and we can all be happy if we want to…

With all this in mind I kept scrutinising myself. What was I doing so very, very wrong? How to change my thoughts to change my world? Its just mind over matter, right?! 

I used to hide when I felt sad. Cause nobody wants to be around a buzz killer, a party pooper. I thought people didn’t like my philosophical questions, my ponderings about the point of it all, my quiet staring into space and unenthusiastic responses. Also I just felt too tired to face people. People often want to help and relieve pain and this would leave me with a choice between two evils; pretend people was helping me to make them feel better or be honest and make others feel restless and sad too… It can be a real dilemma so I chose to not be around people because I would feel responsible when my moods and behaviour made others feel powerless.

During me teenage years I was quite sure I wouldn’t be able to keep surviving my intense states of sadness and meaninglessness. But now I am 35 and I have made it through countless of these states. And I’ve started thinking differently about them. 

Realising I am not an island was one of the first big things to help me change my approach. I don’t know why we are being sold this idea that we a separate and disconnected. I know it feels like that at times and I know nobody is ever going to experience me or the world the way I do, but that doesn’t make me an isolated being. It just makes me unique. Like everybody are unique. But we are still made from the same matter – or clay as John O’Donohue calls it. We may be islands but we are all connected by water, by this world we are living in. Connected by our humanness; by bones, flesh and blood, by birth, illness and death. 

Once I realised this I started wondering whether this sadness was truly just mine…

The wonderful German word “Weltschmerz” can be understood in two ways. Either it could mean that you feel overwhelmed and dissatisfied with the world; that the world – or your view of the world – is causing you pain. Or it could mean that you are feeling the pain of the world. 

Believing that everything is interconnected and inter-existing makes my pain not just mine. My pain may not start with me. Sometimes it does yes, but more often than not the pain I feel comes from my relationships with people around me, from being aware of pain in their lives. And some states of sadness are about the world, about feeling the grief of living beings across the planet, the despair and vulnerability. Deeply sensing the frustration of people fighting for a fairer world or people trying to raise awareness about the impact we have on the environment. 

There is so much pain in the world. So much pain.

And many of us have lost the rituals and containers that could help us feel less overwhelmed in the face of this pain. Rather than thinking of us as interconnected and face the pain of the world, we think of pain as having an isolated cause that the individual needs to deal with… Or we simply try to distract and numb ourselves from the pain.

So what to do when one feels the pain of the world?

Probably this is one place where religions of different kinds have something to offer. Loving prayers and getting together with others to remind ourselves that there may be something bigger than us out there. Choosing to trust in a higher power can alleviate some of the overwhelm.

Or nurture a spiritual practice; some people find ways to protects themselves against feeling the pain and others find ways to bear it. 

Or become an activist. 

I don’t have a religion and I don’t have the discipline to uphold a spiritual practice. I can’t really see myself as an activist. 

So some years ago I decided to try and grieve everyday. To honour the pain and the sadness. Because what seemed to happen was, that I would be relieved when I didn’t feel the sadness and then feel resentment when it came back. So I thought that if I stayed in touch with it and felt it on a regular basis it might stop coming in these intense waves…

It sounds good in theory. But then life happens and I forget or I change my priorities. So sadness takes a backseat for a while but I can’t stop being who I am and I can’t stop feeling life so intensely. So sooner or later I am forced to feel the pain again. And I think to myself: What happened to grieving everyday? What happened to being in touch with the pain of the world and honouring it? 

I am coming through a time of business to more calm living and now sadness has hit me square in my belly. It’s so intense I forget all I’ve learned about this pain, I feel lost and overwhelmed. My mind gets restless but a voice inside says: Write about it. Write!

And I write and I remember. The pain, the many ways I’ve tried to deal with it throughout my life. I remember interconnectedness and I remember how much I feel everything. 

I remember how I’ve been wanting to write about grieving everyday for over a year.

And here I am writing. Grieving. And remembering why I believe in grieving everyday.

Some pain is personal and individual and recognising individual pain and it’s cause can be very important. But some pain might be universal and this kind of pain may need a different approach. Overall I believe we need to rethink our relationship with pain and sadness and not see them as villains to be conquered or avoided. 

The film “Inside Out” tells a story about how important sadness is for our humanness and how it can help us connect with each other. Being happy and enthusiastic is valuable but being in touch with pain and showing vulnerability is equally important.

We need to honour our shared pain, all that we’ve lost, all the hurt we’ve inflicted on each other and the planet. I believe that if we are in touch with pain and allow ourselves to grieve it can help us find ways to live more harmoniously in our communities…

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Who needs a father anyway?

Who needs a father when there are so many good men in the world doing their best to relate to women (and men) in kind and meaningful ways…?

It was father’s day here in the UK very recently and as always it makes me feel slightly torn. I enjoy the posts I see on Facebook where friends share their love and appreciation for their fathers, stepfathers, grandfathers and any other kind of father one could think of. I loved the look on my partners face when he came to tell me his sons had brought him chocolate because of father’s day. I just generally feel joyful when people show each other that they care.

But another part of me gets annoyed with father’s day and I catch myself having inner dialogues about “how superficial and commercial it all is”.

When I take a closer look at my annoyance I find that it is just self-protective palaver designed to keep certain feelings at bay. Feelings of sadness and confusion – a deep grief that never really eases or shifts.

When new people come into my life – or when I do training and talk about my life – at one point people will ask about my family and my parents. And I will often just talk about my mother and my siblings. Some people will continue to talk about my parents in plural or they will ask about my father and this is when I say “I don’t have a father”. And I really, really mean that; I grew up without a father – or even a stepfather – and I still don’t have a father. Because the man who contributed to the creation of me has never taken an interest in me.

My mother decided to raise me on her own and she also decided not to get into a relationship again, which meant that there were no male role models close to me as a grew up.

Even though my mother’s feelings towards my father must have been complex, she never said a bad word about him to me; when I was young she would tell me very simple stories about him when I asked. Stories about how he looked and how he worked on ships.

My mother also seemed very aware of her own limitations raising me as a single mother. She made sure I spent time with my great aunt and uncle as well as families of friends so that I could experience different kinds of family lives and learn social skills that she couldn’t teach me.

As I got older life got more complicated for me and I began to wish that I had a father – someone who would love and support my mother but also someone who could help with the conflicts between my mother and I. I started to wonder why my mother was on her own and why my father wasn’t interested in me and in my powerlessness to change the situation I started believing that I was cursed. That there was something evil about me and that this evil had put a curse on my mother and I so that neither of us would ever be loved.

This belief was in some ways easier to cope with than the anger I felt towards my mother – the anger just caused me more pain and shame while the belief that I was cursed gave me something to work with.

If I could just be “a good girl” and keep the evil under control, then things could change.

The irony is that knowing my mother as I know her now, I am pretty sure she never wanted me to be “a good girl”. My mother has always supported my self-expression, autonomy and uniqueness and I know she noticed it when I began to struggle as a kid.

She did what she could to support me but I imagine it was difficult as I began to withdraw emotionally and refused to talk about what was going on. Looking back, I also think it was near impossible for me to express all the thoughts and feelings I had as I was only 8-9 years old and didn’t have a language for it.

I have a very clear memory of deciding not to talk about the things I was struggling with because I didn’t think anybody would understand (I barely understood myself) but also I was worried about contaminating others with all the horrible things I felt inside.

Keeping the belief that I was unlovable alive, wasn’t difficult – it’s pretty easy to make sure you love people who can’t or won’t love you back and there it is: proof that you are unlovable. I’ve done that a lot. Also I used to avoid building friendships that I wanted to last because I couldn’t cope with the pain of separating from people.

But I didn’t get to control everything in my life – luckily! So somehow people started coming into my life who just seemed to like me and care about me without me doing anything to deserve it…

As the years passed I slowly got more comfortable around men who were nice to me – though I still get pangs of paranoia and think to myself that they are only kind to me because they want something from me. But I kept finding the courage to trust and little by little my experience of having meaningful friendships with men helped me create a new belief system within me. Belief in my own worth and my own strength; that I could trust my own judgement about what I needed, about my boundaries, that I had the skills to look after myself in a gentle way and that I had something valuable to bring to the world.

Most importantly I began to receive the love that was offered to me.

I don’t know what my life would have been like had I had a father – somethings might have been easier and somethings might have been harder.

I do know that I deeply treasure my relationship with my mother and had I had a father it would not have been what it is today – simply because the dynamics between us would have been different.

I also know that I really like how I am (well, most of the time anyway); I like the values I have, my outlook on life and the way I experience the world. And I would be a different person had anything in the past 35 years turned out differently than it did.

Part of being who I am, is living with this grief in the pit of my stomach; it is not quite loss, not quite longing, not quite abandonment or rejection. It is more like an emptiness or nothingness, a not knowing but at the same time it has density and a certain heaviness to it and its dark, dark blue…

This blog is written to celebrate all those men in my life – past and present – who have related to me in ways that made me feel loved and valuable.

Men who were able to meet my needs for safety, joy, choice, nurturing, respect, mutuality, acceptance, consistency, integrity, openness and growth.

Thank you!

The black-blue pain may never dissolve but your presence in my life has made it easier to carry.

The list of men who have helped me on my journey is actually surprisingly long. I have begun to write it out in more details and with stories but it suddenly felt too personal and exposing so maybe that list is for another post on a later occasion…