**Trigger Warning: This post contains references to death/suicide, and may be distressing or triggering for some readers. Please exercise wisdom and self-care before choosing to proceed.
Death was always an abstract-ish concept that was far removed and mostly hidden from me as a child. I suspect growing up in the church and being told that I would have “eternal life and never die” added to this abstract confusion. I grasp the concept now, but you can see how this may be a tricky notion for a small child to get their head around. I deem it, therefore, not overly helpful in my formative years.
When I was 4 years old my Poppy (grandfather) died, I remember begging to go to his funeral- having no true grasp of what a funeral actually was! And alas, I was not going to find out- as it was decided for me, that a funeral was not the place for a 4 year old child.
I was fortunate not to have the need of attending a funeral again until I was in my mid-teens. It was the funeral of my very close friend’s brother, he had died by suicide. Out of respect for my precious friend and her family, I will provide no details. I will simply say that his funeral was a tragic event. As a congregation of grievers, we confusedly farewelled a life extinguished far too quickly, amid an atmosphere heavy laden with the angst of unanswered questions, words unspoken, and the opportunity for closure stolen.
Over the coming years I attended similar funerals, all of them nonsensical tragedies.
I would watch crime shows on television, all of them emotionally triggering for me, and all of them showing the horror, injustice, and violence of death.
Death was to be fought off, warred with.
It was not until the death of my beloved Nanna, when I was in my early twenties, that I truly understood how death could be a peaceful, and welcome event, as life for her had become a painful and burdensome struggle. I had hoped to be by my Nanna’s side in her final moments, but it was not to be. She died as the palliative care nurse was calling me to make the trip. Whilst the grief I experienced was almost unbearable, I was comforted by the fact that my Nanna was no longer in pain; she was free. She was where she had longed to be, and there had been the time and space to say goodbye properly. The memory of my Nanna’s death is one that leaves no breathtaking sting, just the longing ache for the company of her presence. Her passing was one of peace, and this became a gift to me and my evolving view of death.
Today one of our two guinea pigs, Tulip, died. My 16 year old son went to feed them, and mentioned that Tulip was unresponsive to food. I went to check on her and found she was very unwell. Her shallow breathing told me she had maybe only an hour remaining. I sat by her cage, gently stroking her soft fur, trying to honour the space she needed but also allowing her to know she was not alone, as she took her final breath.
My 9 year old daughter, Miss S, was a huge fan of Tulip and given that it is school holidays, she was home today. I had asked my 14 year old daughter to keep Miss 9 inside while Tulip was passing, as Miss 9 struggles with anxiety and didn’t want her to become distressed. However in a moment of clarity, seconds after Tulip had passed, I realised this was a rare opportunity to shape Miss 9’s experience of death. And yes, I realise the death of a human is somewhat more significant than that of a guinea pig, but the lesson was the same….
I wrapped Tulip in an old hand towel, and laid her gently on the deck. She looked like a tiny, sleeping ball of fluff. I asked if Miss 9 might like to come out to say goodbye, she did. Together we sat, snuggled in sun, tears flowing freely as Miss 9 stroked Tulip’s fur. I told my daughter she was brave to touch Tulip, and that Tulip would have really valued the love she was being shown right now. I told her that I believed it made God very happy when we treated animals with love, respect and honour, and this was exactly what she was doing with Tulip.
Today my daughter learned at young age, what I had not; Death is not an abstract concept.
Death is simply a stage of life.
Death can be experienced by the living.
Death can be touched.
Death can be felt.
Death can be peaceful.
Death can be welcomed.
Death can be sat with until it brings closure.
Death can be unexpected without being traumatic.
Death can be heard, and felt, by the living.
There will be many times as my daughter grows, that she will experience the varied lived realities of this life, and it’s existence amid death, and death experiences. But I pray she will hold dear and cherish the memory of Tulip’s death; the image of her perfectly wrapped and resting body, surrounded not by violence, but by hands of love.
**If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to Lifeline Australia
Telephone: 13 11 14