It’s only fair to say that when I heard that a man had slept next to his dead wife’s body for six days I felt a bit squeamish. But earlier this week – Dying Awareness Week as it happens – I heard a wonderful piece of radio that challenged my reaction and made me rethink.
On Radio 4’s PM Programme, Russell Davison spoke eloquently of how he and his children had lovingly cleaned his wife’s body, placed her in the wicker coffin they had chosen together and bought online; he described how he had kept her with him in their bedroom as he grieved for her and said goodbye. It sounded the most natural thing in the world as the 50-year-old man recounted the experience.
Listeners could hear interviewer Eddie Mair’s slight awkwardness as the two of them talked, his nervous laughter (and quick apology) as Russell explained how his wife Wendy lay down in the coffin to check it was the right size. “This was how we embraced death Eddie. We weren’t afraid of it at all.”
And that, really, was the crux of it. They weren’t afraid. Russell said that he and Wendy, unlike so many of us, talked about death at length. I’ve written about the unholy alliance between silence, stigma and fear – it exists as much, if not more, around death as it does around dementia.
But to return to the interview. I mentioned Eddie Mair’s response to Russell’s words, not to criticise him – far from it. Earlier this spring Mair conducted some truly outstanding interviews with his dying BBC colleague Steve Hewlett. No, the strength of Mair’s conversations with both these men lay in their rawness and truth. When confronted with the subject of death at a personal level we all tend to hesitate and search for words. How powerful then to hear an experienced broadcaster hesitate too.
Russell’s 50-year-old wife Wendy, who had been diagnosed with cervical cancer a decade ago, did not fear death. “Taking that fear out of the equation was such a huge boost,” her widow said.
I am not sure I will ever get to that stage, however much I wish I could. One of the worst things about my own father’s lingering death was seeing the fear in his eyes during his final months.
Russell, who had seen a few dead bodies in his time (his father’s, grandparents and other relatives) appreciated that while some of their friends and family came to see Wendy as she lay in her coffin, many of them had not and were too scared. He reasoned that they only had Hollywood and television’s sensationalist portrayals of zombies and ghouls to inform them.
For Russell though, having his wife and his boys’ mother lying next to his bed, was quite normal. “It was just Wendy”. Even when her body began to deteriorate the family viewed this as natural, as nature’s way of showing them that their loved one’s body was slipping away from them.
By the end of the interview I had learnt a lot from this Derby man. I remember how close to my mum I felt when I embraced her still warm body after she died (I’d missed her passing by minutes). I later wrote that after all that her dementia had done to her “she was more my mum in those weighted, precious moments of grief and loss than she had been for a very long time”. A few years down the line, I am more certain than ever that this was true.
I thought of Eddie Mair’s interview with Russell when, later the same week, I participated in an interesting discussion at London’s Soho Theatre on how we as a society might start a conversation about the realities of growing older and mortality – and whether it is our inability to confront those realities that stops us, both as individuals and as a nation, from planning effectively for our later years.
I won’t go into the debate now, except to say that my answer to that particular question is yes. Of relevance here is the intervention of a young audience member right at the end of our discussions wondering – in the lovely, laid back manner of youth – whether he could make a conceptual point.
Is it, he asked, the link we make between old age and death (which we fear) that leads to our inability to confront and plan for old age? I was still pondering this and marvelling at youngsters’ unfailing ability to come at things differently (we more mature contributors had been grappling with the nitty-gritty of state funding, the compression of morbidity and housing equity) when one of my fellow panellists did what I should have done and heartily agreed with the assertion.
Remembering the look in my dad’s eyes as death approached in the last few months, I wonder if it had been this inherent fear that prevented him from moving house when he knew he should. Mum’s dementia meant she refused to leave a family home which, located as it was on a very steep hill, was patently inappropriate for two frail people in their 80s. Dad’s mind was still sharp; he knew what they had to do. I thought he hadn’t the strength of will to face up to mum (who always wore the trousers in their relationship) but maybe he was simply too frightened to confront the realities of his and mum’s mortality.
I won’t ever know, but Russell and Wendy were right to talk about her death, to confront it, embrace it as they saw fit. Russell told the Independent newspaper that our society has become petrified of death whereas other cultures would see what he and his family did when Wendy died as perfectly normal. It certainly made me stop and think. About death. In a good way.