A number of people have been expressing their grief over death of loved ones or the imminent death of loved ones. I can empathise with them. My father died a long time ago, I was in my mid twenties at the time. I had known him as a father and was starting to know him as a friend and a grandfather. We were 16,000 km away at the time and in those days that was over thirty hours travelling and the fare for two of us to Australia was equivalent to six months wages, so we couldn’t even come home for the funeral. He died ten months after my son died. It is my son’s death rather than my father’s that has remained with me and can come back to the surface at unexpected times with just a chance remark from an unsuspecting person. My mother outlived my father by twenty-five years. Lived to see her grandchildren into adulthood, achieved her aim to be the longest living in the family and was ready to go. So there wasn’t a lot of sadness, but lots of good memories.
We live in an age where death has largely been banished from our lives. For most people the first experience of a family member dying is a grandparent when they are in late teens or early adult hood. A baby born today in Australia can expect to live into their eighties. The scourges of infectious disease, poor public health and little access to medical help have long gone. So we forget how common death was. In classical Rome, life expectancy at birth was twenty-eight years, in medieval Britain about thirty years and in the early twentieth century, depending in where you lived, 30 - 45 years. Prior to the industrial revolution in England, the percentage of children who died before age five was 74%. By 1830 that had improved to 32%. In Australia infant mortality in the hundred years from 1904 to 2004, as declined from 82 per 1000 live births to 5 per 1000 live births. Within our parents and grandparents’ lifetime the reality of death has largely been removed from our lives. So when we are confronted with our mortality with the diagnosis of cancer it is quite frightening, as we have had little else in our lives to remind us of this unfortunate reality.
We have also forgotten as a society how to lament - lament to express our own sorrow. It is very much not the done thing to acknowledge our own grief and sorrow. So we no longer have funerals, we have memorial or thanksgiving services. The coffin gets banished to a private family only service often quite removed in time from the other. Instead of saying how much the person has contributed and how much we will miss them, we tell jokes about the peccadilloes of their youth. Not exactly honouring their memory. We are supposed to be so positive all the time, even in our own grief and loss. Everybody commends us for being positive, we get rewarded for being positive, and like Pavlov’s trained dogs we respond accordingly and hide our real feelings.
Yet we do not have to live like this. Death is part of our living, even if only in the terms of the 1960’s graffiti in the London underground - “Life is a sexually induced terminal condition”. If we acknowledge that death, like taxes, is one of the great certainties of life, then we can get on with living. Making much more of the present, making much more of the time with family and friends and celebrating the sheer joy of our existence.
On my wall I have a quote - it is attributed to Tim Costello "There are times in life when we have to face the big questions, to look squarely into the face of death and then affirm the sheer gift of life"
I find the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving: To reach the port of heaven, we must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it, -- but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor. Oliver Wendell Holmes, The autocrat at the Breakfast Table
Cancer Council NSW would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we live and work.We would also like to pay respect to elders past and present and extend that respect to all other Aboriginal people.