8 January 2018
The beginning of a new year is a time for reflection, for looking back and planning forwards, perhaps making resolutions – giving things up or taking things on – and generally taking stock of one’s life. At a time when the year is young and fresh, spreading ahead like a blank sheet of paper or unblemished snow, it might seem strange that my thoughts are turning to another unknown and as yet unvisited territory: Death.
As I grow older, the poignancy of the Christmas and New Year season deepens and sharpens. I’ve found myself blinking at the twinkling of lights. Baubles and tinsel swim before my eyes, flickering into clarity before blurring with sudden tears. It starts with the Christmas card list. Each year I’m removing from my address labels document the names of those who’ve passed away during the last twelve months. At first it was my parents’ generation; now I’m beginning to experience the loss of those in my own generation. A sobering thought.
There are the empty spaces around the dining room table on Christmas day. Beloved parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles – or, even more heartbreakingly siblings, partners and offspring – are no longer alive to share our festivities. Then there’s the unhappy thought that for some of the people we know, maybe even ourselves, this will be the last chance to enjoy Christmas.
We might be facing 2018 with grim dread, fearing what’s to come and already grieving its fulfilment. But do thoughts of death always have to open the door to denial and despair?
My fellow Instant Apostle author, Ann Clifford, has written a book which addresses the personal and practical elements of dying, acknowledging the pain and confusion that accompany loss, but also helping the reader to conquer their fears and to view death as a portal to the future. As the themes in the book resonated very much with what I was trying to do with my novel The Key of All Unknown, I’ve invited Ann onto my blog to ask her a few questions.
Ann, it’s lovely to talk a little more about your book, Time to Live: The Beginner’s Guide to Saying Goodbye. Perhaps you could tell me why you wanted to write about death.
Seven years ago a small group of us from a local church decided we wanted to do something lovely for the elderly in our area of West London. What grew from that was Tea-Timers where guests were invited for a free home-made tea. We incorporated hand massage, nail painting and a Quiz which they all loved. Ages varied from 60’s through to 90’s. Working with them I realised how ill-prepared they were for their own dying and death.
With only 35% of people saying they have written a will, we seem to be in denial about the obvious fact that all of us will die. Why do we find it so difficult to talk about?
We are filled with superstition that if we talk about it, it will happen. Also it is the great unknown. If we believe in God and read the bible then there is a great deal of reassurance. Death becomes only a portal to something unimaginably wonderful. If any reader remembers the story of Mary Magdalene looking for the body of Jesus there is a heart-stopping moment when she hears her name called and suddenly recognises her resurrected Lord. I love to think that when I die I will hear my name being called and I will indeed meet Jesus face to face just as she did.
What kind of practical things can we do to prepare for our own death?
We can make decisions about what we do and do not want to happen if we are fortunate enough to see our death approaching. We can give permission to our loved ones to make the decisions. This is not a given. In the book I have collated as much practical information as I could into an accessible format. I have set up a Power of Attorney and also written an Advanced Decision. But there is so much more. So many ways to say ‘I love you’ to those we will leave behind. Our dying and death is not about us, rather it is about our loved ones. Our passing will be our final words. I encourage us all to make those as loving and caring as possible.
What practical things can we do to help prepare others to face the death of a loved one?
We need to talk about death. The book is meant to be a tool to help the conversations to happen. I can’t think of anything better as we face up to the reality of the death of a loved one, to be able to find the words to talk together meaningfully. Sometimes we have fallen out with each other and allowed bitterness and unforgiveness into our hearts. This is the opportunity to extend forgiveness, rediscover love and allow peace to reign rather than conflict.
If asked, I guess a lot of people would want to die peacefully in their sleep at a good old age. In your book you talk about ‘dying well’. What do you mean by that?
Dying well is leaving our loved ones with our applause and love for them resounding in their lives. Everything that needed to be said has been aired. The celebration of our lives has been prepared and our final words will glorify the God we love. The burial place or scattering of ashes is known. We prepare for all the major events in our lives; our death is the only certain one. Preparing well for it means our loved ones are not burdened with myriad choices at such an emotional and stressful time.
How might a more open approach to the subject of death, enhance the lives we are living now?
Those that have prepared speak of peace descending because everything is in order. A folder containing passwords, bank details etc is primed. The paperwork for every detail is ready. The celebration details are written. Leaving well paves the way in the family for others to follow and mitigates a little the sadness, loss and grief of bereavement and separation.
This is not your first project. Tell me more about your writing life.
I began writing seriously after the birth of my first child. Whilst he didn’t sleep at night so well, he slept in the day for a couple of hours. I began by writing sketches, moved into playwriting, travelled into screenwriting and now have ended up writing books. My first novel Occupation I self-published on Kindle. I never expected to write a non-fiction book on dying and death, but it has been a joy to see how it has been received.
I can’t thank Instant Apostle enough for publishing the book. Currently I am working on a book/programme for the Chaiya Art Awards www.chaiyaartawards.co.uk. Do inform any artists of any medium that you know about this fantastic new art award with a top prize of £10,000. I am also on the second draft of a new novel called ‘It Started With a Kiss’.
A big thank you to Ann Clifford for taking the time to answer my questions. I’m looking forward to all that 2018 brings, mindful also of the sorrows that may come my way. I know from personal experience that preparing for loss can alleviate much of the stress and fear. When we were told that my own father had terminal cancer, our family was devastated. But those last few months gave us time for those precious conversations. Everything was said that needed to be said and we were able to face the worst in the best way we could, with love, humour and thankfulness for my father, for the life he lived and the faith in God he shared with us during his time on earth.
At the beginning of 2018, as well as making changes to the amount of food we eat, alcohol we drink or exercise we take, let’s spend some time thinking about those things we fear the most to rid them of their power. You might come to the same conclusion that I have that it’s the very finiteness of our lives that give them meaning and purpose and makes every moment precious. There’s a perceptual choice to be made. Is life full or empty? Is it a place of bleakness, where words and actions are the precursor to eternal silence and stillness, our mortality pulling us inexorably towards nothing? Or do we choose to live in a world with love and hope at the centre, where forgiveness can be found and victory snatched from defeat? I choose the second, always, every time.
Happy New Year!
Ann Clifford has wide-ranging professional experience encompassing church and organisational leadership, screenwriting, film-making, special needs education and public speaking. Life happens, and she has experienced a lot of it. She loves God, her husband, her two adult children and many others. Her website is: www.annclifford.co.uk