Introducing Doris Zagdanski, who works with one of the largest funeral providers in Australia. She is also the author of many books about grief.
Doris is currently giving a lot of thought to that most difficult of times – when the funeral is over.
“After the funeral we shut the door and everyone’s life is supposed to go back to normal. But it often doesn’t. That’s when grieving people often need the most support, when the busyness of the funeral is over and they’re left on their own.
“How can we make that better? It’s a challenge for all of us.”
Facilitated a discussion tonight about grief, with the Funeral Celebrants Association of Australia.
We challenged our culture’s notions about how long you’re allowed to grieve for: “Grief can last forever can’t it?” suggested Judy.
Some shared stories about bad deaths. This included a chilling story about a death certificate being signed by someone who couldn’t look at the person they were ‘signing off’ – or the grieving step-father and his family.
But there were plenty of sunshine moments too, as the celebrants present shared stories from their personal experiences. Some were excited about the eulogies they’ve helped write. Others gave tips on the ways to find something positive to express when someone dies who is unloved.
We asked some big questions and lingered over little ones…as we enjoyed spring rolls, salt and pepper calamari and a fresh salad.
Thank you for having me folks, and for allowing me to be the touchstone for an important conversation.
Our cleaning lady finished up today. Completely unexpectedly, it was her presence one day a week that helped to lift me out of the doldrums when I hit a double dose of grief some years ago. Every Thursday her busy polishing and dusting was a real comfort at a time when all I could manage was to sit in a chair and lift my legs up so she could vacuum underneath them.
At first it was just her consistent presence that was so helpful. Then as time passed we started to talk, to share stories and before I knew it, she had me laughing at her hilarious take on life. I knew she wasn’t your typical cleaning lady when she asked if she could borrow my copy of Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader. From there we developed a mini-reading group, sharing thoughts on books, enjoying working out why she gave one title the thumbs up, when I gave it the thumbs down and vice-versa.
When I turned back to writing, one day I was lamenting that I couldn’t find someone to transcribe some tapes. “I can do that for you,” she said. Turned out she’d had a busy professional life as a secretary before turning to cleaning, and as well as transcribing she became a great proof-reader.
I am so lucky to have had her in my life. Now, like Mary Poppins and Nanny McPhee before her, she moves back home to brighten up a little corner of Surrey on the other side of the world. I will miss her but how lucky I was to have had her in my life: and she taught me an important lesson – when we’re grieving, the comfort and encouragement we need can come from the most unexpected quarters. The secret is to let it happen.
Troubled stories from recent deathbeds remind me of a sign at my daughters’ old school: “Beware falling pods!” The sign sat at the base of an enormous native fig tree and when those pods fell, they were like malevolent missiles. Dropping from a great height helped the pods to crack open (along with trampling by school shoes) to reveal their large seeds. Maybe families are like those trees. They grow large and strong and when an elderly parent is dying it’s a very common time for conflict and tension within families to erupt – whether over management of care, how the person’s wishes should be respected or the inheritance of important items from their life, like a ring or a chair. So it’s a time we need the “Beware falling pods!” sign. The pods hurt when they hit, but their forceful drop to shatter open, although unpleasant, is part of the life story of the tree.
“I began my grief journey eight years ago with the unexpected death of my only child and son, Carl – a beautiful young man, loved by many. His loss left me feeling bereft and fearful about what lay ahead…No day was ever the same. One thing became very clear to me, grief kept changing its form. It was kaleidoscopic in nature, unpredictably variable. During my reflections, metaphors came to me often. I wanted to share many of these – hard-won as they were.
“It could be used as a grief self-help book, as well as a resource for grief and loss counsellors to stimulate discussion and raise grief themes to assist struggling clients. “
Su-Rose’s book is published by Morning Star Publishing.
When I first started writing my book We’re All Going To Die there weren’t many public conversations on the subject of death, but since then it has really moved along. Sadly, however, it hasn’t moved fast enough.
I’d like to see death education brought more widely into medical schools, for it to become part of every discussion, such as ethics, and how to communicate with patients, pretty much the same way sex education opened up and was being covered when I was a medical student.
This has happened rather effectively in other countries, such as the USA, with the introduction of ‘medical humanities’ subjects to students – but unfortunately, it hasn’t really taken off in Australia.
If this discussion around death was improved, I think it would really change things. There would be a really good platform for not just doctors but all health professionals, such as nurses or physiotherapists, who day in and day out support the dying.
Currently, there’s no formal debriefing mechanism for doctors and health care specialists. Of course we talk to each other and tell black jokes in the tearoom, but it’s not the same thing. Without more formal support, health professionals carry the impact of their interactions with death in a way that inevitably leads to ‘zooming out’ and a risk of burn-out or compassion fatigue.
Just this week I had to tell a patient, a young man with two small children who was doing well in his career, that he was completely riddled with an inoperable, terminal cancer, that the next thing he should do was go home and get his affairs in order. That’s a really difficult thing to have to tell someone but there is no formal, easily accessible debriefing mechanism for the doctors who must have those sorts of conversations, within our current medical facilities.
I hope this changes in the near future, because if it does, then we in the medical profession will be stronger and better equipped to give a much better quality of support to those experiencing the realities of mortality, either as someone dying, their carers or those who are grieving.