For Julian

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I wrote this goodbye to my brother’s farmhouse, when his family moved back into town in June 2016, a few years after his death. Glad to say, his brood have all moved forward and are building strong lives – guided, I’m guessing, by a strong sense of him. Happy Christmas dear Julian! Thinking of you now.

Julian was in the sentinel trees which mark the spot of entry, where he first invited me to his country, his place, on the Old Winton Road.

He was at the corner of Jenner’s Lane where his widow Marie and I walked, before we turned towards the Baiada poultry yards and the chooks called out to us, beseeching us not to be angry with God for taking him too soon.

He is no longer lurking in the audacious ‘Hay for Sale’ sign, that sits beside long spears of grass and sight-blocking trees, ready to taunt us as we pass – too close to that dreaded and ambiguous intersection of private and public roads.  

He is no longer in the proud but dishevelled country cottage, with its path of red bricks and the heater disassembled on the living room floor. Nor is he in the garage where firewood is now being dispersed and chopped by Wayne, and where bits of old motorbike lay hidden.

Today, for a matter of only hours, he was in the mournful Leonard Cohen melodies that sang out as I criss-crossed the Oxley Highway and drove down the Wallamore Rd, taking a hodgepodge of belongings, bric-a-brac and boxes of Christmas trinkets, marked ‘green tinsel’ to his family’s new place at the northern end of town.

As his spirit dispersed this morning, it latched on for a minute to my aching belief that if only they’d moved to this trim little cottage, so close to the school where he worked, but still with echoes of the old Australia he was chasing, we would never have had to say that permanent goodbye.

And then he left.

My brother Julian now resides in his widow’s subconscious twist of the neck, in his eldest son’s shy smile, his daughter’s sassy tattoo; in his youngest son’s long foot with its bony toes. If chaos comes and mayhem rules it will no longer be his gentle, goofy, smiling sort. It will be something else, entirely new.

But I will still see him in windmills, scattered about the countryside, those lumbering ageless souls, who suck in air to make blades rotate as they pump the water below, their life-force, like my dear brother’s, drawn unseen yet purposeful across the landscape.

Now that the funeral is over

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Margaret Rice Good Grief and Doris Zagdanski My Grief Assist

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.”

Doris has started a webpage called My Grief Assist.  https://www.mygriefassist.com.au/

She is also author of the book “Now that the Funeral is Over – the common sense guide for grieving people.” (First published in 1993, to be reprinted in 2018)

Doris’s other books are:

Something I’ve Never Felt Before

Stuck for Words: What to say to someone who is grieving

What’s Dead Mean? How to help children cope with death

When Pets Die: It’s alright to grieve

Teenagers and Grief.

 

When expectations differ

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Julie’s father passed away in August, 2014: “We had all gathered to be there with him when he died and we were ready to let him go.

“He’d been married to my stepmom, Monica, a beautiful Italian Catholic, for about 35 years, but we are Jewish. The Jewish tradition is that the person is wrapped in a very plain shroud, then buried in a very simple coffin, made of very plain wood, like pine. It has no adornments and there is no lead lining or anything like that. It’s something that ensures the body can easily be absorbed back into the earth.

“Just before Dad died, my sister started to talk to my stepmom about the preparations following the Jewish laws. But my stepmom had had a completely different idea about how things would be. For a start, she had expected a cremation, which we don’t do. And she wanted him dressed in his best suit and her favourite bow-tie, and she had planned a very ornate casket for him.

“When my sister pointed out what would be involved when we followed the Jewish burial laws my stepmother was so shocked that she just fainted.  In the end, we all compromised. My father was not cremated but buried in a plot near the family home in Brisbane, since for my sister who is very traditional, a cremation would have been too terrible to contemplate.

“But he was dressed in a funeral home and Monica picked out a casket, the one that she wanted, and he was buried in the bow-tie. The rabbi made no judgements about this and a Catholic priest was also involved. In the end, we honoured Monica’s wishes because she was married to my father and that’s what my father would have wanted.

“It would have helped us all if we’d talked about it beforehand. But the right decision was made at the end of the day.”

Grief can last forever can’t it?

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.

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With funeral celebrants, Sharon Swinbourne, Judy Pryor and Isla Tooth

The fig tree

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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.

Author Leah Kaminsky shares her insights

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Leah Kaminsky  (photo by Nicola Bernardi)

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.

http://www.harpercollins.com.au/9781460749999/#sm.0000wmev8914pnecjwibvqqz696s7

Kaminsky book cover

Book review: The Museum Of Words

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When I got back from my recent travels in country NSW with family, I found this posting to her followers from Susan Wyndham. Thank you for sharing your thoughts Susan. The genre of reflecting on death and what it means, continues to grow.

From Susan: “You might be interested in The Museum of Words, a beautiful memoir by Australian writer Georgia Blain, who died of brain cancer last December. Here’s my review. If you don’t know her work, I highly recommend her earlier books, including her first memoir, Births Deaths Marriages, and her final novel, Between a Wolf and a Dog, which by coincidence was about a woman with brain cancer.”

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/blains-museum-of-words-a-memoir-of-language-writing-and-mortality/news-story/e63a9afb9ed92baebac85ed2b6733ac6