This is a transcript of the speech that Kristie West gave at the Joy of Death Festival on the 8th September 2012. Kristie is a Grief Specialist with a radical, effective and wonderful approach to dealing with death.
“The Joy of Death” festival. What is that? Is it a just lovely quirky name for a festival. Or perhaps just a provocative and controversial name? It it just a way to catch our attention? Is it just a joke in very poor taste? Or is it….the joy of death….a possibility.
There are many things we naturally find joy in. The joy of dance. The joy of love….well maybe not first love which is often more insanity than joy. The joy of little kids opening Christmas presents. The joy of life. That works. And the obvious – where the title of this festival has come from – the joy of sex. But the joy of death….? This is not something we hear a lot.
Is there any joy at all to be found in and around death? Or grief? And if there is…then why don’t we see it? And how the heck do we find it?
This is what I want to share with you today. Now this is a huge topic of great importance, in my opinion…and virtually never offered up for discussion. I could talk about it for days so I will do my best to do it justice in this short time. And I hope that you are all able to take away something – something new and different to think about. I might get a little deep (by might I mean definitely)…and I will be a little different. But that is what we are here for.
I will mostly focus of death as it relates to our experience of losing someone, how we are touched by the death of others.
I’ll give some practical advice on how to do to do what I talk about too…as theory is all well and good but it’s just nice ideas unless you know how to put it into practise.
So….is there any joy to be found in death? A question that would be met by most, particularly those who have had deaths in their life, with a resounding no. No No No. Absolutely unequivocally no. And I would have completely agreed with you a few years ago. So please allow me to share a story with you.
7 years ago now my father collapsed of a totally unexpected heart attack at home in NZ and died on the spot. I got the call about his death from my mum a couple of hours later….and I was standing outside of my office in Australia with my suitcase waiting for a taxi to the airport, because I was already flying home to spend time with my nana, one of the most important people in my life, who was dying of cancer. Suffice to say nana became my last priority. I arrived home to a panicking mother, a grief-stricken brother, a dead father, a mess. That was just the beginning though. Lest she be forgotten, Nana almost died the day after my dad’s funeral. She ended up pulling through and dying 4 months later. And in the time in between we lost 4 other family members…so that when nana died she made 6 deaths in 4 months for my family.
To say that this period of time was hard, painful, confusing, life changing – are all massive understatements. I often say I attended grief university. At times it was like a laughable black comedy. And I would laugh…because I was far too numb to cry. It felt like life had us all on the ground and was kicking us all in the guts…about every 3 weeks. It got to the point where I knew the damage was being done…but I couldn’t even feel the kicks anymore. These events ran into what are probably a couple of the hardest years of my life. I thought it would never feel better. How could it? I thought I was stuck with this. I thought I would need a rolling subscription with my psychologist….even though the poor woman probably didn’t know what the heck to do with me.
So when I say now that yes, yes absolutely yes – I see joy in death, then you should know that if I can find it…then potentially anyone can. I see now great beauty and meaning in death….these events to me now are not painful or negative – they are important and profound and they deserve a great deal of respect.
Now this is not about positive thinking, focusing on the future or ignoring the past. It is not about ignoring or disowning any emotions or pain. But I am not going to talk about pain today….because what no-one needs from me is a talk on the sorrow of death. We have that part nailed. We are experts at finding the sorrow. No-one needs my help seeing that. So if all this potential joy and beauty and meaning in death that I’m talking about….if it exists, why do most of us not see it? Why didn’t I see it in the beginning? Well the reason is not that it isn’t there. And it’s also not to do with the passing of time. There are lots of reasons why we don’t or can’t see anything good when we are touched by death but I’ll talk about the biggest in my opinion.
The biggest reason we don’t see any good around death is that we are not open to it, we won’t permit ourselves to. We believe that death is bad and sad and that we don’t ever want it to happen to anyone we love…so the idea that there could be good can sound incredibly disrespectful. Indeed I’m sure many a person was horrified and took issue with the name of this festival. For many people it would push an immediate disgusted button and a wall would go up. If we do see any good at all we might say, and only to certain people, ‘I know this sounds awful but……….’. We know we aren’t supposed to be ok or appreciative or happy about anything that happens in death. This is usually not a conscious thing we do…..it is so ingrained in us to see only one side of death that it has become natural.
We believe it is respectful to see a death as totally tragic – we are even told that the pain we are in is a demonstration of love. (I get contacted by a lot of people worrying that they are heartless because they don’t hurt enough after a death). We are meant to see only dark. And so we block out the light without even realising it.
Think of young children after a death. They will cry, then go and play and have fun, then cry again. As adults we can feel guilty having fun or laughing after a death. It can feel disrespectful. A kid might say ‘I’m really sad granddad died. I miss him. But it’s good that he can’t eat all the black jellybeans anymore because those are my favourite’. They see the bad…they also have an eye out for the good. And as adults how do we react ‘you mustn’t say that. That’s terrible. Don’t ever let your grandmother hear you say that’. We teach them, just like we learnt, that there is nothing good to be seen in death. That there is nothing to feel happy, relieved, or grateful about in death. We learn that death is bad….and that it is inappropriate, that it is wrong, that it is disrespectful to view it any other way……..so we block out the option of any other way. If you are not open at all to seeing something…you will not see it.
Death is a normal natural part of our lives. Our lives begin and end. Or at least this version of our lives if that makes more sense to you. As the last part of our life, as the last chapter in our stories, I believe that our deaths are very important – no matter how they happen. Because once they have happened, that has been written in stone – the ‘how you died’ cannot be changed. And for that reason I believe any death ought to be treated as important and valuable and with respect (and I said respect, not fear. Huge difference though easily mistaken for each other around death). Their death is part of someone’s life and it’s part of the story of who they were/who they are – and that makes it important. So first before we can find beauty or meaning or good in death we need to realise the repercussions of not seeing it.
The memories in life that stay close to us, that we treasure – are the beautiful and meaningful ones. They are the ones we see good in. They are the ones that were worthwhile. Now often the death and loss of someone we love is a traumatic and painful memory. We don’t attribute anything good to it. Events that we only see as bad or ugly or wrong aren’t very meaningful to us or valuable or worthwhile.
And often death is seen as nothing but tragic. Now because we live in a society still very afraid to discuss or face death, people tend to live with the misguided belief that everyone we love, and ourselves, are guaranteed life till 95. Even though every day people die young, people die of illness, accident or disease. This is not at all uncommon. But is always seems like such a tragedy and a shock..…so most of the time these events seem totally meaningless. Like they shouldn’t have happened.
And when we take meaning from someone’s death…we take it from their life because death is a part of their life no matter how it happened. The event is done – it can’t be changed, edited, undone. To allow it to remain nothing but bad is to, without meaning to, dishonour the last chapter of someone’s life and to say it was for nothing. We do not do this on purpose. Generally we just don’t know any other way.
When you can see even a little beauty in a death you honour them far more because then their death matters in a different way. It can has a positive impact – instead of being responsible for ripping your life or your families lives apart – which no-one wants to be responsible for. And you can see that they were so amazing that even in their death they contributed to the lives of others in positive ways.
Also when a memory is just painful to us we will eventually push it down – as humans we move away from pain, it’s a very practical element of our existence. Over time we will stop thinking about painful memories. We like to focus on the good, to remember the happy times. So when their death is nothing more than a bad memory we will generally block it out over time, and that is a part of their life and a part of them that we choose – either consciously or unconsciously – to block out. So we lose or give up parts of them in allowing their death to be just bad and sad and awful.
A big part of someone’s legacy is the impact their death has on the people they love, and the world. If they left a family torn to pieces, cursing the world, believing life and death are unfair, and unable to think about them without pain, – that is part of their legacy.
It never sat right with me that my father’s legacy was supposed to be a family in pieces, unable to enjoy Christmas, or father’s day, or his birthday. A widow, two kids who were adults but still too young to say goodbye to their dad. Not that man – no way.
My dad’s legacy now? A wife who was shown strength, independence, intelligence, and a capability to do anything, that I don’t think she ever knew she had. A son who had the opportunity to step out of his father’s shadow and be the man of the family. A daughter who learnt her most beautiful and valuable lessons about life and death and who was led into work that inspired and fulfilled her more than she even imagined possible….and the people she worked with who were able to share in that. He left a family not poorer from loss…but richer…and brought closer in a way that nothing else could have achieved. That is my dad’s legacy. That’s how amazing he was. Even in his death did he contribute so much good to our lives.
And that’s also how amazing any people you may have lost were. And this is what happens when you can find good in death. Let their legacy be bigger and even more spectacular. This is what the joy of death looks like. So now hopefully we have a reason to be open to look for good in a death – for our sake and for the sake of the memories of those we have lost. So…..how the hell do you do it? How do you go about finding good? Particularly when all you see is pain and darkness. But remember, that’s where I started too. Well for starters…don’t go looking for ‘joy’ to start with. That can feel too big, too foreign, too impossible. Start small. With glimmers of good. Slivers of it.
It is like running a marathon. If you haven’t run, except for the bus, in 10 years you are not going to run a marathon tomorrow. The idea will seem impossible, your body will not be at all prepared and it’s highly, highly unlikely you could do it. But you could go for a 10 minute jog tomorrow. If I could convince you of why it’s good for your health and have you motivated and inspired to do it – you could do that. And then maybe another one 2 days after that. And maybe after 3 or 4 you’ll find you can run for 15 or 20 minutes. Your body has some practise and it starts to open to the physical possibility. It starts to open to what was not possible before.
It will build and build. Now you might find in those 10 minute runs you are still thinking ‘this is all very well….but a marathon? I’ll never run a marathon’. Forget the marathon. Just focus on the 10 minute jog. One little run at a time. This is the same. Just look for one tiny good thing…then do it again. If you have never looked at death this way then start with the tiny jogs, the tiny good things. And let them build up.
The question to ask yourself is what was good came out of this death? What good came out of this situation? Now the answers will be very different for every individual. I will give you some examples to get you thinking. These are all real – based on my own experiences and those of people I’ve worked with.
- If it was an illness did you get to share some special moment with them? Some words that you may not have shared under other circumstances?
- Did this death teach you something valuable about life?
- Did this death bring you closer to someone you love?
- Did it change family dynamics?
- Did it bring new relationships, friendships into your life?
- Did it somehow free you of people you needed to be free of?
- Did it create the space for you to do something new, to step up, or to be someone new?
- Did you make a decision about something in your life that needed to change?
- Did you find a new profession, a new calling, a new mission or purpose in life?
- Did you find strength, compassion, wisdom, love in yourself that you did not know you had?
- Did you start you on a new journey? There was a beautiful example of this last night. For those who heard Sarah Murray talk last night (at the awards ceremony) – she said, if I remember correctly, that only recently did someone point out to her that her dad’s death was the catalyst for the journey she took. Her journey, the book she wrote as a result, any person that was touched or helped by that book, every joy she experienced on her travels, every lesson learnt – all part of her father’s legacy.
- Do not say ‘but it was cancer, but they were young, but it was an awful car accident, but it was a suicide, but it was a murder’. But but but but but. I have worked with all of these scenarios……and I can promise you there is always good to be found. So find it. For them.
Start small….and don’t invalidate the things you find by saying ‘but that doesn’t make up for it’, ‘but that doesn’t make it ok’. Remember…you are not running a marathon. Just a little jog. Find something good. And when you do…..say thank you. Even just a tiny thank you Because you are acknowledging their legacy. You are acknowledging what they left behind – let it be something that matters.
We best honour someone who has died by seeing meaning and worth in every part of their lives. Don’t let any of it be a tragedy or a waste. Don’t strip meaning from any part of who they were.
My challenge to you today, if you choose to accept it, is to go away and try this. Just come up with one good thing. One tiny good thing. Then do it again in a couple of days. But just start. This is only one of the steps and it’s a small one but I promise you…you do this…and it will start to change the impact of this death on your life and your connection and memories of the person or people you have lost totally and amazingly.