We’re all go­ing to do it so it’s about time we started talk­ing about it


Happy Sun­day: Not re­ally a day to muse about our cer­tain demise, to mull over the prospect of shuf­fling off for good. Our keep-calm-and carry-on cul­ture for­bids it un­til, that is, we all find our­selves stand­ing in the rain out­side a cre­ma­to­rium, stran­gled with sup­pressed grief, des­per­ate not to cry and grey from the ef­fort of re­sist­ing thoughts of our own mor­tal­ity. But Rachael Bland wanted to talk about death. And she did. In a blog, in a pod­cast and on Twit­ter, where she shared her “new nor­mal” – life af­ter a breast can­cer di­ag­no­sis in 2016 – with thou­sands of peo­ple up and down the coun­try. The Ra­dio 5 pre­sen­ter died on Septem­ber 5 and the fi­nal pod­cast of You, Me and The Big C was re­leased on Thurs­day. Rachael’s story is all the more poignant when you learn of her three-year-old son Fred­die, and how she felt she could cope with most things re­lat­ing to her can­cer ex­cept the thought of leav­ing him. When she learned ear­lier this year that her con­di­tion was ter­mi­nal, Rachael de­cided with the help of her hus­band to face her death and try to com­mu­ni­cate what was hap­pen­ing to her lit­tle boy. She wrote a mem­oir which she de­scribed as “a plea­sure”, leav­ing be­hind sto­ries for Fred­die, as well as tan­gi­ble per­sonal ef­fects such as a pile of note­books so he could see her hand­writ­ing, press clip­pings, presents for fu­ture birthdays and a bot­tle of her per­fume so that he could re­mem­ber how his mummy smelled. But Rachael is the ex­cep­tion, not the rule. Death is not some­thing that we are will­ing to dis­cuss and face with the peo­ple we love. We fear be­ing help­less, inar­tic­u­late, afraid, with­out an­swers. Some­how, our cul­ture has man­aged to write death out of the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence, so that we all live in de­nial of some­thing that is in­evitable. But we are not im­mor­tal and the un­der­stand­able de­sire to run away from the re­al­ity serves no one. We need to be able to talk to about how we feel about death, what we want to hap­pen when our time comes, to think about what a good death means. To ac­tu­ally con­front the un­think­able as well as work out the prac­ti­cal stuff. That way, like most things faced head on, we be­come less fear­ful, more fa­mil­iar with it. Re­cently, in the space of a year, I was with two peo­ple I loved when they died. The first, my mum, af­ter a long bat­tle with Alzheimer’s. She just faded away in the early hours and we sat with her, hold­ing her hand, gen­tly see­ing her out. The sec­ond was my best friend, only 49, at the Beat­son in Glas­gow. She had lived with can­cer for five years, ac­cept­ing but de­ter­mined to live as nor­mally as pos­si­ble. We had talked about how she wanted things, es­pe­cially for her daugh­ters, and how it was agony to leave them and never know their sto­ries. To be part of the death of some­one you love is painful, but it is a priv­i­lege. And it helps us face our own fears, re­mind­ing us how keenly we must try to live the best life we can.

Rachael with Fred­die

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