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Good grief: Death isn’t something you just get over

5 May 2018

9:00 AM

5 May 2018

9:00 AM

Just over a year ago, my best friend dropped dead. He was in his early sixties and many of us expected him to die, because he was hugely overweight and desperately unhappy — and the ciggies can’t have helped. ‘If you don’t look after yourself, we’re going to lose you,’ was the polite refrain from those who knew him well.

Chris had no money, no real job, precious little hope. We first met as new boys aged eight at our boarding school, where he went on to become one of the best sportsmen the school had ever had and sat a scholarship for Harrow. Early success might have played a part in what was to come. We all know people who peak prematurely.

On leaving school, Chris and I and then shared a tent while hitchhiking through Canada and America. For the next four decades, we would speak most weeks on the telephone, latterly at length as loneliness gripped him like a cancer.

I say that Chris was my best friend, but he was also deeply infuriating: bombastic, unreliable, ill-disciplined. If I had come across him when we were in our thirties or forties, I would have grown weary of his wild money-making schemes that always came to nothing; and if I had met him when we were in our fifties I would have given him a wide berth.


But I miss him terribly. Yes, we all know that when a close friend dies, a part of us dies with them, but I don’t go along with all this guff about time being such a great healer. I feel Chris’s death more now than I did a year ago, not least because so much has happened in these past 12 months which we have not been able to discuss. And I feel guilty that I did not do more to sort him out.

Come to think of it, I miss my father more in 2018 than in 1989, when he died shortly after his 70th birthday. Our conversations would be far more interesting today than they were 30 years ago, and he would have got to know my children. We could have sat together in the pavilion at Lord’s.

And yet it’s the guilt and the sorrow that won’t go away — the not quite getting over it — which keeps Chris and my father alive. Death and life belong to the same coin and that’s just as it should be. ‘It takes an entire lifetime to learn how to die,’ wrote the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca, who also counselled to ‘study death always’. The post-war generation has never quite done that. While our Victorian forebears died at home surrounded by members of their family, along with some close friends and most likely a vicar, death today means a hospital bed and tubes, wires and bleeping machines. Until my father died, I had not seen a corpse.

The problem now is that we don’t mourn enough. ‘Moving on’ is one of those modern conceits designed by well-meaning psychologists and social workers that makes you feel wretched if you can’t do it. There was a time when women wore black and men sported black armbands or a black tie for a while after someone close to them had died, and it would be no bad thing to bring back that tradition if we really want to address death.

Because life expectancy has increased, so too has the expectation of longevity. Which makes someone’s premature death all the harder to deal with. The mother of a young child who dies suddenly is never going to ‘get over it’, nor should she be expected to.

I’m pleased that a number of recent books on the subject have been well-received. Kathryn Mannix’s With the End in Mind is especially affecting because of her experience working in a hospice. She is all for talking about death but recognises that for some people, denial is a tool that helps them cope.

Julia Samuel, a grief psychotherapist for 25 years, who works in the NHS at St Mary’s, Paddington, also warns against putting a brave face on loss. In her enlightened book Grief Works she says that she does not believe in ‘closure’ and argues that pain can be ‘the agent of change. ‘Our culture is imbued with the belief that we can fix just about everything and make it better … grief is the antithesis of this belief,’ she writes. ‘It eschews avoidance and requires endurance, and forces us to accept that there are some things in this world that simply cannot be fixed.’

My own lament is that so many funerals are now private, with friends, cousins and acquaintances of the deceased being encouraged instead to attend upbeat memorial services followed by boozy drinks parties. Talking about the dead and grieving for the dead are two very different things. And it’s the grieving — not the talking — that hastens the healing.

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