Three days later, my siblings and I were standing in the family home, next to an open coffin, shaking hands with people who queued down the street to offer sympathy. For nearly four hours, they came. By magic, the kitchen had filled with a small army of volunteers making sandwiches and tea, and passing around plates of apple tart.
By the time we buried my mother at the end of that August week, hundreds of people had arrived or been in contact and we’d experienced an outpouring of warmth, support, affection – and food. We could have filled the freezer several times with the home-made cakes, scones and casseroles that simply arrived. One person appeared at the front door and handed in a side of fresh salmon prepared on a baking tray dotted with lemon and dill. “Twenty-five minutes, hot oven,” is all she said, before rushing off.
Back in England, individual friends or colleagues who had themselves experienced bereavement wrote me letters or made phone calls so empathic they were heartbreaking. But for many others it was as if nothing had happened. I began to wonder if, for the English, death was either a private matter which would be indecent or even embarrassing to refer to, or that they had no idea what to say. Another possibility is they simply didn’t know.
In Ireland, passing on the news quickly is considered an important part of the response to death and this is not just in villages or small towns. My brother received a letter of condolence from the chief executive of the very large organisation he works for. It is standard practice for HR departments to send an email around when someone loses a family member. My boss in London had been very supportive, but I thought guiltily of work colleagues whose parents or spouses may have died and whose loss I had failed to acknowledge. Yet unless they had worn a black armband, how would anyone in a big workplace even know of their sorrow?
The Irish are not known for being any less emotionally repressed than their British neighbours but they do death very well. Funerals come with up to three opportunities for mourners to show up: there’s the waking of the body, which is often in the home, the “removal” to the church, and, on the final day, a funeral mass and burial followed by a reception or meal.
My friends in the UK asked me about the open coffin with a mix of fascination and horror. I didn’t tell them how my mother’s grandchildren had knelt up on chairs to get a proper look, and to place drawings beside her, or how we’d rearranged her fringe because the undertaker had made it too fussy.
To English friends, it all “sounded ghastly”. But perhaps they are used to a culture where death remains taboo even when it’s staring you in the face. One UK friend’s mother died in her fifties after a short illness. “You are invited to the funeral,” he’d said very formally. I knew that the family members were devastated but it struck me as rather sad that only a handful of people were there as they said goodbye to her. Perhaps they could not bear to feel pitied.
In Ireland, it is considered unsupportive not to show up if you know either the dead person or their family. This has much more to do with community, and perhaps psychology, than with faith. Many Irish people are now Catholics in name only but the rituals that have evolved endure and are, in my view, worth hanging on to.
Such rituals equip people with perhaps formulaic but extremely useful things to say and ways in which to act. They don’t need to ask, “Is there anything I can do?” – they know what the routine is so they just do it. One family I know awoke the day of the wake to find a neighbour hoovering their stairs. Embarrassment doesn’t come into it.
My mother died in the busy stroke unit at an overstretched hospital but nurses behaved in keeping with what is a profound, almost sacred moment for the family. They lit candles and placed a Celtic “triskele” (a pre-Christian symbol of life, death and rebirth) on the door of her room to alert other staff and patients. They covered her in an elegant purple drape and, when we eventually left, they hugged us, handing over a woven bag, her things neatly folded inside. When it seems unbearable that your mother has just died and the rest of the world is carrying on as normal, these gestures are comforting. From then to the burial four days later was intense. We were scarcely left alone for five minutes, but I think that intensity has an important healing effect.
This past year has taught me that grief is not linear. It can creep up again suddenly, just when you think you are emerging into the light. You see somebody who reminds you of the person who’s gone. Or, for a split second, you forget they’re not alive and then feel overwhelmed in odd places, as I did months later one day, queuing to buy a sandwich.
But if the culture in which you live regards death as individual or private, then you have little choice but to keep quiet about it. I suspect the cost to the NHS for treating depression or other illnesses related to it, and the cost to employers in days lost to stress leave for staff dealing with bereavement in isolation, is high.
Speaking about the death of her son, the broadcaster Libby Purves described how she felt it her duty to make other people think she was OK, otherwise they would have avoided her. “You have to make it all right for others. You want to create a feeling of casualness so that you don’t become the poor old creature nobody speaks to because they have been through tragic tragic-ness.”
To me, that seems like an extraordinary burden to place on the grieving person. I feel fortunate to come from a culture where death is part of life and people take it upon themselves to pick up the phone, send a message and, above all, keep talking you through it.
I returned this month to my home town for a small family event to mark my mother’s first anniversary and was again struck by the readiness with which local people referred to her passing, devoid of awkwardness or indeed pity. In the butcher’s, the supermarket and the hardware store as I paid for a tin of paint, I was greeted with variations on: “Your mother was a fine woman, the Lord have mercy on her” or “Hard to believe it’s been a year since your mum went”.
In Britain, death seems to be regarded as something so awful that it is best contained in the immediate family or with a counsellor if circumstances are traumatic. Perhaps there is a connection with it also being a society where even a natural, peaceful death is a medical event which few ever witness, and where the old and chronically ill are hidden away. Would attitudes to ageing be more compassionate and attitudes to life itself more fulfilling if funerals were not regarded as necessarily ghastly and mortality as something that happens only to other, less lucky people?