I’ve been thinking about writing something on death for some time now. Our shared global pandemic has made us all confront our own mortality and deal with the loss of people we know and people we don’t know.
The death of the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Phillip, has given us an opportunity to reflect on what a full life in the public glare could look like. I guess it is about bringing to life those things that matter to us, regardless of public opinion. In his case it was about looking after the natural world and conservation, becoming one of the founding members of the World Wildlife fund (now WWF) in 1961. Through the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme, he will continue to transform the lives of young people from all backgrounds across the world. What might it be for you and me?
I’ve recently watched two moving films which also centred a life well lived. In the first, Blackbird, Susan Sarandon plays a mother dying from a terminal illness. As death comes closer, she gathers her husband, best friend, children, their partners and her grandchildren together for a final weekend. It makes me wonder who in my life I would want to be with me if I knew it was my final weekend of life. I choose to leave that hanging, knowing that if that did happen, I would intuitively know what to do. What’s interesting in the film is that all the projections, assumptions and unfinished arguments gets addressed. It’s like there is no place to run to. We’re so good at putting off arguments or sidestepping issues but what if there is no next time for those conversations?
The other film is The Judge with Robert Downey Jr and Robert Duvall. Here we have a father and son who both love the law and are great at it. The father chooses public service as a judge and the son chooses to become rich by defending wealthy criminals. When the matriarch in the family dies the son returns home for her funeral. In some ways the father and son are strangers to each other, having not seen each other for more than a decade. In other ways the matriarch was the glue that passed information about one to the other so that they knew of each other’s lives.
The whole process of trying to grieve, reconnecting to who they were when they last saw each other, and finding who they are now, is very awkward and uncomfortable. Everyone in the film has experienced hurt and disappointment, as only family can do. Gradually the son realises that his father is terminally ill, and this may be affecting his judgement and memory. Can this proud father allow the prodigal son to look out for and look after him? Does this angry son care enough to put his big city career on hold and be there for his weakened father? We watch them tousle with each other emotionally before reconnecting to their bond. Eventually, just before he dies, the father says how proud he is of his son.
I’m not sure what to take from any of these stories. Perhaps it is about being true to ourselves and what matters to us. It is also about having those difficult conversations before time runs out. My parents have both passed away. As a counsellor I knew the importance of trying to have those meaningful conversations with parents. I tried to have those conversations with both of them and was probably more successful with my mum. My dad was experiencing some memory loss near the end of his life so looking back was confusing for him.
We don’t know what the future holds and how much time we have left. Just thinking of that is difficult but yet it makes me so grateful for life and health. It’s such a gift and a blessing. How can I show up in my life and in my relationships? It’s something we all need to engage with. Let me know if any of this resonates with you. Stay well.