Death is a big idea. Like love, it’s a concept one word cannot capture. An absence of presence, the space that is left when something has gone.
So, grappling with grief, I think I can be forgiven a little existential angst. It seems normal to be asking ‘who I am?’ or ‘where do we go?’ but weird to be fretting over what to do with books, bank accounts, a house, etc… and yet death demands that of us who stay behind. Having so much to do, when I can barely remember what day it is, is a another kick in the teeth when I’m already been downed.
There is something so obvious and yet still so awful in the realisation that of all we save, accumulate and treasure in our lives, we cannot take a single thing on that final journey. The left-behinds are how death makes itself felt: it is an empty house, unworn clothes, the seat that no one will sit in, the phone that is no longer answered…. Objects bite. The strangest things make me cry.
My dad knew death was coming for a long time and, ever practical, the thought of all the work to be done after his departure bothered him. Never one to shirk a shitty job, in the last months of his life he started selling his stuff. For me that was agony, I cannot imagine what it felt like for him. I went with him, carried boxes, grudgingly respected his wishes but desperately wanted him to stop. I felt that no bother after his death could be worse than watching the pieces of his life disappear whilst he sat wearily amidst it.
Dad wanted to discuss his Will at odd moments, halfway through a tv show or in the supermarket. For me there was never a right time to have to acknowledge that there would be a time when he was not there… but my dad was as tenacious as a terrier and there was just no dodging that conversation.
He knew of families torn apart in the wake of deaths; post-it-note claims plastered through houses by competing relatives, siblings swindling one another, lifelong grudges. He did not want his life’s work to buy a brawl or a broken family so he prepared as best as he could and made his wishes very clear, again and again and again. But, as the saying goes ‘best laid plans often go astray’… as it turned out, his Will was invalid and now we are in a messy situation.
Anyone who has lost a loved one will know that grief is like a kind of madness – nothing comes to mean everything and all else seems nothing. Everything is shaken, disordered and topsy turvy. Grief also likes to morph. Since dad’s death I feel my temper bubbling like never before. When the red light starts flashing I’ve learned to take deep breaths and find space to huff, puff and stamp my feet, rather than exploding and hurting some innocent bystander (customer service personnel – beware!). Even so, there are days still when I feel I need a badge that reads ‘contains flammable substances’, and in my family, I am definitely on the calmer side of the spectrum!
Putting a group of people in this state in a room, and asking them to compassionately divide up the goods of their loved one, is a bit like asking baboons to paint portraits. In theory it should be kind of possible but you just know the end result is going to come out all wrong… and it will not be pretty.
Oddly, this issue has caused me more pain that anything else.. death I can kind of cope with, finding myself stuck in an episode of Dallas is much much harder – watching seeds of mistrust sown, seeing temptations, half waiting for JR Ewing to walk in wearing a bad suit and a big hat..
I would like it if things to be done as dad intended (actually what I would really like is for my dad to come back) but after a lot of groping for serenity, I realised that the family being at peace was more important to my dad than who got what. Money is just money. Stuff is just stuff.
That eureka aside, trying to act with honour and graciousness is not always easy, particularly when I’m sad and angry and inclined to sling mud for no good reason. But, I keep reminding myself that who I am is my dad’s most important legacy to me, and that is not worth compromising for anything else that is left behind…