Maybe it’s just me but death seems to be everywhere in Bristol this year…
You can find a Death Café, and a whole range of death-themed events, in this year’s Mayfest (connected to the International Public Health and Palliative Care Conference 2015), take tours and create art at Arnos Vale Cemetery and, in October, see Bristol City Museum’s new exhibition – a cultural exploration of death, it’s everywhere! It’s all good news to me, and I guess it’s just proof that when you are sensitized to something you start to see it everywhere.
My journey towards wanting to understand and talk more about death started when my mum was given a terminal diagnosis of Motor Neurone Disease in 2010. She moved very quickly from absorbing the shock of the diagnosis to wanting to live her precious life as fully and wholeheartedly as she could, inspiring others as she lived. She died in 2013 but one of the gifts since she passed away has been to find myself in almost daily conversations about death, grief and loss.
Initially, I found myself wanting to talk and write about the cruel disease she suffered from, which took her movement, her speech and her breath in rapid succession. I knew MND from my scientific studies as a neuroscience PhD student, and it exasperated me that 15 years later we still hadn’t cracked why people get MND or found a way to cure it. But I know it’s not through lack of trying – there is a huge community of dedicated researchers and health professionals making slow but sure progress on diagnosing and treating MND. And I realised that what I was really looking for was an explanation for her death, hoping, even, that if I could understand it then perhaps I could magically undo her tragedy.
Over the last year, however, I’ve found myself wanting to step back from the details of MND to the broader questions of how we live well and die well. I’ve been really inspired by books like Atul Gawande’s ‘Being Mortal’, which challenge us to embrace death as a part of life, and to question the role medicine does and should play in shaping the end of our lives. Through my mum’s story I find so much that encourages me to be more honest about the inevitable relationship we all have with death; in turn that has also helped me to embrace life more fully.
Working with Emma and others at Not Being Morbid, we’re hoping to hold a series of events in Autumn 2015 that offer people more opportunities to talk about death and loss. We want to create events that are inspiring, honest and heartfelt. My mum was an artist and I’d like to show some of her nature-inspired and life-affirming work, and invite others to contribute their work and their stories. Emma and I are also putting together a programme of events, including workshops, talks and films, all touching on different facets of death and dying, loss and grief.
It’s all with a view to opening up more mature, nuanced and honest discussions about the end of life. To my mind, we can’t talk too much about it.