Julie's Quest

Hello, and welcome to my blog. My blog is about the trials and tribulations of writing, where we celebrate successes and commiserate our near misses. We tell it like it is here and will do our very best to help you on the road to being published and pick you up after the rejections (they will come!) Whether you are a professional or amateur writer you will find something useful here.

I hope you enjoy reading my posts and will visit again soon.

Happy Writing

Julie Phillips - freelance writer - member of the Association of Freelance Writers - member of the Society of Authors

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

We don't talk about it!

My dad gave me a manilla envelope today and told me to 'put it somewhere safe.' It was his funeral plan that he'd had drawn up and had paid for; a prepaid funeral. Now, I was a bit perturbed to start with as I thought there something that he knew that I didn't! But he assures me that all is well, and he was just thinking ahead.

How very organised of him, I thought. It's just not like him at all. My mother would have fallen off her chair, had she have been around. But I'm sure she's sitting 'up there' on her cloud, flapping her wings, mouth open wide at this news!

It unsettled me, all this talk of funerals and making plans always does. We rarely talk about death and dying do we? Now I'm not getting all mauldlin here and clanging the bell of doom - but after I got over my initial squeamishness and usual sticking of fingers into ears whilst shouting la la la la la I can't hear you, what he said actually made sense.

At the grand age of 76 he's done one of the best things he's ever done for his girls. He's taken the hassle out of organising his funeral - an unenviable task at the best of times. At least now we haven't got to fret over what flowers and hymns he wants, whether he wants to be cremated or buried etc. The weight has been lifted off our shoulders. And I am grateful.

But what has all this got to do with writing you may ask. Well it got me thinking about how we write about death. I mean how death and dying is portrayed in fiction. I was particularly interested in how the subject is handled in children's fiction. I was thinking of Watership Down, Bambi, Lassie, Black Beauty, Harry Potter, Michael Rosen' s The Sad Book - that sort of thing.

As Adults, most of us shy away from what is a natural progression in life. We are born; we live our lives overcoming what ever obstacles are thrown in our way, have a good time, or not; and then we die. Now we talk about birth and marriage - two of life's more joyous but nevertheless natural life occurrences - yet when it comes to death and dying we tend to shut up. Is this not also a natural occurrence in everyone's life?

My daughter has had experience of animals dying, our elderly cat and then a 5 month old kitten we'd only had for a week died of pneumonia and an underlying heart defect. Up to that point she knew that both her grandmothers and her paternal grandpa were dead. She understood that people die, but she thought only old people die. So how did we explain the death of the kitten? It was difficult and uncomfortable for me trying to explain it to her, but she took it in her stride. I didn't want her to be worried about, or feel awkward talking about death, like I am!

We talk about my mum, her grandmother all the time. She died before I had my daughter, so they never physically knew each other, but I make sure she knows about her, what she looked like, what she was like, what she used to say. It keeps her memory alive, and although initially I found it heartbreaking talking about her to my daughter, as time has gone on it's a joy when my daughter asks me about her. She even makes believe that Nana Sue is coming to her play tea party. (Well at least I think she's make believing - but you never know! I can just imagine my mum sitting on my daughter's picnic blanket and supping a cup of pretend tea! Who knows?!)

I think that children's books that broach the subject of death and dying in a sensitive but truthful way are excellent and not to be shied away from. Talking to, and reading to children about death does not have to be all doom and gloom and sadness. Although grief does involve a lot of sadness and I don't think that children should be shielded from that, I think keeping it out in the open dispels any myths or fears they have about the subject and helps them, and us to cope with it better.

Has anyone ever written about death in their poems or prose? I haven't, yet. I once wrote a short story set a year after the main character's husband died, but have never actually written specifically about death. Maybe I will one day. I'm sure it will challenge what I think about death and dying and how people who are terminally ill, and their families cope. I think books delving into this subject, if tackled well , give us valuable insights to this subject, but if it isn't done well it only keeps the subject of death taboo and hidden, perpetuating untruths and fear and helps no one.

I'm interested in your thoughts on the subject. Are you as uncomfortable about this subject as I am? Or does it not bother you?

On a lighter note, I sent two short stories out to Writing Magazine and Writers' News today. One was, quite aptly, a ghost story, and the other about a marriage guidance counsellor - did anyone else enter these comps?

Keep writing, and take care. Julie x


Suzanne said...

What a lovely, thoughtful dad.

When my daughter was 2, she came across a photo of my grandparents who had both died before she was born. She smiled and told me that she knew them and that they looked after her. I did write about this and it was published (Best's Spooky Spot) a few years ago. As you said, who knows? But it is a comforting thought.

You're right, death is natural, but I am uncomfortable thinking about it and still very much miss the family members we've lost.

Fee said...

Julie you are so right. We went to a carers conference last December and whilst we attended this there was a stand promoting pre-paid funerals. I went to the stand but Steve was getting reluctant we took the brochure home and said its something to think of at a later date.

We just never know whats around the corner and there is no point worrying over it.

I am sorry to hear about the kitten dying.

Best of luck with the competitions.


Nicola said...

Hi Julie,

What a lovely post - not maudlin at all, although I confess it brought a tear to my eye. You created a beautiful image of your daughter playing imaginary picnics with Nana Sue.

I was 30 before I suffered bereavement and I took it very hard. About a year later I was set an assignment on my writing course with the title 'The First Time;. I wrote about how the bereavement had felt and, although I couldn't read my piece out in front of the group, it really did help. A form of 'closure', I suppose, and I did start to move on and feel more able to cope.

I've since written a couple of poems about death - the one I experienced and one I only read about it in the press.

All in all, painful though it can be, I think writing about death can be hugely therapeutic.

Nicola xx

Julie P said...

Hi, Nicola. I'm always crying! It doesn't take much to set me off these days, and everytime Isobel mentions her nana Sue or asks me about where people go when they die, it makes me smart,even now. My mum died of breast cancer that spread to her spine in 2001, a month after the 9/11 attacks.But I suppose I do find some comfort in the fact that my mum's spirit is very much kept alive by my daughter. I only wish I'd had my daughter earlier and that mum would have known her - They would have adored each other. But, hey ho, that's life! I love seeing my dad playing with her though.

See you soon. (I've been in PC World today salivationg over the netbooks!!!) Julie xx

Julie P said...

It's really strange, Suzanne, isn't it how these kids seem to know who is in the photos even though you haven't told them.

Julie P said...

You're right Fee, everyone dies eventually, and I applaud people who think ahead and even though they feel uncomfortable about talking about death, they still arrange their own funeral. It takes a special kind of person to do that. I always fancied the funeral plan where you're buried in a forest or field in a whicker coffin or similiar.

The Buddhist Conservative said...

Hi Julie,

It can be a bit unsettling when we are faced with a loved ones mortality. It is a subject that we as humans tend to shy away from. Eventually we all die and your dad did a wonderful thing with this.

Much of what is written focuses on the sadness of those left behind. Grief is a normal thing but there is the life of the person who died and the meaning they had to others that is what really matters.

I have been noodling a piece on death and dying from the perspective of someone who has seen it many times in many situations. I think that there is a bit of reluctance since this perspective is my own and I am not sure how much I want to relive.

It is important not to shelter our children from death. Like many of the talks we need to have with them, it is not always easy. We would do well to promote images of inevitability over sadness as much as we can. At the same time we can give a message to enjoy each day we are here since the cruel truth is, we all will die.