Preparing the family for death: interview with Kim Barnett

 

I met Kim as a fellow funeral celebrant and was intrigued at her choice to prepare her family to face death, from her grandchildren to her elderly in-laws.

 

My siblings are not at all comfortable talking about death. I’ll spout on about something, say a conversation I’ve had with Mum, and they’ll slip off into something else. It’s interesting how most people find it’s really uncomfortable to talk about death. It’s like, “When on earth that horrible time comes and we have to face it, we’ll do it then”, which is not very prepared in any sense, is it? And that’s when there’s a sense of urgency and being all at sea, and not in control.

 

And we would never do birth that way, would we?

 

No, we put so much thought and planning into birth, and it is a fraught experience too, in some ways, but we prepare for it in all the right ways and get everybody involved. It would be great if we could get close to that when it comes to the whole thing about dying. We cannot pretend it’s not a part of life.

 

I suppose the way we deal with a lot of fear is by pretending it’s not there, and certainly on a nice day you may think, “Why would I want to be thinking about that!” But for me, thinking about it makes me live better; I’m sure it does. It makes me take different decisions about what I dwell on, or what people I want to bring in close. Life’s become more precious. It’s something about my stage of life, I guess. I’ve become a lot more choosey about who I have around me, where it’s loving and easy and fulfilling. Which is another grief, in a way, so that when it comes to the huge separation of dying…

 

In our whole lives we’re saying goodbye. These choices, like not to have certain people in my life – that’s a grief, a goodbye. Or when I look back at a photo album, that’s when it confronts me. I see how unwrinkly I was then. I grieve in the way of seeing the stages of life that are gone, never to come back. We’re used to saying goodbye, actually.

 

I say we’re used to saying goodbye, but that doesn’t make it easy. Terry’s Dad died just prior to his 70th birthday, quite suddenly. It was very traumatic for family and friends. I feel almost sadder now. I find we mention him a lot now, especially around how much he would have loved the grandchildren. They’re sporty, and he was so sporty. I feel he’s been cheated really– that’s the emotion that comes up.

 

My Dad is 82. He’s married to Terry’s Mum. We’re a very interconnected family! They got together first. She’s 88. She’s quite sharp, but physically frail. But what she misses most is her incredible creativity – her handwork, her artwork, her sewing. Now, in the retirement village, she’s joined a little art group, but she’s mourning her losses. I don’t think she’s being kept going by medications exactly, but if I had my choice in life I’d rather live long and die quickly than live long and die slowly. I can see the grieving of having to let go of things she loved. Hopefully she’s finding different things she enjoys doing, things that compensate.

 

Terry’s Dad’s ashes are still with us, in Terry’s wardrobe, in a horrible little container – nothing nice about it at all. They’re in his wardrobe because the family hasn’t decided what to do with him. He died within two weeks of being diagnosed. I remember him saying to me one day when I visited, “What is it like being with someone who’s dying?” and he said it in this really creepy voice. My response was, “I hope I’m not with someone who’s dying”, which was my instant response then, 17-odd years ago. He didn’t talk much about it but I did ask what were his wishes for himself. He said, “Just put me in a rubbish bag and throw me out”. And I said, “Well we’re not going to do that”. But I wonder what he’d have thought about sitting in the wardrobe in a plastic container?

 

So, as one of my homework studies when I was doing my celebrant training, I wrote a little ceremony of a scattering of ashes for Wal. We were to go in my brother’s boat and scatter his ashes around the local area where he’d lived all his life, and fished. It hasn’t happened, but it still could, I guess. He loved golf. The guys thought maybe we could scatter him on the golf course, but now that I understand the destruction that ashes can cause to the land, that’s not an option. We could plant a tree, but if you create something permanent on your own property, and then move… you have this trail of decisions to make. I guess if you scatter in the sea it’s different somehow.

 

For my Dad – he made a comment one day to say that he wants something to show that he did exist, that he was here, even a little plaque with his name on it. He’s not a man with a big ego, it’s just important to him. And yet his parents were scattered in the sea at Piha, and there’s no memorial, but my Grandfather’s name is on the fence by the lily pond at Piha as the little reserve is named after him.

 

It’s interesting with my Dad; he’s exploring more about spirituality. He’s always been a firm atheist. Of late he seems more open to some sense of our continuing in some way after death. Terry’s Mum has explored many religions and philosophies. They read a lot, especially Deepak Chopra, and Dad seems to be taking hold of some of his ideas and calling them his own.

 

His father, my grandfather, was brought up strict Baptist, and later shunned it. Not so his two sisters, who lived to 104 and 106. They were very concerned he was going to end up in limbo. He was severely depressed having lost my Grannie, and losing his faculties. He was an educator who prided himself on his ability to recite poetry, and recall things, and be something to people – his ex-pupils often visited him. Towards the time of his death, I took him out to the family bach [holiday house] at Piha. I was young and trying to jolly him, and way out of my depth. He was in a process of letting go and was very sad. As he sat on the bed he said, “Kimbo, do you know what it means to be in limbo?” I said, “Kind of – you’re not here, you’re not there”, but I didn’t understand its religious context. So he explained to me. He said, “My sisters are very concerned that because I haven’t been baptized I’m going to be in limbo, and they’re distraught about it, so I’m considering what I need to do to make things okay for them”. And I’m like, “You don’t need to make things okay for them!” Anyway, as it turned out he was re-baptised. He never talked about it again. Perhaps it was partly him hedging his bets, or was it strictly in terms of others? He was a very generous, big-hearted man. He was six foot two, and if you arrived at his house he’d come out with his arms outstretched and walk the whole length of the property and just gather you in; a gorgeous man. Coming from that position, to being more dependent, was really difficult for him. I think it is. To die must be a blessed relief sometimes. The process is so difficult.

 

His wife, my Grannie, had died a lot earlier of a heart attack. She was an absolute sunshine person in our lives. She was an atheist and happy with it; just a lover of nature, and an accepter that this is the life we have. She was as bright as a button. She went way too early for us. I still miss her. When I was a teen she was the person I would go to. I could talk to her about anything. She was very active in the justice system, always trotting down to the court to see that justice was being done. My Pop adored her. It must be terribly difficult when you’re so attached to someone, to find a way to fill your life again and make it count.

 

My Grannie lost so many of her family, but she never carried it on her shoulders. You think about how disassociated we’ve become from death. She lost two sisters in the flu epidemic, a brother in the War – right at Gallipoli – and her brother-in-law, her mother not long later, and her father at 56. She had huge losses, and yet she didn’t carry sadness like a cloak. We never even knew about it as kids.

 

We lost our oldest cousin, before I was born. She drowned, but not in the sea – in the lily pond, which is unbelievable when you think of the surf at Piha. My aunt was living at Piha, and her daughter was about 18 months. No one knew how to deal with the grief. No one was able to help her. She never really even cried. They had twins pretty much straight away. No one suggested she hold Jenny. She can remember giving comfort to the lady who was looking after Jenny at the time, because she was distraught, and not really registering herself. The doctor said to her husband, “Make sure she cries”. They had to get some clothes for Jenny, drive to the police station to report what happened and fill in forms. Last time I went to visit her – she’s 87 now – she cried and cried and cried. I asked her, “What’s this about?” And she said, “It’s Jenny”. She wanted to talk about Jenny.

 

Oh Kim, bless you. That’s so important.

 

Until she told me, she said nobody knew how that day went. She told me the story of how the whole day had unfolded. When she got to her Mum’s house her Mum was just curled up in a fetal position on a chair, completely distraught with grief, and unable to give her any comfort, so she just buried the grief, and was advised to move on, move on. She never went to the funeral; women never went. My Grannie said to me once, “I’ve never been to a funeral and I’m never going to one”, I guess because she had so much grief in her early life. I can’t imagine having all the loss she had – all those early losses, and then to lose her first grandchild. And yet, as I said, she never wore a cloak of sadness in her daily life. We had the most amazing, joyful times around her.

 

I think about it in relation to my responsibility to my grandchildren. If something happens that really guts my heart, I want to make sure that I heal enough, or can move out of that space when I’m with them. I want to be real about it, but also not take away from the joy of being with them. It can rob, if you’re wearing it. With some people it affects their whole demeanour. Maybe they don’t give themselves permission… By me being happy it doesn’t mean I don’t miss or didn’t love the person. Maybe people get confused about it. If I’m happy, does it mean I can’t be missing that person too much?

 

The conversations I’ve had with my mother and mother-in-law have kind of happened spontaneously, rather than me making a dedicated time to talk about it. It’s been when the opportunities have arisen. It’s fairly easy these days, given the stage they are, to see when they’re not feeling well, or they’re contemplating, or feeling a bit insecure because other people around them are dying, and they’ll say what they’ve liked about somebody’s life celebration, and what they haven’t liked, or what scares them. So when the little opportunities come up I grab them and advance them a little bit more if I can. I’m trying to come to a place where we all feel a bit comforted by it, and I was going to say excited by it. That’s ridiculous! But with my mum, for example, she told me she didn’t want a funeral, not something cloaked in sadness. She’s quite outgoing, but also quite a private person, but when we got to talking about it she said, “I want everyone to come in bright colours. I’ve had a wonderful life and I want it to be happy. I want to be in a yellow casket, and I want flowers, and I want poetry, and I want music – I want ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’”. So then I said, “That will be done; that is what we will do. We’ll make it a celebration of you. We’ll enjoy bringing you into our lives in every way”. I think when she pictured it, when she changed it from something dark and cold to something almost exciting, something really changed in her. It’s like she thought, “This is my final thing, and people are going to enjoy it and revel in the personality of me at my best”.

 

With my mum-in-law, she was mortified (funny word!) to think of being in a dark room at a funeral home, parked in a coffin overnight. So I said, “We can put that thought to rest immediately”. I think the furthest thought from her mind was that she could have someone at home who had died. When her Mum died, with help I’m sure she could have had her at home, but death is a huge, unknown, scary monster for her, and she’s had other people’s reactions in the past, like, “Oh that would be creepy”, or “That’s not how I want to remember them”, or “We’ll always have that memory in our home”. Moving those kinds of thoughts aside by saying that I’m totally relaxed about her dead body, and about her being in our home, shifted something for her. She knows she’ll be cared for and loved, and we’ll take the time for people to come and be with her.

 

At this stage I don’t fancy having my own casket open; who knows what sort of a bad hair day I’ll be having! It’s vanity, I guess. I don’t want the last impression of me to be like a plastic doll. But who knows. I might get used to the idea. I don’t mind being around someone who has died. I’ve laid people out on my psychiatric nursing career. My cousin, who died from breast cancer when she was 33, had an open coffin and my aunt asked for people to come up and put notes in the casket. Everybody obliged, but some weren’t particularly happy about going that close to Glen, especially with how different she was looking. And there was the sort of smell of death, which is something we’re not used to.

I’m all over the place, Margie. What a difficult subject I am!

 

Never, Kim! It’s all so interesting. The pieces I remembered from our chatting earlier were that you’d taken the time and the courage to think about what your parents and mother-in-law might want, and you’d spoken with them. But what you’ve given me is a whole lot more than that; you’ve given all sorts of experiences and insights.

 

It’s one of these times where different things keep coming to mind. We’re on the cusp, in our family, of inevitable death visiting us. An uncle died a couple of years ago, and one of my cousins lost her husband recently. I guess we’ll be coming together more as a family around death as time goes on.

 

My parents have all said they want to be cremated. I always thought I wanted to be cremated – well I don’t want to be cremated, but of the rough choices you have! But since getting involved in this [celebrant] work and having gone to see the cremator at Waikumete Crematorium, the industrial side of it doesn’t appeal to me, seeing the ashes being raked out and all that. I have a hunch I would like the least interference, a gentle transition, so I’m tending more towards burial, but what I would really love is to be buried in a forest setting, wrapped in a shroud, comfortable enough that there are some layers of cloth that you visualise to be comfortable, just because it makes you happy to think of, not because it matters at all, and then lying in the earth and letting nature take its course. I haven’t got my head around what’s available in Auckland, but I know it’s being worked on. In “A Will for the Woods” they have natural stones engraved with the person’s name and date, so over time they can use the area for a lot of burials, and maybe the stones will turn up-side-down in time, but it doesn’t matter. That feels really nice to me, and I have a feeling that might work for my family, particularly my Mum. Cremation had been a sort of considerate view – we don’t want to take up room, or be a bother; just do it and get it over with. We just can’t be doing the big plot with the big concrete thing. We just can’t keep doing that. But the natural idea appeals, if it’s available.

 

[www.naturalburials.org.nz will tell you what’s available here in Aotearoa New Zealand]

 

It’s really appealing to think we can nourish the earth and become part of it. I’ve also seen a compost material that you can add ashes to and then grow things.

 

Even with our pets, we’ve always honoured them. We’ve had a couple of cats. There was Billy and then there was Muffin. Caitlyn misses Muffin still, and when we go past the hibiscus tree at the top of our driveway she often stands there quietly looking quite sad. With the rabbit and the guinea pig, too, we’ve always put them in a little box, and made a little mattress with some fabric, and drawn on the outside of the box, and put notes in, and done it so that everyone can see that that is where the pet is. We bought a rose for Billy called ‘Remember Me’.

 

The other day Caitlyn said, “Grandma, can we have a look at Muffin? Can we see if she’s still there? So I said, “Remember when we see little insects and things that have died, they aren’t like they were, so Muffin will be just a little pile of bones now”. She seemed to accept that. It’s been good for them to love something, see it die, know where it’s buried. But what I notice is the love that’s still there in her; it’s very strong.

 

Terry and I bought a little fish each for Caitlyn and her cousin Zachary. We put them in the fishpond. The next morning Terry found one of them floating. Zach had said earlier that it was his first ever pet. So we decided to hatch this stupid plan of getting another one, but it was an albino one, the one and only. He must have overheard us because he said, “Did my fish die?”

 

Good for him!

 

I said, “Oh Darling, it did. We’ve been so upset to say because we knew it was so special to you”. He was quite matter of fact about it, but I’d said to Terry before that, “Where have you put it?” I think he said, “In the rubbish bin”. I said, “Get it out! It’s got to be dealt with it properly!” So we had to do the same and honour this little fish, and never buy one of those delicate ones again!

 

Thank you, Kim, because you’re not afraid of death and you’re thoughtful about it, from the death of pets, to getting close enough to your elderly aunt that you could give her the space to really mourn her daughter; it’s fantastic.

 

I discovered that Jenny’s ashes had been scattered, and I asked my aunt if she’d like to go and spend some time there. It will be 60 years ago this July that she drowned, I think. I asked if she would like her other children to be part of it too. She said, “No, just you and me”, which is sad, because they could well be carrying some unknown kind of grief.

 

Oh, they will, it’s true, but I can really understand why as a first step it’s just you she wants to go with, because you’re the one who’s dared to speak about her child’s death. And then after that she may be ready to do something with Jenny’s siblings.

 

After I spoke about it we had the longest hug. I think it was as one mother to another, and with blood connections you can cross boundaries so fast.

 

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