In January 2006, my then husband and I set off to visit 25 counties with our three young children. We settled into one village in each region and stayed there for a week or two, living very much amongst the locals rather than in tourist spots
As we got into a routine, most mornings I would go out for an hour or two with my camera, and I began documenting the tiny delights of our journey with my photographs.
When I got home I divided the images into folders based on their colour. I kept coming back to the white album. The white images really spoke to me and made me feel peaceful and serene. I thought, ‘How can these best be used, given that they make me feel so peaceful?’ The idea that came to me was to support people who were going through loss, and that’s where the Goodbye book sprang from – it was a creative response to how the photos made me feel.
The following year we went away again, and I kept working on my book, capturing white images, collecting beautiful quotes and song lyrics.
Then in 2008 my marriage ended and loss suddenly became very personal. The book, which was designed to support the grieving process for other people, ended up supporting my own grieving process. I ended up writing more about loss from a personal perspective in the book, and it became very intimate, and relevant.
Then we had the Canterbury earthquakes that brought so much loss and change to businesses, jobs, schools, homes, health, sanity, and security. And sadly there was even loss of life. The book became more universal, not so focused on bereavement; it expanded to support people through all kinds of loss.
Around this time I met Lois Tonkin. She invited me to do a Grief Support Certificate, which I did, and that has deepened my understanding and my creative work with loss.
It’s also been very provocative. I talk to people about the Goodbye book and they immediately go ‘hmmmm…’. It asks the question of them: are they willing and brave enough to have a conversation about death, loss and their experience of it? It’s been a wonderful doorway into a deeper intimacy with people.
Then I learned about Death Cafes. A friend of mine who is a Death Doula (a companion for the dying) has set up a Death Café in Auckland. I love the sound of that; maybe I should set one up in Christchurch! They’re very easy to do; they’re just about welcoming conversation. I love that idea, that informal nature.
I mentioned Death Cafes to my mother. ‘Oh, oh, do you have to call it that?’ I said ‘Ah now, that’s good! It’s good that you have that reaction because that shows that there is such a need for conversations about death’. Some people have an almost breath-holding, aghast response, and I guess it’s difficult; it depends on what you believe.
And even if you do think this life is it, why not have a spectacular departure! If this is all there is, then even more reason! Write your will, decide what happens to your body, choose your music and have a practice funeral before you die. I love the idea of practice funerals, and having all your friends there. Hear what needs to be said, the good and the bad. Getting real, being authentic. I’m all for it.
Is there anything you wanted to ask me about?
You say that your Goodbye book invites us to feel our sorrows more deeply. I’d love you to talk about why you think that’s important.
Socrates said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living?’ I think anything that invites us into a deeper conversation with ourselves is vital. The death piece, or anything relating to loss and letting go, asks us to become more conscious in the present moment. It is helpful, because it asks us to bring our attention here now, and here now, and here now.
So this work around Goodbye and death invites us to live more closely to the heart of things, and to the heart of each other, because it’s not until you’re conscious that someone’s dying – when someone’s got a terminal illness, or someone’s old, or close to their end – then we become acutely conscious. We’re counting down the moments. . . but much of the time we live in a suspended state of reality; we live as though it’s going to last forever, without real appreciation for what is here and the preciousness of it.
The dying have a lot to teach us about that. There is a point, which I’ve heard about through Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s work, where the dying person reaches a level of total acceptance; they teach us how peaceful it is to be in that state. I imagine it would be challenging to companion a dying person without reaching a level of peaceful acceptance yourself. I haven’t done that, though; I’m only speaking from their [Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s team’s] research.
Your question was about why is it important to live closer to the heart?
Yes, about entering deeply, especially our sorrows and our losses.
Kahlil Gibran says, ‘The deeper that sorrow carves into your being the more joy you can contain’. And I think it’s true. If we take the opportunity to feel our sorrows, not numb ourselves, really feel them, let them flow and be felt, and accept them however long that may last… then we can be open to joy when that arises too.
In New Zealand the funeral industry has had a way of managing death for us, and while it had its place, there’s also room for a lot more variety. There is a place for home-based funerals, more eco-friendly burials and cremations, and a call for a wider variety of coffins that family and friends can paint and decorate themselves. I think we are on the edge of a whole new world of death, a new death chapter
My friend the Death Doula recently said to me, ‘Come and do our Natural Death course, and once you’ve done it you can look after a loved one after they’ve died, and you can prepare their body for the funeral’. She said it’s amazing; it’s the most loving act people can do for their loved ones. And it’s quite straightforward. She said that the families who have done it find it to be a beautiful, healing process that better prepares them for the funeral. That might be the next thing I do.
There are all sorts of skills and tools available. People just don’t know about the options, and often don’t want to think about it until they are in crisis – and then it’s too late. That’s where knowledge is not just power, it’s choice.
That’s why it’s so important to think about these things before death. There’s so much pressure and so much going on emotionally otherwise.
And the funeral itself – there’s a lot of pressure to get things done in a very short amount of time. I’ve heard a lot of people say they just wanted to get the funeral over and done so they could begin the grieving – they’re still in shock at the time. I find it extraordinary, the speed.
It’s not necessary; it’s just how we’ve come to do it. We can slow the process down.
What about family coming from overseas?
People often wait for that reason, but if there isn’t some concrete reason, people often don’t wait, because the three or four-day thing is quite embedded in our culture. See how much of it is cultural? Societal?
Rather than just cemeteries, imagine if we had beautiful memorial areas in nature. On Miyajima Island in Japan they have beautiful trees where you can tie little rice paper prayers onto the branches. You don’t have to be religious; it’s more about mindful contemplation. And we could do something similar here. People do like walking around beautiful cemeteries, but imagine if there was something to do, whether it was these prayers, or some beautiful processes that were simple – even sculpture, interactive sculpture, or a collaborative piece that people added to so it grew over time, or things that people could read – beautiful, hopeful poetry, but little pieces. Imagine that interwoven into our cemeteries, rather than just these depressing places.
You really are re-imagining death, aren’t you, and especially here in Christchurch. That’s what I’m hearing.
I remember talking with Lois – she developed a programme on loss for school children, but I don’t know if it’s still being taught. I think she might have developed it for Skylight. People generally don’t want to talk about it with their kids – even when they have to.
So we’ve got to start. It’s not so long ago that children would all have encountered death, and I don’t mean just death of a pet – death of Granddad at home, or death of a younger or older sibling.
We try and shelter them from it, and yet there are some beautiful books on death, for children. Have you heard of ‘Freddy the Leaf’? It’s beautiful, quite sad. Freddy starts off in spring, and he goes through the seasons. He’s the last leaf on the tree…
And there’s another one called ‘Up in Heaven’, and it’s about a Golden Retriever who dies, and you see him galloping round up in heaven and watching the family. It has beautiful illustrations. I often send that to friends when a pet dies.
You imagine having a place, and it has resources, beautiful art, and a place you could bring children. You don’t need to teach them anything; they’d just walk around and look at things, or read them. And they might ask questions, and you don’t even have to have answers for them; you just let the questions arise and then say, ‘Well what do you think?’
There are lots of ways to honour a person in a heartfelt way. I made a jar of memory fragments for my parents. Any time I’d think of a memory I’d just jot it on a little piece of paper, for instance, ‘I remember when you took us tramping on the West Coast and we all got lost and bitten by sandflies and we hated it, and now we love it’. Because you’re writing for the person who was there, you don’t need all the detail; you just need a fragment, and in it goes. Eventually I had a whole jar of them and it became a real treasure. You don’t have to be very creative.
Imagine of we had a place that people came to for ideas and inspiration, and looked at death in different cultures; it would de-mystify it a lot. The funeral pyres in India, the sky burials in Nepal where the body would be chopped up and put on the top of a mountain where vultures could come and take the food. (I’ve since heard this has been discouraged as the vultures have been getting sick from eating sick and contaminated corpses).
I’ve developed a new book; it’s a type of grief journal. The idea’s based in narrative therapy, but rather than an individual journal where one person writes their feelings, this is designed to be a group journal. The amazing thing about these journals is that they allow deeper conversations to continue without necessarily affecting the surface conversations, which is fascinating to me.
I’ve experienced it with my own children. If they don’t want to talk about something, we can write about it. On the surface we might be talking about, ‘Whose turn is it to do the dishes?’ Meanwhile, we can be having a written conversation that’s very heartfelt, deep and painful. Sometimes these deeper conversations may lead into a verbal conversation, and sometimes not.
And the same is true with the grief journal.
Well, you’re certainly not lacking in ideas for making death more accessible, Melanie. Wonderful! Thank you for sharing with us.
Melanie’s passion has taken her a long way since we spoke in 2016. She has set up a Death Cafe in Christchurch – a monthly event for over five years, and now with over 700 interested people. Two years ago she started an annual conference called Death Matters – a day of exploration and discovery with a diverse range of positive and empowering speakers.
Last year they added an art exhibition called Death and Transformation. Five local artists explored the theme of death, loss and grief in their own lives. Their stories and creative responses to loss and change were a complete inspiration, Melanie says. She plans to host the 3rd Death Matters Conference and the 2nd Art Exhibition next year, 2022.