Nobody walks around with a notice saying “Help!” though most of us have felt like that at some time or another. And often, human nature being the unpredictable thing it is, the person you thought would rally to you, doesn’t, and the person you never imagined reaching out, does.
The world is half people who ask “Are you all right?” formulaically (subtitled “Please don’t tell me if you’re not”) and the rest who see you clearly, are ready to take the responsibility for reading you wrong if necessary, and they reach out.
Reach out was a term used to define work in the immediate community of a drug rehabilitation project I chaired years ago. Outreach workers didn’t just try to help people with drug problems, as and when they found them, but also made contact with and tried to connect with the others who were involved like teachers, parents, employers, children.
I watched the staff with admiration and respect and took the idea to heart.
There are various ways to be an agony aunt, not just in how you get into the thing but how you work in it. I am not sure what the collective noun for agony aunts is (a writhe of agony aunts perhaps?) and it sounds bigheaded but I was never very interested in how anybody else did it. The need was there. I concentrated on how I did it, how it evolved and what I learned, where I fell down. There was plenty of room for variation and other people’s take on things.
I thought about all this recently because death brings the oddest collection of people together, not for very long, and the funeral is neutral territory where everything else is put aside in the interests of respect for the dead, whether or not you respected him or her in life.
Sometimes a person comes along with an unexpected contribution to make, whether it is a bouquet of wild flowers or a different take on the person who has gone. My sister’s stepdaughter made moving testimony at the funeral, while my personal hero was the funeral director.
I have written before about tone, that tone in the spoken word is as precise and important as it is in music. And Mr. M was a beaut.
He was a man of care and consideration, for ten years (he told me) the director of a tactfully put together business with its own chapel, cars, florists and a digitalised music system –“There isn’t much we can’t get for you” he offered.
So we played my sister in to Count Basie’s “Mood Indigo, out to Nat “King” Cole’s “Unforgettable” with an eye watering choral version of “I Vow To Thee My Country” in the middle.
But before we got that far, I had to “declare” my sister’s death at the local register of births, deaths and marriages – it sounds more complicated than it is – and to do that, I made an appointment with Mrs. J, one of those unsung, kindly, meticulous people you are sometimes lucky enough to meet in an official capacity. And to quote Una Kroll who campaigned for the ordination of women, she ministered to me.
She didn’t bother saying “don’t worry” (I would have anyway, nature of the beast).
She just took quiet control, put everything in order, and as she was shaking my hand goodbye, she reached over quite naturally and kissed my cheek.
This was not my first funeral. In my experience the people who are professionally involved have been better than OK but I was particularly vulnerable in this context.
Wishing to love is not the same as loving and I was afraid of being found wanting.
Two people I don’t know walked me through a day I had agonised about.
The agonising is selfish. It is part of the introspection that comes with loss.
When death comes, you are out of chances to try again or do things differently.
You have to make peace with memory, not only the memories of wrongs done to you but wrongs you did, or at least consider that what you thought was so right may have played out quite differently at the receiving end.
And then you have to let it go, whatever your belief system is.
That’s what we mean by getting through it.