When his girlfriend’s mother becomes ill, Oliver Tate, the leading character of my favourite film Submarine, wonders what he can do to help her. He reads that pets are important because they die, and introduce children to the grieving process. There is a shot of his girlfriend’s dog, followed by a shot of Oliver holding rat poison – sadly, the dog is hit by a train before he can decide whether or not to carry out this plan, but that is probably for the best. I have to say, I disagree with whichever eighties child psychologist introduced Oliver to that idea, because the grief I have felt when my pets died is acute – the death of a pet is still the death of a loved one, and the ratio of pain doesn’t seem to diminish in my experience. But that scene always makes me think about grief, and how we practice it.
I am lucky to have lived in a time and place where death is only on the peripheries, rather than a constant presence. I feel like the closest thing we have to practicing grief is celebrity deaths; those figures who seem like they will be a constant part of our lives until one day they aren’t. Their presence has always been ephemeral, but suddenly their absence becomes permanent. I believe the pain that comes with the death of an idol is a real one, and something that we can use to practice our grieving process. In the wake of David Bowie’s death, everyone I knew was posting photos and quotes on social media. Brodie Lancaster describes this phenomenon as being like a “virtual keep-off-the-grass sign”, and it is useful in signalling to those around us that we are going through something – the death of a celebrity may seem minor, but taking space to find our way through it is an important and useful thing to practice. There is no blueprint, no wrong or right way to grieve for a loved one, and sometimes we can use the deaths of people who seemed like they would live forever as a means of navigating our own loss. We remember stars through their work, through their art, music and cinema and we can remember our loved ones that way too.
My mother reminds me of her death often. Don’t worry, she’s still alive and shows no sign of going anywhere any time soon– in the last few years she has quit her job, gone on a gap year and went back to uni. It’s not a mid-life crisis, more of a renaissance. But she will frequently remind us that in writing her will, she has had to split her assets unevenly between her three children. My oldest brother gets 34%, whilst my other brother and I get 33%. That percentage has become fodder for one of our most enduring family jokes – any time the dishes need to be done, or a favour needs to be called in, mum will pit us against each other in a battle for our inheritance. “If you want to get the 34% maybe you should bring me a cup of tea” she’ll say, while we roll our eyes. In the last few years that 34% has been traded between all three of us dozens of times, but I have yet to see her actually follow through and head to her lawyers office. This is a strange dynamic to some people, and I have had friends stare at me wide-eyed at the idea of us discussing our mother’s will so flippantly. It’s morbid yes, but it also gives us a defence against death in the form of a joke. Nearly a decade ago my mum was in an accident which left her in a neck brace for a year – I think after that near death experience, we’re allowed to make a few morbid jokes.
Mum’s twisted sense of humour is possibly best demonstrated in her parting gift before her gap year trip to France. We were having a farewell dinner at one of our favourite restaurants, when she asked for our solemn attention. We indulged her, vaguely suspicious of the grin she was trying to hide, as she pulled out a large bag – “Before I go away, I want you to be prepared for the worst”. She handed us each a vinyl record titled ‘Absolute Lizzy – The Funeral Collection’. On the cover was a photo of my smiling mother in a golden frame, and on the back a full and detailed listing of every song she wanted played at her funeral, including such hits as Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba and Hall & Oates’ You Make My Dreams. It was without a doubt the weirdest thing she has ever done, and she was cackling with glee at our incredulity – is there another mother on earth who would go to the effort of planning her entire funeral playlist and then get it pressed into vinyl records? All we could do was laugh at the ridiculousness of this plan, and I still laugh every time I tell this story. This was more than a playlist, and more than a record – it was the gift of a good joke.
Last year my mum’s father passed away, and as I was dealing with my own grief, I watched my mother try to navigate her own. Our grief was painful and complicated, as it always would be, and it reminded me that one day I would go through this too. I try not to think about mum’s actual death too often, but I know that it will happen – and if the cycle of life is kind to us, it will be before mine. And I know how lucky I am that when the time comes, in the midst of my own grief and pain, I will be able to dig out an old vinyl record, and laugh with my mum again.
If you want to read my mum’s take on all this, you can find it over on her blog DIY Woman.
Image from Submarine (2011)