Do we take death for granted too much these days? Are we so enveloped by its presence in the world, that when it truly touches us, we’re totally unprepared to deal with its proximity. We see so much suffering, on such a grand scale, on 24-hour rotating BREAKING NEWS from every angle that death seems just a fact of life. But it’s never us, never HERE, (apart from the rare and affecting days of July 7th, which highlights how much such a relatively small loss of life affects us, when as many die each day in Iraq) and so we watch it, absorb it, assimilate it, until news of bombings in Baghdad, killings in America, murders in Pakistan, typhoons in the East, it all becomes news, not real suffering, just a headline, a bulletin. Have we really become immune to it?
Even twenty years ago, things were different. The internet was a twinkle in the eye of military computer systems, 24-hour news was the exception and not the norm, and suffering on the scale of the African famine touched the globe. In the cynical, saturated 00s, it barely pricked our conscioucness. So where did it change? Like many things, it’s subtle. You can’t notice it from year to year, but go 5, then 10 years ago, and then it starts to crystallise.
So, when we’ve lived through the ‘ordeal’ of watching the tsunami, 9/11, 7/7, (when of course, unless you’re there, how much of an ideal is it for us really?) the line moves further and further back, but it’s only when it affects us directly that we begin to realise how helpless we are. I remember 7/7, the fateful day, as the horror of the events slowly unfolded like a live telethon in front of us. A strange and silent atmosphere as thousands walked back home that night, in shock more than grief. Then the odd and confusing notion that, as it dawned, that I was indirectly affected. A friend’s partner was lost in the tube at Russell Square. It was a terrible time, to watch the family of someone so young (younger than me by years) that was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Their anger, their pain, their anguish, never being able to say goodbye to their daughter. We all cried at the funeral, and it’s still one of the hardest things I’ve had to go through.
But, I only truly faced death on my own family did the realisation dawn on me that I was unable to really comprehend what had unfurled. My grandmother, so long frail and unwell, had finally gained peace. I’d never known my father’s parents, to mine and (never broached but never needed) his sadness, and then, 30 years into my life, someone I knew, was close to, all my life, was gone. And in the succeeding days, I felt, not cold, but confused. I didn’t know how to rationalise the feelings, to understand what I should feel, and experience. Because that was it, it was something never before encountered. And while others grieved around me, my exterior was assumed to be strong and steadfast, but I hadn’t even understood how to start.
And then it came. Our family, so rarely all together, suddenly, in the cold and stark reality of the church. It was there for me to see, inescapable. And the tears flowed. Like I’d never known before, unbridalled, and confusing, strange. But right. My emotion of losing someone that was one of my first memories, that had been there as I grew and changed, and who I watched slowly and distressingly become a ghost of the person they had once been. The fragility of existence was laid before me, and the short journey from birth to death spelled out in chapters of sadness and sorrow, as this person passed from being tangible to a memory.
And now I’m at this place again. Her husband, my granddad, the father of my mum, now also gone. And while I understand it much more, it’s no easier to navigate. The end of an era. I can no longer say I have grandparents. My niece and godson nave lost a generation. And with it their memories. And I feel compelled to preserve them, to document them. Such an incredible life, from the Second World war – so much just a date and an event to my generation – to Scotland, to Africa, Malta, Moscow, and back home to Britain. He saw first hand the horrors of war, lost his brothers, but he endured. For they are the memories of all my family, ones that already begin to fade. I want to sit with my parents, ask them to recant while I write, so i can hand something more tangible than objects and photos down to my children. Because it is important. Our lives are shaped by those that come before us, and we’re part of the world they lived in. And it will fade with the months and the years if we don’t grab what we can of it. Life is fleeting, and it’s our choice to make as much or as little of it as we can.
So, as the day approaches, and I prepare for another farewell, I’m reminded just how little our generation in the cossetted western world is shielded from this most stark of realities. We can watch millions die on screen, read about it print, see photos of the mutilated and disfigured, but it’s not US. It’s never US. It’s Iraq, it’s Iran, it’s Pakistan, it’s Bangladesh, it’s Darfur. We grieve, we wring our hands, we donate, we turn the channel. And when it finally hits us, and we multiply our personal experience into this monumental suffering, it finally dawns. We know nothing. And, sad as it is, we should be thankful for that.
It’s his memory that I’ll honour next week. And so many others.