Saturday 04 February 2023

Singing people’s praises after they’ve gone

This column first appeared on Malta Today

I recently listened to a podcast with Davina McCall, the well-known British TV presenter speaking about the death of her half-sister from cancer at the age of 50. When recalling the well-attended funeral she pointed out that her quiet, unassuming sister would have been astonished and overwhelmed to realise how much she was loved. I’m paraphrasing, but what she said next was basically this: “Shouldn’t we be doing these grand demonstrations of love towards a person while they are still alive? Why wait for the funeral? Why not have everyone gather together and tell the person to their face how much they are loved and what they have meant to them. Like a living wake? That’s what I want for myself.”

Of course, in theory this sounds like a great idea. Who wouldn’t want to hear accolades and glowing eulogies while they are still alive? In practice, however, how do you tell someone who is terminally ill that everyone is coming to give them a big send-off, even if the intention behind it is all very well-meaning? The fact remains that when someone is ill, the flickering hope that they will recover is always there. Bringing everyone to their home or their bedside to bid them goodbye is almost forcing them to face what they might not be ready to face, even though deep down they might know it is inevitable. Naturally, if the dying person decides to hold this “goodbye” party on their own initiative it is a different matter, although I imagine it would still be indescribably emotional, and probably too much to handle, for all concerned.

All this was brought to mind with the recent deaths of former Labour MP Silvio Parnis and former Nationalist MP Robert Arrigo who were both unfortunately suffering from an illness. For once, rather than snarky comments, social media was taken over on both occasions by the numerous tributes which poured in, describing their exemplary qualities. While I’m sure they were genuine, I always wonder why these words of praise come so profusely and effortlessly only after someone dies. I distinctly remember both men being criticised not only for their work as politicians (which is justified) but more cruelly on a personal level. They were both mercilessly mocked for different reasons throughout their lives. Death, however, changed all this, and suddenly these two men were the best thing to have ever happened to Malta.

I am not disputing that they both did good things for their constituents in their own ways…from what I have read by people who knew them, both were gentlemen in the true sense of the word and both lived according to their respective principles, rather than just paying lip service to their ideals. Parnis was a ‘true Socialist”, Arrigo was a “true Nationalist” ..and yet the fact remains that in the last few years of their lives they were both discarded by their respective parties. In the case of Arrigo especially, being cast aside by his beloved party was a bitter blow which he spoke about openly. If people are lauded for being so incredible and wonderful after they die why are their attributes not acknowledged in their lifetime so that at least they die knowing that their decades of service to their party were not in vain?

In both cases, the Churches where their funeral Mass was held was jam-packed, which is always such an essential gesture, especially in Maltese society, that the person was respected and loved. “Rajt kemm kellu nies? Faqgħu il-knisja!” (Did you see how many people attended, the Church was bursting at the seams!). While this can be of great comfort to the person’s family, as Davina pointed out (and depending on your beliefs), the person who passed away will never know that so many turned out for their funeral. So I suppose the real lesson is to let people know how we feel about them while they are still with us, rather than waiting for after they are gone, when we post about it on Facebook.

And finally, when a politician dies can we please stop prefacing our condolences with the words, “even though I am not Labour/Nationalist I am still sorry that he died.” Well, I should bloody hope so. I should hope that our ability to pay our respects to another human being is not coloured by whether the person held the same political allegiance as us. The very fact that some feel the need to even say this irritates me incredibly and I wish it would stop. It’s like saying, “even though he is black (or a refugee, or gay, or a woman) I am sorry he/she died”. Sounds stupid doesn’t it? Well, it sounds equally stupid when we make disclaimers about one’s politics when it comes to death.

Love me tender, love me sweet, never let me go

Is it possible to die from a broken heart? I think it is, and proof of this is the shocking death of Lisa Marie Presley, 54, who collapsed and died from a massive heart attack on Thursday night. It was particularly shocking as we had just seen her attend the Golden Globes where Austin Butler, the man who portrayed her father Elvis in the film, had received an award for best actor.

Two years ago, Lisa Marie’s son, Benjamin Keough committed suicide at the age of 27 and she never got over that heartache. Even writing such a phrase seems callous, for the death of a loved one, especially a child, is not something you can ever “get over”. In fact on looking more closely at the photos and videos from the awards ceremony, you could see the life was drained from her eyes and that this was someone just going through the motions. Reports emerging now state that she had become a recluse, hardly ever leaving the house.

No one spoke more eloquently about her own grief than Lisa Marie herself in a poignant essay she wrote which was published last year. Here are a few excepts which touched me the most:

“Grief is incredibly lonely. Despite people coming in the heat of the moment to be there for you right after the loss takes place, they soon disappear and go on with their own lives and they kind of expect for you to do the same, especially after some time has passed. if the loss was premature, unnatural, or tragic, you will become a pariah in a sense. You can feel stigmatised and perhaps judged in some way as to why the tragic loss took place. This becomes magnetised by a million if you are the parent of a child who passed. No matter how old they were. No matter the circumstances.”

“I already battle with and beat myself up tirelessly and chronically, blaming myself every single day and that’s hard enough to now live with, but others will judge and blame you too, even secretly or behind your back which is even more cruel and painful on top of everything else.”

“If I’m being honest, I can understand why people may want to avoid you once a terrible tragedy has struck. Especially a parent losing their child because it is truly your worst nightmare. I can recall a couple of times in my life where I knew parents who lost their child and while I could be there for them when it happened, I avoided them after and never bothered to follow up with them because they quite literally became a representative of my biggest fear. I also low-key judged them, and I swore I’d never do whatever it was that I felt they either did or neglected in their parental actions and choices with their child….Yet here I am, I am now living what it’s like to be that same representative to other parents.”

“It’s a real choice to keep going, one that I have to make every single day and one that is constantly challenging to say the least … But I keep going for my girls….My and my three daughters’ lives as we knew it were completely detonated and destroyed by his death. We live in this every. Single. Day.”

Her advice on how to treat people who are grieving is to encourage them to talk about their loved one, but she has one word of caution: “Do me a favour, don’t tell them that “you can’t imagine” their pain. The truth is, oh yes you can — you just don’t want to.”

It is telling that her last Instagram post was a screenshot of the above article. Did Lisa Marie feel she could no longer go on, and that her overwhelming grief was too much for her to bear? Perhaps. I truly believe that our bodies often tell us that a lifetime of emotional turmoil, stress and anxiety have taken their toll, and they send us signs through physical manifestations of illness.

And sometimes, when the pain and sorrow is just too much to bear, the heart simply cannot survive the excruciating blow.

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