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Lost City

How to Do Death

8 August 18 words: Georgianna Scurfield
illustrations: Emily Thursfield

In the UK, death tends to be awkward and unfamiliar. The logistics are dealt with behind the scenes by trained professionals, and the grieving process is viewed as something linear, after which your misery is cured. The stiff-upper-lip attitude fails to prepare us for when death taps on the door. The most honest conversation I ever had about death was with my brother, Kosta. He would get frustrated at me for being afraid of it. He thought that as much as we embrace life, we should embrace death, but that grief was a selfish and indulgent thing.

Kosta died on Monday 2 March, 2015, in Rojava, Syria. He was hit by an RPG, fired by a member of the Islamic State, while fighting alongside the YPG (Kurdish Protection Unit). In the months after his death, his words stuck with me, and made me feel guilty for grieving. It’s just over three years later and I’m only just grasping what this “process” of grieving actually is; I’m working out how to come to terms with death as Kosta did, but also how to grieve as he thought I shouldn’t. This is partly down to what I’ve learnt from a collection of creative and talented people in Nottingham who are opening up the conversation about grief in their own, individual ways...

Finding the right person to talk to isn’t straightforward for everyone. Beth Rowland was twenty when her mum passed, and the next two years saw her running a website dedicated to encouraging people to share their experiences of grief. But it wasn’t easy for her: “In 2016 I crumbled, was diagnosed with anxiety and depression after several panic attacks, and wanted to end my life. Luckily, I saw a fantastic counsellor and doctor, and I'm doing loads better now, but it made me realise that it was time to be honest about grief. I needed to take my own advice and start talking about how I was feeling.”

Beth felt that she needed to share her experiences with people who’d been through a similar thing. “
That's when I realised I didn't know many other people who’d lost someone,” she says. “I started organising a meetup to combat that.” She now heads up a regular night called Let’s Talk About Loss, for people who’ve lost someone to get together and have a chat. I’ve been hesitant to talk to people about my grief because, well, I just don’t want to bum people out. But reading and listening to the stories of Beth, and others who’ve experienced similar situations, has been integral to getting to where I am now.

For two years, I was accused of not processing properly. I didn’t get it. I’d conquered the five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I knew Kosta was dead. What else was left to process? Like Beth, I was privileged enough to find the Human Flourishing Project; a free counselling and psychotherapy service based in Nottingham. My counsellor provided a professional, impartial ear, and together we explored the idea of “processing”. The term implies that one day you’ll come to the end and be happy again. But grief is more like British weather: permanent, random and relentless. Be prepared for a wave to hit you after a few years, like a raincloud rolling over your carefully planned barbecue.

Most importantly, I learnt that yes, grief is selfish, but you have to indulge in and embrace it. There are certain things I will never know about Kosta’s death. I don’t know how long he suffered, or who was there when he drew his final breath. I don’t know if in those last moments he had the chance to reflect on his decision to fight alongside the YPG. It was only when I stopped searching for answers that I could start to move on. Death is the most permanent thing that can happen to a human being. As soon as you work that out, you’re free to carry on living your own life.

Your boss wants you to work a Saturday? Sorry, I’m visiting my dead cousin’s grave. Your friend wants you to watch a three-hour play about the politics of war? I’m sorry, my brother died in a war zone. Bam. There’s not much someone can say back to that. I first heard the term “death card” in The Leftovers, a play by Notts-based theatre company Sheep Soup, and it was liberating to hear it out loud. Until then, I’d kept it as a dirty little secret and felt incredibly guilty in the few times I used it. The play, written by Nic Harvey and Rob Green, explores how a group of people deal with the sudden death of their friend by creating music in her memory.

“I lost my dad, aunty and uncle,” says Nic. “Sheep Soup were starting a new musical, and as we developed ideas, the theme of loss seemed to surface. I think it was me that steered it that way, but I didn't mean to. The cast and creative team all had some connection to it, so the characters that developed came at the grieving process from their own angles.” The big old death card I chose to play was in a grant application to buy a video camera. Making films is what I do now, and I wouldn’t be doing it without playing the card. I owe that to Kosta.

Expression is incredibly important to processing. If you’ve got something in your head that hurts, there’s no doubt in my mind that it helps to find a way to let it out. This is exactly what Nottingham spoken word poet, Chris McLoughlin, did following the death of his mother to cancer in 2015. What started as jotting his thoughts down in the hospital waiting room turned into a beautifully visceral collection of poems, Underneath the Almond Tree. In the collection, he writes about his experiences with depression, his mum’s deteriorating health, and the technicalities of death that are often ignored, like probates and funerals.

Writing poetry is not how Chris relieves the pressure and anger that builds up when you’re in a state of grief. He gets on stage and performs. “Every time I do Little Bird,” explains Chris, “I relive every single part of it.” He remembers the first time he performed the poem during a workshop: “There were twenty of us sat in this room, a half-circle of faces looking at me and I’m crying, reading this poem, and everyone else is crying. Afterwards people were like, ‘That really released something.’ Even if they hadn’t been through grief like that, they still got a release out of it. And until that moment I’d never owned the fact that I’d had a parent who’d died.”

I’m still not sure what processing is. I don’t know if I’ve done death right, or if there’s even a way to do death right. I do know that life is a process and death is the biggest, scariest and most permanent part of it, so you have to find a way to live alongside it. Talk about it, indulge in it, accept it, play the death card and find a way to let it all out.

Let's Talk About Loss website

Human Flourishing Project website

Sheep Soup website

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