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Christine Pedley reflects on ‘doing death well’.

Christine Pedley
Christine Pedley

Today we’d simply like to share a lovely, very real story from by our LinkedIn connection Christine Pedley who lives at Ferntree Gully,  Victoria.

Christine has been an authorised marriage celebrant for 11 years.  She “co-creates ceremonies that are always bespoke. I assist and offer guidance in conducting any celebration – and make it just want you want.”

In the following story she shares the last personal contact she had with her sister Rhoda, before she died.

Her story was published in LinkedIn on April 12, this year.

DOING DEATH WELL

By Christine Pedley

I have learned so much about death, dying, and grief through my life, that when I finally studied these subjects, it all fell together. I now talk about it with others in the community.

My one wish is for everyone to make friends with death – so we can get on and live our lives with so much more purpose – and a life of gratitude.

I was 12 when I learned about sudden and unexpected death, the morning my mother died. They said – “she would have never recovered from her massive heart attack” and that she “died peacefully”.

As a 12-year-old, those words were rather empty – all I knew then, was that I had become a motherless daughter. I have a vivid memory of standing in front of the grave as they lowered her casket – desperately clutching my beautiful red coat, that my mum had made for me, only months before “untimely” death.

I now know that one does not ‘recover’ from their mother dying – but I have certainly learned to live my life around that event. Sometimes sad, sometimes very accepting.

Just this year, my eldest sister has taught me one of the biggest lessons she could – and she taught me many – how to die “well”. Perhaps this was a “good death” – but even these sorts of deaths, do not relieve the pain of missing someone when they are no longer physically with us. She had lived such a “full and long life” – dying in the right order of our family, at the grand age of 86 – although I never really thought of her as being a day older than 70.

When we received the call to tell us what we all did not want to hear – that she may have up to 3 months of life left – my mind immediately went into organising mode. How could my other Australian sister and I somehow return to New Zealand to enjoy our last visit with Rhoda, in the middle of a global pandemic? At that point, Victorians were limited to travel no further than 5 kms – what was I thinking!

Within a month, my Australian sister and I were on a flight to New Zealand – having arranged all the paperwork for hotel quarantine in New Zealand. We were going to enjoy some amazing moments with Rhoda, and anything we had to do before we got to see her, was worth it.

Two weeks in hotel quarantine, with two covid tests, many family Zoom times, lots of laughter, a couple of bottles of wine, and many card games, and before we knew it, we were leaving Auckland on a plane and under strict instructions from Rhoda, to “fly fast”, so we could get to be with her.

And there she was, standing at the window, waving like anything – so excited to see us both. Something we had all thought would be too difficult a month prior, but we had managed it, and suddenly – the hugs, the tears, and the laughter, almost made it seamless.

On our first day with Rhoda, she told us that she had informed her Dr that she wanted to die ‘healthy’! At that point, she had no pain, was still enjoying a good appetite, and apart from a lack of energy, still had the spark in her eye, that Rhoda always had.

The next two weeks we spent with our sister were amazing. It was reassuring to watch her continuing to be the ‘big sister’ with her incredible capacity to make sure everything “was in place”.

The standout day for me must be the Living Wake we had for her. I am the youngest of 8 and it was incredibly special that there was a day when we could all gather, as well as Rhoda’s two adult children and their partners. Without calling it a Living Wake, Rhoda had insisted we had this day – a day she wanted one of my sisters to play the piano – and the rest of us to sing all the songs so well known to us over the years. Our Mum used to play the organ every Sunday night, and we would all stand around and sing.

It was rather unfortunate that Rhoda was a little confused that day and couldn’t really remember why she was holding on to the songbook – but as soon as my sister started playing the piano – she remembered every single word of every song – even telling my sister what number page to turn to, for the next song. We sang so many songs that day – happy songs, many of the familiar hymns we had grown up with (including some that were going to be Rhoda’s funeral songs), and as it was so close to Christmas, some favourite Christmas Carols.

During the singing of one of the songs, I noticed Rhoda had closed her eyes and stopped singing, and her lips were quivering. As I walked over and put my arms around her, she started crying, saying: “see, I’m not always so good at this, and I don’t want to die”. That made it real for her and me – I did not want her to die either, but we both knew it was going to happen.

Before leaving Australia, I had gathered up many photos taken over the years of our many family gatherings – and there had been a few – our family enjoy gathering. The photos were spread out on a table and individually, and collectively, they were sifted through – recalling many memories – disagreeing what year they were taken – and whose place was that in the background! The chatter produced a certain closeness that only those that are part of such a loving can know.

And…..like most families who gather together – there was an abundance of wonderful food, champagne and lots of flowers. There was nothing ‘official’ and the day was not ‘led’ by anyone, but together – we enjoyed the last day we would ever be together as an ‘intact’ family. My Australian sister and I knew that this was our funeral for Rhoda, as we due to fly back home the following week.

Rhoda had started ‘sorting things’ as soon as she received the prognosis and continued to arrange as many things as she could. She unsubscribed from many things she knew her husband of 66 years, would have no interest in. She started giving things away to those she knew would like them. She completed her ‘plans’ of what she wanted to happen, and whilst she knew, there might be a time when she might have to go into care, her wish was to die at home – in her bed.

Rhoda requested to speak with everyone she wanted to be involved with her funeral, giving each of them a time limit – and specifically what she wanted them to talk about. She met with the Funeral Director, to make sure it would be exactly what she wanted – and she engaged ‘3’ ministers she knew to conduct her funeral at her Church. She even wrote her own death notice – of course leaving the date to be completed after she left the earth.

Our final farewell, before we boarded the plane home, was a difficult one – and yet made so much easier because we could all talk about dying so openly. My last request from Rhoda was to send me a feather, from wherever she was, and if she could, please make it white.

Less than a month later, we received the phone call we had all prepared ourselves for. Rhoda had died peacefully, in her own bed, with her husband, her son, and daughter by her side. My Australian sister and I cried in each other’s arms. Even though I think we did the death thing quite well, it certainly does not stop the grief and the pain, when someone dies and leaves this earth.

The next day – both my Australian sister and I found a white feather on our back lawns – and they have not stopped turning up in the oddest places – for all our family members – thank you, Rhoda.

Let’s continue to talk about death, dying, and grief. Let’s integrate it into our everyday lives, so it can become our friend. Most people don’t want to die, and they don’t want the people they love to die – but death has a 100% success rate – and we will all get there.

How much easier it is for everyone, including the person who is dying, to be able to talk about what we want, and don’t want. How much easier it is for the grief journey of those left behind, if we have had the discussions we need to have – before it is too late.

Do not leave it any longer – have that discussion with those you love – one day, we will all die.

~~~

For other Good Grief! reflections on grief, and how it intersects with life, go to:

and

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