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Why Death?

People Expect a Tragedy


‘Grandad’s died and gone to heaven.’

Sadness and tension emanate from my mother as she looks down avoiding any eye contact.

‘He’s in a better place.’

What could be a better place than Nana and Grandad’s cottage at Leithfield Beach? Time there had stopped several decades earlier with arrowroot biscuits, milk in billy-cans, and Bakelite phones connected on a single party line which meant the whole street could listen in on each other’s calls.

8 year old me is standing in front of my full length mirror looking at myself, brows pulled down into a frown, lips pursed in indignation. I’m wearing my most hated piece of clothing. Mum sewed it for me from a pattern, zooming swathes of dull blue fabric through her Necchi, filling it with pins and forcing me to try it on every 5 minutes til it was finished. Painful for both of us.

It's a time of tie-dyed t-shirts, ponchos and homespun jumpers (the yarn for mine was dyed bright yellow with onion skins). I've never worn the dress willingly until now. The Dress. Distress. Hiss. The smocking across the chest is pinched and fussy. Two side ribbons tie in a big bow at the back giving me an odd feeling of being wrapped like a present for someone else – and not for myself.

This offering is for my mother. I have struggled into the hateful thing, twisting left and right to fumble the zip all the way up to the neck. We are all getting ready to go to the funeral. There are adults rushing about, snatching away tears, and exchanging angry whispers.

As I step out into the hallway ready to bestow my gift, my mother sees me and shakes her head, adding a very firm ‘You’re Not Coming!’ I feel a physical shock. The adults all dressed up and serious in high heels and ties, frown their way out the front door leaving us kids behind.

In that moment I learned Death was not for everyone.

My well-meaning parents felt it kinder to shield us kids from the dying and the dead both metaphorically using euphemisms (passed away, gone to heaven) and physically by leaving us home during hospital visits and family funerals. Death was like a foreign country to me, an unfamiliar place where people spoke a different language and had strange customs.

Death became a ritual I excluded myself from, a place I never went to willingly. When hard things happened, I didn’t know what to do or how to be.


I am island hopping through the Caribbean. Idyllic whispery days full of turquoise waters and fearless iguanas. I’m driving back to our villa after dinner when I realise I’ve left something behind in the restaurant. It’s a book project I am working on called Goodbye; a collection of words and images to offer comfort in times of loss. I arrive at the restaurant for the second time that evening. The car park is empty, chairs are on tables. Staff are gathered at the bar looking at papers scattered along it. I feel a jolt of recognition; my manuscript.

Heads swivel like meerkats as I approach. The conversation reforms to include me. They are reflecting on their own experiences of loss. ‘You must finish this, you must publish it’ they urge. It is a pivotal moment, this unsolicited feedback, these stories of loss that span cultures. It gives me courage.

12 months later my marriage is over, and every part of my life is in turmoil. The only constant is my book project. Looking back I know I created it, in part, to comfort me during my own grieving process.


Christchurch is a war zone; 185 people are dead, thousands are injured and 100,000 houses are damaged, many needing to be demolished. My quiet book is published before a backdrop of dust, road cones and broken things. Already it is a way for people to meet each others’ sadness. Strangers are confiding in me sharing sad stories of suffering, sudden death and even suicide. Their stories bring back all my past failings and missteps around death; of not knowing what to say, of pushing it away, of hiding from it. Gloomy, I wonder if the ways of grief belong solely to professionals trained to speak the language.


Seated amongst counsellors and therapists, I’m the only outsider in the room. I feel like a fraud. Dr. Lois Tonkin, one of New Zealand’s top grief researchers and academics, has encouraged me to do her Certificate in Grief Support.

‘You can grieve for any loss.’ This loosens my shoulders.

‘We all grieve differently’. This lifts my chin.

I gulp down the basics of grief, in wonder at the freedom they give me, frustrated that this knowledge is hidden from most of us.


Comfortable on chairs and couches we are a circle of strong women urgently reinventing ourselves. And Deathwalker Training* is not for the faint-hearted. Many of us en route to becoming death doulas or companions for the dying, I am here to conquer my fear of death and better equip myself to support friends and family.

End-of-life pioneer and provocateur Zenith Virago’s blue gaze lands on me like something hot. ‘In his book The Five Initiations, Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, Frank Ostaseski says, We cannot be truly alive without maintaining an awareness of death’. I discover my role, an educator in the emerging death positive movement.


If a funeral-avoidant, death-phobic scaredy cat like me can learn to embrace life and death, you can too. We can take practical steps to dissolve our fear of death and use our mortality to come alive. Death 101 – Practical Steps for Dissolving Fear of Death

We cannot be truly alive without maintaining an awareness of death.

—Frank Ostaseski


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