Kristie West

“It isn’t about glorifying death. It will always have a negative side. But there is another side to it too and this is what people don’t look for or see anymore.  Death has such a profound impact on our lives, our relationships, the direction we are moving in… It can free us, unite us, give us purpose, break us to pieces (so we put ourselves together more authentically), open our hearts, change our lives.”

Kristie West lost her father Ian 7 years ago to an unexpected heart attack and 5 other family members within 4 months of his death. Kristie, who currently works as a grief specialist in London, relates how she came to view these events in a positive light. She explains what adults can learn from kids when it comes to death and how the Kiwi’s new Death Cafes hope to impact the bereaved. 

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Screen shot 2013-08-14 at 7.07.28 AMWhat’s one memory with your dad you will always cherish?

A specific memory doesn’t come to mind…but when I think of him I hear him saying “go for it Kid” which is what he said about every new travel adventure, country move or new plan I made.

You lost your father 7 years ago to an unexpected heart attack and 5 other family members within 4 months of his death. What are your overriding memories of this initial grief period?

The overwhelming feeling initially, after the first few hysterically painful hours, was the numbness that took over and stayed with me for months. It wasn’t a comfortable or painless numbness.  In a way I felt like a rock – and there is nothing light and easy about being a rock.  Everything felt trapped in my body and I physically hurt all the time.  At the time it was a coping mechanism and is incredibly common – so many people feel very numb and then feel guilty as this is not how they believe they ‘should’ feel and not what others expect them to feel either.

You no longer view these events in a negative light, rather you see them as important, profound and deserving of respect. What were the reasons for this change in perspective? 

Getting to this space of complete healing is something I believe is possible for anyone who wants it…but it takes work. This type of healing is not passive so simply waiting for time to pass or spending endless hours (or months or years) talking about it won’t bring this kind of change.  I went looking for true healing. Something in me told me that I didn’t just have to live with the pain, and that surely the last legacy was his loved ones in pieces, unable to talk about him easily, and thinking about him less and less over time.  He deserved more than that, as did we, and I just knew there had to be another way.  On my journey for ‘another way’ I found processes that, with my effort and support from others, truly changed these events in my life forever. This is the work I now do with others.

Do you ever feel disrespectful and/or have moments when you experience surges of grief?

For me…never. I did so much work around these deaths in my life that I haven’t had anything painful come up around them since. When something is completely healed it means there is no pain.

I don’t feel at all disrespectful. I understand that people can see it that way, which is very unfortunate as this belief (that it is respectful to be in loads of pain) is one of the things that can keep people hanging on to pain after a death, unwilling to let it go.  The reality is that having no pain around my dad means I can think about him as easily as I think about my mum who is alive and well.  I feel connected to him, when I think of him I smile, and thoughts of my dad don’t ever hurt me… so I never need to ignore them.  No-one ever needs to apologise to me for bringing up my father and days that remind me of him are good days… not bad days.  Few people can say that.  Surely no one wants their memory to be a source of pain to those who love them. This certainly isn’t what I would want for myself and I think it is one of the greatest gifts we can give those we love who have died.

You’re a grief specialist. Why do you think people tend to view death in a negative way? 

We are actually very conditioned in how we see death. Everything in life has two sides but we have been taught – by our families often and by society – that death is only bad and sad and something to avoid and hope no one we love ever goes through.  We see it as horrible and meaningless. Even for those who believe that death plays an important role and has a point or happened for a reason i.e. often those who are religious or spiritual, they don’t have any way to actually experience it that way as they have been conditioned in the same way.

We teach children from very young about how to feel and act around death.  A small child, trying to understand death and make sense of what has happened might “I’m so sad grandad has died…but it’s good that he can’t eat the black jellybeans anymore because those are my favourites”.  And how do we react to that? As adults we often berate them and tell them that this is a terrible thing to say, that it is very sad that grandad is dead, and not to let your grandmother hear you say things like that.

Kids have their eyes open to all the different elements and impacts of death and we adults teach them something different, just like we were taught.

Kids, left to their own devises, have a lot to teach adults about dealing with death openly and naturally.

What advice do you have for bereaved youth who want to see the joy, beauty, meaning and truth in a death – without risking glorifying it?

It isn’t about glorifying death. It will always have a negative side. But there is another side to it too and this is what people don’t look for or see anymore.  Death has such a profound impact on our lives, our relationships, the direction we are moving in.  It can bond us to people, send us on a new path, cause us to soul-search for answers to very big questions about ourselves. It can free us, unite us, give us purpose, break us to pieces (so we put ourselves together more authentically), open our hearts, change our lives.

If I could give just one simple piece of advice it would to stay open through the experience. Stay open to everything and don’t block out or ignore anything that could seem positive because it seems ‘disrespectful’.  We respect and honour those who have died far more when we can see how even in their death they added to our lives and changed the world for the better.  Because that is a beautiful legacy to leave.

Tell us about the Death Cafes you have recently began and what impact you hope they will have on the bereaved?

In June I started running regular online Death Cafes and they have been attended by people from all over the world. These are very different to my work and I am very clear with participants that the Death Cafes have a different purpose to my work, aren’t a kind of grief support group, and that I don’t teach or coach through them. I take off my G.R.I.E.F. specialist hat and simply hold the space for open discussions around any element of death people would like to discuss, which is what the whole movement is really about.

To my mind they can specifically benefit bereaved people in 2 ways – firstly they give them a space where it is ok to talk about death. Secondly they can be exposed, with a new level of openness, to people sharing things around death that are different to the norm.  I ran one death cafe where one participant talked about how the death of someone close to him had made him the man he was today. It was very inspiring and beautiful and other people started to contemplate their own experiences in different ways too.

But the point of Death Cafe it not to push this on people – whatever conversations come up come up and we go with them. The space is really just about open conversations around death.

Alex Bannon

Alex2Alex Bannon tragically lost both parents before the age of 16 — her father to a heart attack and her mother to cholangiocarcinoma, a cancer that affects just 2 in 250,000 people. Now aged 18, the Sydney native shares how she manages sudden surges of grief and what we can learn from her aunty.

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What is one memory with your mother & father you will always remember?

I’ll always remember how strong and brave my mum was on the day she told me  she only had two months left to live. I remember her coming into my room after I’d been crying. She saw the tears in my eyes and held my hands and looked me in the eyes and whispered “Alex, it’s okay, I’m going to be okay. I know that my prayers to God weren’t exactly answered but maybe that’s the purpose. Maybe my purpose in life was to give strength to others and die as a legacy and that’s okay. It’s time.”

In regards to my dad, I’ll always remember the countless trips to his work. He was the Marketing Manager at the Powerhouse Museum and I always wanted to go with him because I loved their chocolate pebble machine. I remember running a muck around his work but him being completely fine with it. I’ll also always remember that he was such an involved father. Even though his job kept him busy, he never missed a Father’s Day activity at school.

Your father died suddenly; did having a warning about your mother’s death lessen the pain at all? 

My father passed when I was seven years old from a heart attack. It was my brother who had found him, then me. Our mother was on a holiday in China with her two sisters but flew home immediately. I don’t think there is ever a right age or time to lose someone but with saying that, I was so young when my dad suddenly passed away.

After everything we had been through with my dad I thought nothing could ever happen to my family again. But on the 25th January 2011, my mum was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma- a rare cancer that affects just 2 in 250,000 people. I watched her go through countless chemotherapy, radiation, hallucinations, wake up in ICU. Having a parent with cancer just became part of my life, the idea that one day my mum would be cancer free gave peace to my mind, but somewhere deep down I knew it was long journey to go. We were told she’d have two months on the 22nd March 2012 when my brave mother decided to stop all treatment and spend what quality time she had left at home with her loved ones. She knew in her heart that no matter how many more needles they stick into her that she was terminal and that it was her time. 13 days later, on the 4th of April, my amazing mother sadly passed away at our home surrounded by her family and friends whom she loved.
 
I didn’t have as much time with my dad as I’d had with my mum. When my dad passed I wasn’t subject to thinking about every detail in the future and how his death would affect my life. But with mum it was a totally different thing because I was a teenager. Although I had a warning, I knew it was still going to hurt. I was not only grieving the fact that she was going to die but was also dealing with the loss of our future together — her being there on my wedding day and becoming a grandma. The warning didn’t necessarily lessen the pain of losing our mother-daughter bond and my only parent but being told she’d have two months left really bought everything into perspective and made me appreciate every aspect of life. That’s one thing that I always think about; that it shouldn’t take your mum to tell you she has cancer and two months left to live in order to tell her how much you love and thank her everyday for everything she has done and to appreciate everything around you.
 
How often do you experience surges of grief and how do you manage these? Where do you find peace?

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt is that grief isn’t a period of time that you pinpoint, experience, and then move on from. I’ve learnt that I’ll always be grieving the death of my parents, but over time can learn how to deal with it in a better way. I can never predict when I’ll experience surges of grief. It’ll catch me at the most random of times, for example, I’ll be driving and suddenly remember a memory and burst out into tears. I’ve learnt that everyone deals with grief in their own way and that if you fight your feelings, you will only make things worse for yourself. So now when I need to cry I will and when I need time alone I’ll have it. I also remind myself often that it’s okay not being strong all the time, that I can breakdown and that it’s normal. After all of this I think of a really happy memory, smile and say to myself, “Okay until next time” and continue with what I was previously doing, which I guess can be kind of weird but that’s just the how I manage my grieving.

I believe that peace is a really hard concept to define. I think that there’s a huge misconception about what it is. I think people believe that peace is something that when you have it, you’re suddenly enlightened and your set for the rest of your life. But in my opinion I believe that peace is a constant struggle. Some days you feel you have it and you feel really great but on other days you don’t and you feel really down. But peace for me means having those moments where you say to yourself “I’m going to be okay, I’m happy right now and that might change tomorrow and that’s okay, but for now I’m happy and I’m going to embrace it”. Peace for me nowadays is in the simplest of things and I believe in living for those simple things in life. Like someone picking up your pen that you dropped to someone unexpectedly making you smile and laugh. That is where I find peace; when I’m happy. And some people may read that and think that’s a really weird way of finding peace and that’s okay, but for me that is what puts a smile on my face and brings me peace. But in a spiritual perception, I know its cliché but I do find peace in natural beauty — sunrises and sunsets, starts and birds flying in the sky. I also really do believe that music has the ability to help anyone go through any situation or stage in life they’re in and that it can help him or her on the road to recovery. I’d recommend the artist Matt Corby to anyone. Music like his really soothes the mind and soul and get generally put you in a better mood and can help with one’s mind finding peace. But I know that finding peace is different for every one; it’s something I believe that you find on your own terms in your own time in life.

I also believe we write our own stories, and each time we think we know something, we don’t. Perhaps peace exists somewhere between the world of learning how to grieve and actually grieving and that in peace comes from knowing that you just can’t know it all. Life is funny that way. Once you let go of the wheel, you might end up where you belong.

Are you able to talk openly to your friends about what you have been through?

I am now at a point in my life where I can talk about what I’ve been through. If anyone, not just my friends, were to ask me I would openly tell them. I never want what has happened to me affect the conversations I have with people. I don’t want them to feel like they need to walk on seashells around me or avoid anything to do with my parents so I try and incorporate memories of my mum and dad into relevant conversations. I believe in finding the light in every situation no matter how dark it is. Just because both my parents have passed doesn’t mean their memories have too. Spirits not only stay alive just by thinking about them; I believe it’s by talking and sharing stories about them. I believe that everyone is born with the ability to change someone’s life for the better so as vulnerable as my past is, if it can help or connect anyone to a similar situation then it’s totally worth opening up about.

You currently live happily with your aunty. What can others learn from how your aunty acts towards you?

It’s really uncanny because living with my aunty was something I originally I never expected or wanted. Two months after my mum passed I made a decision to move out because I could no longer live with my mum’s partner whom she had married 5 months before she passed. I expressed how I was feeling to two of my close family friends on a Sunday in July and the next day I packed my suitcase and hand bag, shoved everything I could into both and without him knowing I moved in with a family friend. I was living with her and her daughter for six weeks and it was so great but I knew I had to figure out my next move. This ended up being my aunty’s house where I am now with two of my cousins. I’ve never looked back after making that decision and have never been happier.

I can’t pinpoint how my Aunty has helped me but I know that she is a major reason for where I am today. She always lets me know that she is there for me no matter what and would support me in any decision I make. My aunty also gave me all the time in the world; to find my own ground and get back up on my own two feet. I think that’s important for others to realise, that people will heal in their own way and time and that it shouldn’t feel forced. Something important as well that I really want to express is that no matter how much advice you have offered to you and no matter how many times someone tries to help you in their own way, that it’s important to remember that advice that has worked for someone else may not necessarily work for you. I believe that in time you find your own way of dealing with things so you should not get frustrated when you’re struggling. Also, at the end of the day no one can heal yourself but you. Advice from others can only go so far,  it’s you that has to make the decision to keep moving. It’s important to remind yourself that you’re your own person and you are finding your place in this world and if that means taking all the time in the world then so be it. I also believe it’s important to recognise that you can’t help what has happened to you in the past, but you decide where to go in future; that you are not the mistakes, the downfalls- you are what you choose to be today and how you treat the people around you. My aunty really helped me come to this understanding and I hope it’s something that more people become conscious of.

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