“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.
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.