Freeman Brothers has been based in West Sussex since 1855 and this year celebrates 165 years of service to our local communities in Horsham, Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint. We see our role as funeral directors as not only helping people at their time of bereavement but seeking to be a source of information and advice beforehand. Dying Matters Awareness Week is an excellent opportunity to do this and this year’s theme of ‘Dying To Be Heard’ aims to highlight topics related to death which aren’t often discussed. For the final themed blog of the week, Community Co-Ordinator Becky Hughes talks about mental health…
Death, as many other elements of life, comes with pressure. Pressure to follow protocols, complete certain tasks. To behave in a certain manner, and feel a specific set of feelings. In 2020, that can look like all sorts of things: we may feel the pressure to post a tribute to the person who’s died on our social media pages (and for that tribute to be suitably compelling as to garner a significant number of shares, comments and other positive feedbacks, as well as for it to include a library of photographs of moments we’ve shared with that person); we might feel compelled to attend a public gathering or vigil in order to mourn the person who has died; we could feel that we ought to donate to a specific charity in the name of the person who has died, even if we are not particularly in a position to do so (or, that we don’t wish to support that charity ourselves).
If this sounds dramatic, it’s not meant to be – this is what life is like when you inhabit the pressure cooker that is the lived experience of a mental health issue. Many mental health conditions cause us to overthink, or ruminate, on how we ought to behave, and how our behaviour impacts the wider world, as well as what the costs and benefits of our behaviour are. All of us operate on a finite resource of energy, and some people are far more aware of this than others. Some of those who are living with a mental health condition are on a very low reserve, and it’s as much as they can do to physically care for themselves on a given day. Others are able to function at a different level, albeit barely – I’ve fallen into this group previously.
In late 2010, a friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer. The prognosis was poor, and I was devastated to hear this news. Whilst my friend went through several treatments, I went through various struggles in my own life: my lifestyle and career weren’t what I had hoped for them, and this caused me to experience a protracted episode of depression. During this time, my Grandad died – this was my first bereavement of an immediate family member, which I found difficult, if expected due to his age and health.
After this, my health deteriorated to the point that I needed to make some drastic changes to my life. I moved back to Sussex, and due to my health and that of my friend, we lost touch. I found it difficult to maintain contact with friends at this time, and spent a significant period during the following two years working abroad, with the intention of changing careers.
I eventually returned to the UK, and my health was improving, so I settled onto my new path. Early in 2015, I received the news that my friend had died. I went through several emotions – part of me was relieved that she was no longer uncomfortable due to her illness, but I was also incredibly sad, and disappointed that I hadn’t maintained contact with her. We shared a number of mutual friends – in fact, some of us had also attended her wedding which took place shortly after her diagnosis – and we were all informed of the funeral arrangements once these were made.
However, the arrangements surprised me. It wasn’t a shock to learn that the funeral wasn’t taking place near to where I lived, or even where my friend had died – I knew that her family lived in a different part of the country, so to find out that the funeral was taking place near to them wasn’t surprising. However, the type of service and location of it wasn’t what I had expected – as I had understood them, they didn’t reflect my friend’s beliefs, or how I perceived her.
The person I had known wouldn’t have left their funeral to chance, particularly when being fully aware that they were terminally ill, so my instinct was that my friend would have at least offered suggestions to her family for how she would like her funeral to be. Of course, people are perfectly entitled to change their minds, or reflect different beliefs for reasons of their own choosing. I was also highly aware that we had lost touch, and things may have changed for her, meaning that the planned service was reflective of her as a person.
Nevertheless, it felt incongruous to me and, coupled with the fact that I was at that time unemployed and couldn’t afford to travel, I decided not to attend the funeral. It remained a difficult choice: this was an opportunity to see our mutual friends, feel supported by them, and share an experience together. Prior to our friend’s illness, we had met up as a group at least once per year, and I missed them. But I couldn’t find the strength to overcome the financial and emotional hurdles that were in my way.
The situation had clearly brought up a lot of ‘stuff’ for me: my life had changed considerably, and I was likely mourning the loss of parts of my lifestyle, as well as friendships, in addition to my friend’s life and the fact that we hadn’t been in touch. Ultimately, when deciding not to attend, I weighed up the pros and cons as I saw them for myself. There is space for us all to take comfort from our individual beliefs here. As an Atheist, I don’t believe in any version of afterlife, and therefore felt that after my friend had died, she wouldn’t be aware of my absence at her funeral. I also allowed myself to remember her in a way that I found appropriate to us and our friendship, taking time to reflect on this and what it had meant to me. I think of her regularly even several years later, she’s someone who had a lasting impact on me.
I wanted to share this experience today in honour of the fact that Dying Matters gave us ‘mental health’ as a topic to discuss, which is incredibly broad. Mental health impacts us all, whether we define as ours being in good or poor condition, and protecting what we have can be incredibly challenging either way. Experiencing bereavement can come with pressure to conform to another’s standards of behaviour, and I wanted to share that it’s ok not to do this if that doesn’t feel right. This choice comes with other challenges, as many decisions do but, ultimately, treating ourselves with kindness and appropriate compassion is a part of honouring our relationship with those who have died.
As we come to the close of one Awareness Week, we welcome the beginning of another: next week is Mental Health Awareness Week. The theme this year? Kindness.