This weekend sees the launch of Good Grief, a new festival designed to help people think, talk and learn about the topic of bereavement. Running from this Friday through to Sunday evening, the online festival spans 45 talks and 20 workshops, with the festival’s line up of over 100 speakers including Robert Webb, Nikesh Shukla, Alice Roberts and Rachel Clarke.
Originally planned pre-pandemic, the festival has become sadly prescient with the events of 2020. With over 60,000 excess deaths in the UK this year, one estimate suggests Covid has left at least one million people who have been bereaved, and coping without the normal release that funerals and other memorial events can bring.
But even in a normal year, we struggle as a society to both talk about and deal with the topic of dying. This week, I caught up with the novelist Alison Jean Lester, who has just published a fascinating new book on the subject. Absolutely Delicious: A Chronicle of Extraordinary Dying, tells the story of the deaths of three close members of Alison’s family in recent years: primarily her mother, Valerie, who died last summer, and also those of her father and aunt.
Each of these deaths are strikingly different. Alison’s father lived in Massachusetts, a state without assisted dying legislation: struggling with motor neurone disease, he took the decision to stop eating. Alison’s aunt, who ended up in hospital, had more difficulty in adapting to her situation, fighting and struggling until the end.
When Alison’s mother was diagnosed with a metastatic melanoma, she decided against further treatment: instead, she spent her last eighteen months of life living, ready and accepting of what was to come. As Alison describes it in the book, ‘while death in a hospital is felt as a failure, death in a hospice is a success.’
It may seem strange to describe dying in this way at first glance, but that is part of the problem with how we talk about the topic: that we instinctively discuss all death in equally negative terms, rather than considering how different those final experiences can be. When I chatted to Alison via Zoom, we discussed how societal attitudes towards dying have changed over time. With advancements in medicine and growth in life expectancy, modern lives are often lived relatively untouched: earlier generations, by contrast, had to deal with death far more regularly.
Alison described that as parents, there is that moment of thinking, ‘oh no, we have to have the sex talk.’ As grown-up children, the roles are reversed: ‘oh no, we have to have the death talk.’ That’s not an easy conversation to have, but this touching, thoughtful, inspiring book is one place to start.