When Someone Dies


Some time ago I asked those who receive this E-Report for suggested topics for the E-Report. One suggestion was ' 'Advice for people as to what to tell others of a death'. The suggestion came from a gentleman whom I told about his own father's death some years ago. His father was a close friend of mine and a work colleague ' he died in Sydney of an aneurism. His son was only about 11 at the time I think and he followed my footsteps into the army and became an officer in the Corps of Engineers ' my Corps.

My Personal Experience

I’ve pondered what to write and I guess all I can give is my experience. I would have said to this young boy something like “I have got some really bad news for you … you know your Dad has been in hospital – very sick … well young fella, I’m afraid he’s not going to make it … (at this stage I’m sure I had my arm around his shoulders – squeezing) … your Dad died this morning.” Over the next half hour or so, and indeed at various intervals over the next few days, I spoke to him about his Dad. I spoke about our work, about any funny incidents, about the quality of his dad, about our friendship, and much more. I would have asked him how he was going, about his school and sport and would have said that I’m here for him. I would have shared and talked about photos of his Dad.

I can remember writing to the wife of one of my soldiers killed in Vietnam in 1966. I wrote about the bravery and selflessness of her husband, about the true circumstances of his death, about the great leadership he exhibited and how highly he was regarded by me, his peers and the soldiers he commanded. I spoke in the letter of funny anecdotes, of how he talked about his children (and his wife) and shared a little of his journey in Vietnam. I also think I sent photos and said that I would see her on my return to Australia … and this I did at a rather emotional meeting.

Another area I would like to mention is the role of women (the wives of soldiers) in death. In a true story titled “We were Soldiers” (book and film) which is about the first major US unit in Vietnam who engaged the North Vietnamese forces, inflicting enormous casualties on the enemy and suffering severe casualties themselves, the role of both the army and “the wives” of unit personnel was graphically shown.

The US Army had no humane mechanism to advise of a soldier’s death or wounding. Telegrams were written and delivered by Taxi drivers. Of course this all changed after this first action in Vietnam, when the wives, led by the Commanding Officer’s wife, arranged to receive all the telegrams and then passed on personally the contents of the telegram to the person concerned. Anyone whose husband had died was not left alone – all the support, love and encouragement came from the other wives on the military base. This support went on for some time and was re-ignited upon the returning home of other veterans and then at annual “get togethers”.

My Children

Lara (my daughter) was 5 and Ian (my son) was 3 when Jenny, Kirsty and Lexie were killed. My wife Sandra told them about the death of their sisters. What a huge challenge – I was at the girls home for hours and then I was basically in shock. Sandra was also struck with grief and shock and yet she knew she had to tell Lara and Ian. It was even more challenging because “how they died” also needed to be explained in some way.

When it comes to talking to young children about death, many of us hesitate but we must let children know that it’s OK to talk about it as a fact of life we will all have to face at some stage. Children often know more about death than we give them credit for. They will perhaps have seen dead animals on the road, dead insects or birds in the garden or seen something about it on TV. Children may avoid broaching the subject if they see that we ourselves are nervous or worried about it and avoidance can send a worse message. On the other hand of course we must consider the age of the child and seek a balance to not present information they may not yet be able to understand. To keep it simple we can explain to children that all living things have a life cycle and eventually all living things will die in their own time span.

What Sandra did was to ask two of her family members to be there – mostly to support her. The children were clamouring to know where Daddy was – Lara in particular understood that it was Lexie’s birthday and was starting to feel that she had been left out of being with Dad going to visit the girls as Sandra had said, whilst waiting for her family to arrive, that Daddy was not at home because he had to see about something to do with the girls. She gathered the children around her and started by saying that there had been a terrible accident and a bad person had shot the girls dead. Lara broke into a heart wrenching sob and cried “Oh Mummy, they haven’t even had a chance to have a baby yet.” Ian, who was only 3 years old, stared in bewilderment then once more bent down to play with his cars … we can only wonder what was going through his young mind.

Some More Things You Can Do

On more than one occasion I experienced people avoiding me – even crossing the road, so that they didn’t have to speak to me about the deaths of Jenny, Kirsty and Lexie. It hurt, although I was immune at times from the numbness of shock. Just a few words like “I’m sorry to hear about …..”, or “How are you coping”, or “I haven’t got the words to express how I feel”, are immeasurably helpful.

We may be unsure what to do or to say to somebody dealing with a death and it can be difficult to know what to write in a condolence card. You know that there is nothing that can be said that will bring back the loved one or take away the grief. Yet any words of comfort no matter how banal they may sound, do bring comfort, however difficult they are to write or to speak. It may not bring back their loved one but it does help. So make sure you make contact – even if it is a quick call or a few words on a card.

When a person is going through a prolonged illness, and we know they are approaching death, giving permission to your loved one to let go, without making him or her guilty for leaving or trying to keep him or her with you to meet your own needs, can be difficult. We have in our society a wonderful system of palliative care and trained carers who really can give great advice – seek them out. Sometimes a dying person may try to hold on to life, even though it brings prolonged discomfort, mainly because they are concerned that those who are going to be left behind will be all right. Therefore, your ability to release the dying person from this concern and give him or her assurance that it is all right to let go whenever he or she is ready is one of the greatest gifts you can give your loved one at this time.

When the person is ready to die and you are able to let go, then is the time to say good-bye. Saying good-bye is your final gift of love as it achieves closure and makes the final release possible. Perhaps take the hand of your loved one, or if it is appropriate you could lie next to them and hold them and then say everything you need to say. It may be as simple as saying, I love you. It may include recalling special memories or activities they were fond of. It may include an apology or a thank you or perhaps praise. Tears are a normal and natural part of saying good-bye and don’t necessarily need to be hidden or apologised for – they express your love and help you to let go.

One Principal Aspect in Dealing with Death

In dealing with death I cannot emphasise enough that it is extremely important to talk about the death of a loved one. In my case, when Jenny, Kirsty and Lexie died my friends kept me talking – we talked about my life, the girls life, things we did together, known things that we did apart, things we loved doing together and more. It is important to know that if we don’t talk about it we tend to “bottle it up” and push it down. And when we have pushed it so far down that the conscious mind is no longer handling the event then the subconscious mind handles it. How does it do that? With nightmares, irrational action, unexplained anger and hot sweats – I have just described the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and if we keep pushing it down, then we have contributed to it ourselves. So we all have a duty to help anyone by talking about it (the death).So, I hope these few words help. Death is part of life and dealing with it is part of our responsibility. I believe that the unit of energy measured on the electroencephalograph as brain wave states in life actually lives on in death. That spark, that energy, that soul, that spirit cannot disappear – it has simply changed its form in death.

All The Best

Sandy MacGregor


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