Five lessons Jenny’s sudden death taught me
Strange how water cooler conversations can set off a chain of thought. Earlier this year when former Apprentice star Stuart Baggs died suddenly, all the talk at work was about the ‘27 Club’. This was of course the age at which Jenny died too. I’ve thought about this on and off since, and keep thinking how young we were. How many of us gave our own mortality a thought when we were in our 20s? This led me to make a note of what I wish I’d known then – the five life lessons below became the subject of my first Huffington Post blog.
- Sign up to the organ donor register
In your 20s, it sometimes feels like you’re going to live forever. Paradoxically, this is the time when your body might well be a lifesaver to someone else – or to several people. I remember, among the many haunting thoughts evoked by that indescribably strange experience of reading my twin’s post-mortem report, the jolting realisation that her internal organs were in a good condition, despite her having died of burns. Oh, this could have helped someone else.
Jenny had undergone several operations over the years due to her cerebral palsy, and her body at times presented her with major obstacles. No doubt the notion that it might someday be a lifesaver for someone else would have surprised her too. In the event, her next of kin weren’t informed of her death until nearly five hours after she died. We were too shell-shocked to even think about organ donation but of course, by then it was too late.
An accident can happen to anyone, even you. And anyone, even you, can end up helping someone else after you die. If you want to make it possible, act now.
- Write a will
Dealing with the news of a sudden, unexpected death from out of nowhere is hard. I remember wanting to find time to grieve, yet instead having to deal with the police, the coroner’s officer, the funeral director and others. Winding up someone’s estate, especially someone for whom the idea of death seemed remote, can be an added burden.
Being in your 20s you probably don’t have a fortune, but you’re still living within the economic fabric of society. There will be practicalities – a funeral to pay for, in the case of my disabled sister some state benefits to be sorted out. And your belongings – even if worth very little in financial terms – mean something to you and will end up meaning a lot to those you leave behind. In trying to decide on what my twin sister ‘would have wanted’, I realised that the decisions amounted to little more than educated guesses.
My advice is to imagine dying sooner than those you love, perhaps even tomorrow, and think about what you’d like. Talk to your partner, your siblings, your parents, your friends. Then simply write it down.
- Think about your funeral
This doesn’t belong to the spheres of the elderly and the terminally ill, it should be part of that conversation too. Even better, add simple notes on a sheet of paper. From the devastating experience of sitting up at night, typing out the order of service for my twin’s funeral, I learnt how the funeral – and planning for it – becomes a pivotal part of saying goodbye. It’s a way of remembering who that person was, what you had in common, how you differed.
Religious or secular? Sentimental or matter-of-fact? Terribly sad or celebratory? The end product can be an unexpected mix of these. But again, it becomes desperately important to do right by the one you love, to do something in keeping with ‘what they would have wanted’.
By making this known beforehand, it will be so much easier to handle. Most importantly, make it possible for your whole network to be considered. Letting people know who to invite, where best to hold the funeral, burial or cremation, what to do with your remains – all this can be a massive act of kindness.
- Have the odd helping of humble pie
Apart from telling someone that you love them, this is one of the best ways to let them know it. Jenny and I had some of the most difficult times in our relationship during our 20s, when she was fighting for her independence and I was trying to balance respecting this with making sure she’d be ok. She had a lot going for her – resilience, a winning personality, eloquence.
She also had significant cognitive impairments. Her arithmetic was appalling, her spatial awareness was so bad she could get lost in a restaurant on the way back from the loo to her table, her judgment was sometimes very questionable. Yet her personality and brilliant language skills meant that she could hide this from others, and sometimes even from herself. We’d row over her finances, her decisions about facilitators, her volunteering to take on extra responsibilities for others when she had enough on her own plate. And about my meddling, my checking on her, my strong opinions.
Today, one of my most valuable possessions is a card from Jenny saying sorry that we rowed.
- Now forget about it all and enjoy your life
Morbid lesson over. These suggestions were deliberately practical, to make things easier for those you love, should they outlive you. The point is to live life fully, as aware as one can be. Having considered your final wishes and made them known, it’s time to put them away somewhere safe but accessible, forget about them and enjoy what life brings.
|First published on my Huffington Post blog:
Lessons from the 27 Club, 27 November 2015