what do you say to death?


Fifteen days ago my uncle died.

He was in a car accident and his chest collapsed. For reasons still unknown, they could not operate as his blood would not clot and he was dead within 24 hours.

All I could feel was a sense of total absence.

The man that I had only really started getting to know halfway through last year no longer existed.

He was a real outback kind of guy.

Hard in a no-bullshit, rock-climber, mine-manager kind of way.

He’d been bitten by snakes so many times he was immune to anti-venom.

He was a diehard Collingwood fan.

He didn’t eat vegetables.

He was a serious smoker.

He was a gentle giant who in his retirement lived on Mount Tambourine with his partner, my aunty.

He worked on their massive back yard, building a rock-climbing wall in his shed, a big birdcage for their zebra finches, and a pen for their chooks.

He drove my sister and I the hour-and-a-half trip to the Gold Coast airport after our stay with them.

He called my aunty ‘Poss’.

When I heard that he’d died all I could think about was my aunty. He was her everything. They’d never had kids and had lived all over Australia, following John’s mining placements. And he was gone. A whole had been ripped into halves.

I only have a shadowy understanding of grief. My grandfather, my idol, died in 2006, and I still think about him everyday. But it was with John that I began to sense the shock of sudden death, of having your ribcage yanked out and being told that it no longer belongs to you.

The thing that I am ashamed of and which fills me with wonder is how quickly the world reasserts itself. The shock knocks out your focus, holding you in the merciless grip of remembered images, remembered words. But almost instantly your focus starts to shift back: objects refill with colour and weight, something makes you laugh, you have a conversation with someone who doesn’t know what’s happened and who you decide shouldn’t be dragged down with the details.

I’ve realised that language has not been designed to cope with death. The sheer nature of it is a ‘filling-up’; you fill up space with words, often to avoid the yawning, threatening, exhilirating emptiness of silence.

Is this why we flounder with the bereaved? What language could approximate their loss, could capture the absence of their other half?

Perhaps this is where our bodies really do come into their own. Language fails in the face of death. But you still want, desperately, to help the one left behind, to help them start stitching up the one half left. And so you hold them. A hand on the shoulder, back, knee. A hug. An encouraging, useless smile. Open arms.

What else can you do?

Funnily enough, I think one man has managed to capture grief with words, which my aunty put on the funeral service sheet:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.


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