angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: Death

What if, just ‘what if’, death isn’t quite the full stop many think it is…?

The end of October / beginning of November is traditionally the time of year when people from all different cultures think of, and remember, the dead. For Pagans it is Samhain; for Christians, All Souls; for Mexicans, the Day of the Dead. It was / is believed that the veils between the living and the dead become thinnest now, allowing people to gain access to their dead loved ones. In modern, western, secular societies, it generally morphs into a black and orange bonanza of carved pumpkins and ghouls, a commercial excuse for a bright explosion of fireworks and increasingly terrifying costumes.

Death, in our culture, is widely seen as a negative; the Grim Reaper to be feared or fought. Or it is an ending to be deferred, as long as possible, at whatever cost. It is the opposite of birth, and not to be celebrated as a portal between what we call ‘life’ and a different form of life beyond. For so many people, it is just one final curtain fall, an over and out… THE END.

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Of course none of us know though! The most inevitable aspect of life is also the least knowable… such a wonderful design. However, I believe we are missing out on a hugely important level to life by relegating death to the role of a big full stop.

Over the last 14 years I have been developing an extraordinary relationship with my dead German grandfather with whom I shared just 8 days on this earth. He died on 1st November 1964, a week after I was born, and yet, even as a dead man, he had a profound impact on my life. Some people might find that strange, a form of looking backwards, as if moving through life can only be a linear, forward motion. As a society we are obsessed with moving onwards, growing up, progressing, getting bigger, better, more than we already are. But a long time ago, I was forced to stop in my tracks and look back at whatever it was that was pulling the strings of my actions and emotions like a puppet. I’m now so glad I did.

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For as long as my grandfather remained just ‘dead’, an unknown presence lurking in the dark recesses of my unconscious, he was a heavy, detrimental force. Today psychologists have names for this kind of phenomenon: post memory, transgenerational transmission – even geneticists have ‘epigenetics’, a kind of baton-passing on the level of our genes. The moment, however, I started to pay my grandfather some attention, he transformed into a dynamic energy with limbs that liberated rather than bound me.

IMG_2823.jpg    Bologna memorial monument to the WWII anti-fascist resistance partisans martyrs on the wall of Sala Borsa in Piazza del Nettuno

Being who he was, a Wehrmacht General in WWII, did not made this relationship-forming always an easy or comfortable process. But attention is like love. It heals. By giving attention to the dead, maybe particularly those who were locked in shame, tragedy or suffering, by continuing to interact with and include them in life, something beautiful happens. Maybe, just maybe, the dead still need us in some way. Maybe we can finish off or redress or apologise for what they couldn’t. Maybe when we are dead, we would like someone to do something for us too. We can’t, after all, know for sure that death really is the end…

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Loss… just that. A little exploration of losing.

Since my father’s death exactly a year ago I have experienced an extraordinary storm of additional albeit unrelated losses in almost every area of my life. His death became like a bullet ricocheting around the architecture of my world felling furnishings and humans alike. I now look around me and see a distinctly changed landscape, a series of voids in the shapes of people, things, plans; a mini war zone of collapsed structures through which I find myself wandering dazed and dusty, functioning but exhausted.

What is Loss? The Oxford Dictionary definition says it is “the fact or process of losing something or someone”. As far as definitions go that really doesn’t say much. It makes loss sound so harmless, kind of accidental, the result of a moment of absent-mindedness or brief neglect. It imparts nothing of the potentially huge and devastating impact loss can have, nor of the vast range of subjective responses to it. It doesn’t suggest loss’s innate and prominent role in Life and Death, in war and crime, in love and faith – all existential foundation stones of our human world. Actually, linguistically, it seems massively over-ambitious to even try and cram everything, from loss of keys to loss of a child, into such a tiny, single word. The list of what we as humans can lose as we live our lives is after all infinite. Everything we have or value can disappear in an instant and become a loss: a parent, a friendship, a partner; money, work, an argument or a war. There’s the loss of a home, country, identity or liberty; of health, sight, face, or the ultimate loss – life.

2_BACON-1981.0001-Study-from-the-Human-Body.jpgFrancis Bacon: “Study from the Human Body” (1981), a painting of loss, that I feel beautifully depicts the crossing of the one-way threshold between Life and Death

Rarely is loss experienced as a positive. Loss of weight maybe, when it refers to excess, unwanted weight, or the loss of inhibitions when they are negatively impacting on us. Usually loss is associated with pain, sadness and disruption, each in varying degrees. Big losses knock you off balance, they precede and precipitate the wobbly journey of grieving, a period of forced transition out of which one can eventually emerge… changed.

For me, being lurched from one loss to another has been like being tumbled by a set of waves, never quite making it back onto the board before the next one breaks. In the beginning certain losses felt inconsolable, like entering a long dark tunnel without the proverbial light at the end; or bobbing in a black hole of emptiness. Maybe the o’s in loss and hole and void hint at that sense of absence. But recently I have noticed that loss brings with it a paradoxical gift in the form of its opposite: gain. I have learnt that, with time, the empty void becomes like fertile ground offering the potential for new growth. I saw this happen countless times in prison where prisoners, through making art, began to see possibilities even in the face of their huge loss of liberty. It seems there may be after all some truth in the words my dear friend loves to (mock-)quote from The Sound of Music: Where the Lord closes a door, somewhere he opens a window.

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