Performer Bella Heesom offers her top tips for facing death without a god ahead of her play My World Has Exploded A Little Bit, which comes to the Wardrobe Theatre on Tuesday, June 20
In the summer of 2010, I had a telephone conversation I will never forget. As I walked along a sunny London street, I called my dad, Pete, in Bristol, to check in.
As it happened, he had just found out that he had a brain tumour, which was too diffuse to be operated on. I asked him what that meant. ‘Well,’ he replied, ‘I asked the doctor if, short of me getting run over by a bus tomorrow, this was going to kill me, and he said yes.’ My world exploded a little bit.
Maybe a month later, I was in Pete’s house in Bristol, in a haze of surreal sadness, on the phone to my friend, Mike. My dad was in the living room, dying. Mike asked if all of this had tested my atheism. Had I found myself wishing, hoping; whispering a furtive prayer, just in case? I was surprised at the idea. My dad was a good man.
I’m not just saying that because he’s dead. It’s true. Ask around Bristol about Pete, the tech geek with the patterns bleached in his hair, and you’ll find someone who knew him, and they’ll tell you he was a lovely bloke: kind, humble despite his intellect, insatiably curious. Was there a god gradually robbing this man of his life? If so, I wouldn’t be down on my knees begging, I would be filled with rage. I would be hunting down this cruel, capricious, morally indefensible deity, so that I could set it ablaze. No. This was not testing my atheism. If anything, it was strengthening it.
But in rejecting the comfort of a Heavenly Father, how does one confront the loss of an earthly one? The trappings of religion give structure and meaning to the processes of death and grieving. Secular society can leave us blindly fumbling in the dark.
So what to do? Well first, I recommend trying to embrace that lost feeling. No one can give you a map that tells you the way through losing someone you love. Your grief is your own, and you will need to feel your way through it. ‘Feel’ is the operative word. Trust me; I tried to think my way through it, and it didn’t work. I’ve always been a very rational person, and my Reason was my trusty weapon against all that life could throw at me. But death is a different beast. Death has to be felt. It will hurt. A lot. But there’s no avoiding this particular pain. You can try, like I did, but it’ll get you in the end.
Once I accepted the inevitability of FEELING THINGS, I found practising mindfulness very calming. When a wave of fierce emotion would crash into me, snatching my breath away, and dissolving the ground beneath my feet, I learnt not to brace myself against it and fight, but rather to breathe in, let it pass over me and through me, and breathe out. I found it freeing to notice the emotion, whatever it was – sadness, rage, guilt, a love so forceful it made me feel sick – accept it without judgement, and relinquish myself to it. You do not always have to be strong. Sometimes it is okay to collapse.
It is also OK not to collapse. You may feel nothing for a long time. You are not broken. You are not heartless. You are surviving. There is no right or wrong here. Your journey is your own.
Carve your own bespoke path. If, like my family, you are gifted an advance notice of death’s arrival, choose how you want to spend that time. We asked my dad what he wanted to do, in the knowledge that his time was running out; jump out of a plane? Go to Honolulu? He wanted to sit at the kitchen table with us, and drink tea and do crosswords.
Oh, and read a particularly challenging maths textbook that he’d always meant to get his teeth into: An Introduction to the Theory of Numbers, by Hardy and Wright. Yes, with his dying days, he wanted to read a maths book. This is one of my favourite things about him, but it may not be your cup of tea. Each to their own.
This personal approach applies to the funeral, too. Discuss it in advance. Do you want to be buried? Where? Do you want a funeral? What should it be like? We had a humanist celebrant for my dad’s funeral. It’s a great alternative to a religious figure. She gathered stories about Pete from his family and friends, so that the service was a celebration of who he was in life.
There are humanist celebrants all around the country now – they do weddings too! Find out more at humanism.org.uk/humanism. We also set up a website for people to share their memories of Pete, and they were a real source of comfort for me; I greedily gathered them in like precious jewels – little nuggets of the man I loved, surviving in the minds of his friends.
Memories are magic. They allow us to enjoy people even after they’re gone. Feel free to talk about your loved-one; don’t be silenced by the taboo surrounding mortality. I went a step further, and made a play about my experience of losing my parents. Oops, spoiler!
Yes, my mum died too. And in my commitment to busting the taboo, I wrote a show that includes a very silly lecture in which I tell you that everyone you love is going to die (sorry, but it’s true), whilst simultaneously telling the story of my battle with grief. It turns out my internal conflict between Reason and Emotion is ripe for deliciously dark comedy. Who knew?
Writing My World Has Exploded A Little Bit was cathartic for me. It helped me process my feelings, and allowed me to make something beautiful out of something awful. I thoroughly recommend moulding your personal agony into art. In the meantime, why not come and see mine? I have a brilliant clown-like assistant, who plays inappropriate songs about brain tumours! Fair warning though, it’s not all fun and games. Most people laugh AND cry. Often at the same time. So bring tissues.
My World Has Exploded A Little Bit is at the Wardrobe Theatre on Tuesday, June 20 at 8pm. Tickets £10. For more info and to book tickets, visit thewardrobetheatre.com/livetheatre/world-exploded-little-bit
For more info on Bella and her work, see bellaheesom.com