LONDON Love&Hate 愛と憎しみのロンドン

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‘The scene belonged to a disaster movie, not a family holiday’: the day my partner drowned



Sudden death defies the laws of physics; the human mind cannot reconcile the velocity of the first word with the enormity of the second. It is literally incredible. It had taken less than 10 minutes for a fit 49-year-old man to become a corpse, but it would take months for me to accept that he was never coming back. For more than a year, Joe asked me every day to tell him the story again “about how Tony died-ed”; even when he knew the words off by heart, it still sounded as fantastical as Little Red Riding Hood. Even now, I sometimes wonder if I really believe he is dead. But within 24 hours, amid the chaos of shock and confusion, one fact had become incontrovertibly clear in my mind. I knew whose fault it was.

Survivors’ guilt always used to baffle me. Why did people think someone else’s death was their fault; that if only they’d acted differently, they could have prevented it? The illogic seemed so self-evident, and the implicit self-importance rather alienating. But by the time my three brothers and two family friends flew in the following evening, I was convinced they were furious with me.

We sat up late that first night, on the terrace of a friend’s beach house. I tried to explain how Tony had drowned, but kept breaking down, semi-hysterical with self-blame, deaf to all reason or reassurance. Why hadn’t I tried to swim Tony back to shore along with Jake? Why didn’t I swim back to him after saving Jake? How could I not have panicked, even when he was drowning before my eyes? The others’ astonishment at my outburst only made me angry. Why wouldn’t they see – I could have saved him? Come to think of it, if I hadn’t booked this holiday in the first place, he would still be alive. For that matter, he would still be alive if I had never met him. Whichever way you looked at it, if it weren’t for me, Tony would not be dead.

I knew I was becoming increasingly irrational, but could not control the rampaging narrative of guilt – until one brother took my hand and said slowly, gently, as if addressing a small child: “Dec, there was literally nothing you or anyone else could have done to save Tony’s life.” And suddenly I saw that it was true. But instead of relief, what I felt was despair.

The boys wanted to understand this mysterious thing called chemotherapy which was making a dead-eyed stranger of their mother, so I brought them with me to hospital for a session. The oncologist looked a little taken aback when Jake unfolded his list of questions and asked: “Where does cancer come from? Why does chemotherapy make my mum tired? Why did it make her hair fall out?” With heartbreaking care, she tried to answer each question, but the explanation the boys sought lay beyond the boundaries of medicine. They wanted to know why this had happened to their family. All I could say was that we were bitterly, unfathomably unlucky. “No one can believe how unlucky we are,” I told them.

But when I overheard Joe tell a friend, “The thing about us is, we’re really unlucky”, I willed my words unsaid, and wept. What I had loved about their father, more than anything, was his dauntless optimism. I would rather die than raise his boys on self-pity, and I worry that a sense of relentless victimhood will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Don't tell cancer patients what they could be doing to cure themselves


If you’re a religious person, for the love of God, don’t tell someone with cancer that if they’d just drink juice (or take vitamins, or pray or have a “positive attitude”) that they could cure themselves.

And if you’re not a religious person, for the love of reason and decency, don’t tell someone with cancer any of these things, either.

Since she’s been gone, I’ve been able to understand that my sister wasn’t alone in a particular burden she bore. I’ve been hearing from friends with cancer and other serious illnesses that they are overwhelmed when concerned people lob suggestions at them for homeopathic remedies they “should” be doing.

Over the years, it was painful for me to see people tell my sister (and me) that she could just cure herself if she really wanted to. Didn’t she know that if she just drank lemon juice every day she could wipe out her cancer cells? That if she’d just watch that Netflix documentary The Gerson Miracle she’d be OK? That if she were only willing to take vitamins, or eat raw food, or do yoga or look on the bright side of things, her illness would go away?

First, it’s condescending. If lemon juice really cured cancer, don’t you think we’d all be dancing around citrus trees? That lemonade would be traded on Wall Street and hedge funds would be peddling lemon-flavored credit default swaps? More importantly, when someone has had cancer for months or years – maybe living through hours of doctor appointments, days in hospitals and months in bed – don’t you think they’ve had time to consider every possible option with the seriousness their own mortality deserves?

Second, it could be argued that people giving advice are just trying to “do something” and kindly offer help. But I reject this: if you want to do something to help someone in distress, as George Carlin famously riffed, unplug their clogged toilet or paint the garage. Don’t tell a sick or injured person what they should do, because it’s a sneaky and harmful way of dealing with your own fear of death. You’re saying, tsk tsk – I wouldn’t let this happen to me the way you’ve let it happen to you.

It is hard to be with people in grief. It is hard to be with people who are facing death, or with their caregivers. The next time you are, don’t give them stupid advice – they aren’t stupid. Trust they’ve given more thought to their course of treatment than you did listening to that public radio story. Trust yourself to just be with them in the unknown.

Trust yourself to love them in the condition they’re in, instead of ignorantly and egotistically giving useless advice that won’t ultimately change their prognosis. One of the last and most frightening lessons I learned with my sister in her final days was the importance of being with another when there is nothing to say or do. It is terrifying, to just be with a loved one and to admit you’re powerless to stop their death.

But it can be the most powerful, quiet and loving gift you can give each other.


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