TV death, taboo and Grand Designs #yodo

Today is the launch of Dying Matters awareness week, that is themed this year as #yodo You Only Die Once. A week long flurry of activity, awareness raising events, meet ups, socials, academic lectures, press coverage, everything and anything to draw people’s attention to death and dying, and the benefits of discussing your wishes with friends and family early.

There are a wealth of resources available here and the Dying Matters website covers what they’re focusing on:

This week always gets me thinking, as I’ve blogged before in 2012, I’m (unusually?) comfortable with discussing death and dying. I put a lot of that down to my upbringing, my Mum was a probate executive, family friends were undertakers (you can’t avoid discussing death if there’s a hearse parked at the top of your garden) and I didn’t experience death of someone I was very close to on a personal level until I was an adult (all of my grandparents, great aunts and great grandmothers lived to their late 80s/90s). This week will mark 18months since my Dad died and I’ve tried to share the experience of his illness, death and life after his death through my blog.

In this post I’d like to explore this notion of taboo. The Dying Matters research shows that 83% of the public people ‘believe’ people are uncomfortable with discussing death and dying. I can’t find a link to the actual research so I’m not sure how it was conducted, or indeed how many people were involved. What it leaves me wondering is whether people really are uncomfortable, whether the taboo is as all crippling as Dying Matters week would have us believe, or whether we create a perceived social barrier to protect ourselves, in case we make someone uncomfortable, to protect ourselves from that embarrassment!

I’d like to unpick this a little. I have no doubt whatsoever that Dying Matters week is required, and having had relatively recent experience of a couple of close family members dying (one in hospital aged 94, the other at home aged 65) I believe we should be more comfortable with discussing death than we are. Yet, when faced with it, on the whole my experience has been a positive one. Perhaps it was because both my relatives had ‘expected’ deaths, my grandfather was old and frail and my Dad had a terminal illness, so his death was no surprise. It could have been simply because I am open discussing death (and as I mention above was brought up to be so) that other people didn’t feel as much discomfort discussing death with me. It could be because we were talking about ‘others’ deaths, my Dad and my Grandad, not my own or their own.

I think the film made by actors above usefully highlights some of these issues too. Apparently 9.7million viewers tuned in to watch Hayley’s death in Coronation Street, if society was as averse as we’re had to believe surely viewing figures would have been lower on that occasion, not higher? There have been an increase in the number of celebrity’s headlining programmes about their own death, one striking one was Terry Pratchett’s documentary Choosing to Die that aired in 2011, and just last week (episode two this week) Billy Connolly was fronting a programme discussing his own pending mortality, Billy Connolly’s Big Send Off (available on catch up for the next 28 days). Incidently, my most popular blog post in the last twelve months is Five things I wish I knew when my Dad was dying of cancer. My hunch is that people wish to know about death, and maybe even wish to discuss it, more than we’d care to admit to!

What I’d like to suggest is that we take natural opportunities to discuss death and dying as they arise, seems kind of obvious, but at the start of a week that by its design has an unusual (I hesitate to say unnatural) focus on death and dying, i’m reminded of two episodes of one of my favourite TV shows. I don’t watch much TV, but love a good documentary and quite like Kevin McCloud’s style (it’s as much what he doesn’t say as what he does) on Grand Designs. For anyone who’s not familiar it’s a fly on the wall coverage of people building, or renovating, a property, hence Grand Designs.

There is one episode of Grand Designs featuring Lucie and Nat, that I found particularly heart breakingly, gut churning.

Tired of living in draughty Victorian houses in the city, Lucie Fairweather and Nat McBride have returned to their home town of Woodbridge, Suffolk, to build a brand new home for their young family. What they lack in budget they make up for in ambition, planning a house that will be a stunning piece of architecture as well as a responsible, low impact, ecologically sensitive home. It’s a lot to ask, but they have a brilliant architect on board: Jerry Tate was involved in the design of the Eden Project, and this will be his first domestic building.

However, before work even begins, Nat is diagnosed with cancer, and a few months later, he dies.

Eighteen months on, Lucie decides to go ahead and build the house herself. But she has to divide her time between working as a teacher and looking after her two small children, and is forced to cut her budget and some of her eco principals. But despite the compromises, Lucie is determined to build the home she and Nat had wanted and in the process creates a clever, beautiful, and affordable family home.

You can see the original episode, and what life is like six years later in the revisited episode shown in November last year (2013).

Screenshot 2014-05-12 08.51.47

I find that episode brilliant viewing, brilliantly optimistic despite the obvious pain and anguish. You see a young couple with so many hopes and dreams and you see them being taken away from them as Nat dies before they’ve even started work. What you then see is a remarkable testament to the human spirit, to love and community support. You see Lucie fulfil their dreams, adapting as necessary, shaping a future that very much has Nat’s vision, their shared vision, within the heart of it, but gradually continuing and adapting to life without him. You also see an amazing house being built, but for me it’s as much about death, dying and legacy as it is about the house – although what a house.

Screenshot 2014-05-12 08.49.11

Last week I watched another old episode of Grand Designs, filmed in Brighton in 2009 Barry (a builder, property developer and artist) and Julie (a nurse who works in a local hospice) set out to build their own house.

Barry Surtees, who lives in Brighton’s most moneyed suburb, decides to build a four storey modern mansion, complete with pool, gym, artist’s studio, fantasy bedroom and Japanese roof garden.

Interestingly in the introduction Barry references the enduring presence of architecture and talks about wanting a little bit of him to be left after he’s gone, people to point and say ‘look Barry Surtees built that house’. Don’t worry Barry doesn’t die, it’s not all doom and gloom on Grand Designs. Within weeks of starting though Barry has ‘two heart attacks, five heart bypasses and a run in with the bank‘. Despite this the couple go on to complete the project, but as ever with these things, for me it was the people and dynamics at play that were as interesting as the house.

I’m speculating here, wildly, but to me it was almost as though you could see the dawning realisation of Barry’s own mortality hit him throughout the programme. Keep in mind the statement he opened with, this isn’t someone with deluded notions that he’ll live forever, but you could almost see the size of the project, the indulgence, and to some extent the excess increasingly sitting on him like a weight.

There is something about sitting with someone at the end of their life, or having a health crisis that leaves you very viscerally aware that you won’t live forever, that seems to focus the mind on what’s really important. I’m not sure what my overriding point for this post is, perhaps that we should question whether the taboo truly exists, maybe it’s about not focusing on what we can’t do or what we find difficult to do, and instead find naturally occurring opportunities. Or perhaps my personal view, I think if we’re all brave enough (is it about being brave? or honest? authentic?) to discuss death and dying more often, to take the opportunities as they arise, whether that’s as a byproduct of soap operas or property development programmes, my hunch is the world would be a slightly better place. Dying Matters week presents a perfect ‘excuse’ to start those conversations if you feel you need one. Let’s get talking people.

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3 thoughts on “TV death, taboo and Grand Designs #yodo

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