My nanna (furthest left) and her great-great grandson (in arms!) Five generations.
My lovely nanna passed away recently. She was 89.
89! She did so well! Fergus wrote in the card he made for his great-grandmother’s funeral (she was also a great-GREAT-grandmother. We should have made the local press at least!) There was also a little drawing on his card of a signpost that said, ‘HEAVEN: ONE MILE!’ And behind it a stick man and an arrow saying ‘YOUR HUSBAND!” (she was widowed thirty years ago).
(I’d like to point out, I had absolutely no input in this card-making, he went up to his room and did it himself!)
There was something about all those exclamation marks, the childlike propensity to automatically look on the bright side that totally cheered me up. Because she DID do well; she lived well. She was a wonderful lady who inspired me so much with her stoicism and positivity and although it is terribly sad that she’s no longer here; at 89, I think you can celebrate that life rather than feel cheated.
And that’s what I felt we did at her funeral a couple of weeks ago. Obviously it was very emotional and sad – I don’t care if you’re 89 or 109, death is always a shock because it’s so finite and we will all miss her terribly – But also, it was uplifting. It was grounding. I came away feeling comforted; rooted with my family and really grateful that I had her in my life for so long.
I’ve been thinking why this was and I think the reason is THE STORIES. So many stories were shared at the funeral! It’s unfortunate, maybe, that it takes a person to die to really learn about them, to share how much you loved them, but I guess that is how life works: you show the person you love them when they’re alive, you talk about how much you love them once they’re gone (Especially if you’re northern and don’t go talking about them things called feelings that often.)
Maybe once we get old, people will have pre-funeral parties where they can hear all the amazing eulogies written about them whilst they’re still here! (I am JOKING. Although this is done in John Green’s wonderful book / soon-to-be-film The Fault in Our Stars to great, tear-jerking effect. But then, the characters, Hazel and Gus are teenagers
Here’s the trailer. I can’t wait… But read the book first. You HAVE to read the book first.
The stories about my nanna and family started a week or so before the funeral when all her grandchildren – my cousins – put together all our memories for a reading. There were so many funny, sweet things I didn’t know but also lots of shared thoughts too. I put how I used to go and stay at her house when I was seven or eight and we’d get fish and chips, then we’d settle down to watch that well-known children’s bedtime programme: Hammer House of Horrors…(just brilliant!) There were stories of Christmases and blackberry picking and playing funny games and teaching rude rhymes from my cousins and sisters that I’d never heard, but also lots of shared thoughts and memories that made me feel closer to my family, closer to her.
The night before the funeral, my sister, parents and I went through all my nanna’s old photos that my dad had collected from her house….And out of that box, as well as the photos and the old birthday cards and the anniversary cards, the paraphernalia of eighty-nine great years lived, toppled of course, the accompanying stories: the holidays (LOTS of those! In fact I’d say at least half were of my nanna dancing in some Spanish taverna, half a lager and maybe a fag on the go..) And the funny relatives and how she met my grandad and how he was a POW for the whole of WW2 and pictures of our ancestors we’d never seen, stories we’d never heard……And that was all before the funeral.
At the funeral, my dad gave a beautiful eulogy telling us about his idyllic childhood I knew not much of before, and then at the wake were her friends (my nanna had a social life to rival mine with her group of friends who called themselves The Golden Girls) and nephews and nieces and great nephews and nieces who of course had their own stories and ideas of what she meant to them. There were her neighbours, and in particular, one friend she’d known for over sixty years, since they lived in the same block of flats with their husbands in their twenties. Talking to Eunice was basically like talking to my nanna: she spoke the same, she had the same wit, the same naughty sense of humour. “Nobody’ll be at my funeral ‘cause all my mates’ll have popped off’ Eunice lamented in that no frills northern way. But I thought how bloody amazing it would be to still be friends with my friends when I was 89, to have them come to my funeral,or go to theirs because it’s not just the fact they’re there , it’s the fact that they can tell the stories, they can pass them on, they can help you then, to live on….and what is left of us except those precious memories and stories?
It seems I’m not alone in finding storytelling and sharing memories so therapeutic (given, it’s what I do for a living, but I think people are telling stories and hearing them all the time even if they’re not published in a magazine or a book). This week is National Storytelling Week and wearing my other hat as a journalist, I’ve had a few relevant stories from PRs land in my inbox. One particular one that struck me, especially after attending my nanna’s funeral and thinking so much about stories was one from LifeBook. This is an organization where by you can pay to have your own, or a loved ones’ life story published in an autobiography. Someone comes to your home, interviews you at length then writes it up – a lovely idea for a present and apparently a huge boost to elderly people who are lonely (in research it was found that after they’d finished being interviewed for LIFEBOOK they didn’t go back to crushing loneliness, but sought out friendship and relationships because they felt better about themselves, they felt they had something to offer.)
Lifebook commissioned a survey recently called The Value Of Memory to find out what sort of value we place on stories and memories as opposed to material goods. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it revealed that most of us, in the event of a house fire would run for the family photo album rather than our wallet and apparently, we’d put a value of half a million pounds on the memory of holding our newborn baby! (I would have thought you couldn’t put a price on that or that you know, you’d prefer it when they’d cleaned ‘em up a bit and you’d got over the trauma but maybe that’s just me…!) Interesting stuff, but there was more….Apparently, there is evidence to support that storytelling IS therapeutic and good for our health and could even stimulate the brain enough to slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s (there is differing evidence on this.)
Lynda Green is a psychologist specializing in the psychology of ageing and was quoted in the email from LifeBook. I was so interested I rang her up. I wanted to know why storytelling did feel so therapeutic and what she said certainly made sense: that storytelling and sharing memories can combat not just Alzheimer’s, but depression and low self-esteem:
“When you do all this wonderful reminiscing and remembering, all these fantastic things you or your loved one has done, come back. But importantly, you talk about the hard things in life too, the things you’ve fought against and got over, and this means you are able to put the events of your life into perspective and realize you come out the other side, you survive.” She said. You see that they survived, so you can too.
I think there is definitely something in that. My nanna lost her husband at 59 meaning she lived thirty years on her own but never let it stop her enjoying herself: she went out, she danced, she holidayed, she made friends… that’s impressive and something I can take inspiration from. She survived thirty years, it’s the least I can do to put up with a few years of singledom!
In this way, it’s not just elderly people who benefit from sharing stories, but younger people too – because as Dr Shaw says, “it’s all the same propblems and emotions just dressed up in a different fashion. We learn that what we go though in 2014 is no different to what our relative went through fifty, sixty years ago.”
I loved hearing all of my nanna’s life stories, and sort of regret not asking her more when she was here to tell me herself. Since the funeral, I’ve made a point of talking to Fergus more about my childhood and telling him more stories (and oddly, he’s not sighed and rolled his eyes as much as I thought ‘oh God mum not the one about how you refused to do P.E. for several weeks when you were 8 because you pretended you were pregnant again…..”
It’s the centenary of the First World War this year and pretty much all those veterans are gone. Soon, those who lived through WW2 will be gone too. So listen to your grandparents’ stories, tell them to your children. After all, when you’re gone, they’re gone. Unlike money, you do take them with you.
My new novel, THE STORY OF YOU will be out on July 3rd and is available for pre-order here.
My latest novel, out now is HOW WE MET
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