The Victorians, as the comedian Cariad Lloyd points out in her touching new book, were deadly serious about death. Bereaved families tied black bows to their doors. People wore armbands and veils after losing a loved one – a public show of internal pain. And memento mori – including photographs of corpses – were hung in homes as gruesome reminders that we all die. There’s a theory that the first world war shattered these customs – the loss was too monumental and so the culture around dying became much more private, cloistered, lonely.
Perhaps, writes Lloyd, that’s why we’re often so ill-prepared when loved ones die: we’ve lost touch with time-honoured ways of working through grief, both collectively and individually. To her credit, she is doing her bit to try to change that. Having lost her father to cancer when she was 15, she’s spent years grappling with her sorrow (“a huge, swirling, tangled ball of wires – like the worst headphone knot you have ever seen”).
Lloyd tells the tale of her long-term reaction to loss (“pain all over the floor, like I’d wet myself”), interspersed with homespun advice. There’s no right or wrong way to grieve, she says, sweetly telling us how “badly” she handled it all: dropping out of therapy after one session, bottling things up and refusing to get professional help, no matter how unhappy
she became. What eventually helped her was hearing other people talking about death and coming to realise she was now a member of a “club”. “Once I realised how full the club was, my grief-mess became a little lighter. I could see my grief as part of the human process… I could see it as part of living.”
Lloyd wants to help others by sharing stories about loss and mourning. As she puts it: “Every time we allow death to be discussed… we will learn.” Easier said than done. For lots of good reasons, people prefer not to talk about it. Lloyd quotes the Rev Richard Coles, who lost his partner: “There’s a sort of impatience with mourning, because it’s boring. Grief is boring.”
Luckily, Lloyd couldn’t be dull if she tried. Her award-winning podcast, Griefcast, tackles death with vitality and humour – and the same goes for her book. Her comic tone is a world away from the cold beauty of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking or the hard-fought spiritualism of Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Stylistically, Lloyd’s book is more like Nora Ephron’s autobiographical novel Heartburn – funny and plain-speaking about personal devastation, with practical tips at the end of each chapter.
The most impassioned section deals with the cultural weight of the famous “five stages of grief” (anger, denial, etc), which Lloyd thinks has created a sort of procrustean bed that people find themselves unable to fit into, leaving them ashamed for not “doing grief right”. You only have to look around the world to see that she is on to something and there may be healthier ways of dealing with loss than our culture allows.
Last year, in the aftermath of a family bereavement, I went to Indonesia. Soon after I arrived, there was a festival in a little village nearby. The graves of the local people who had died over the past 10 years were dug up and the bodies, in various states of decomposition and decay, were piled up and burned in a ceremony attended by the entire community – then the ashes were thrown out to sea from the bulwarks of colourful wooden boats. It sounds ghoulish, but it was actually joyful and overwhelmingly communal.
What Lloyd wants us to recognise is just how individualised mourning is and to understand that the grieving process never really ends – it just morphs. “You don’t get over it… There’s a peace but there’s not an ending.” Wise words and much like the book as a whole, a reminder that death touches every family, and we’re better off dealing with it together than alone.