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DEATH AND BEYOND

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Understanding and coping with bereavement

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In our garden we used to have a pair of magpies.
Magpies are a species of birds, like swans, that mate for life. They lived there for about four years. They were such a devoted couple. They shared everything. If she found interesting things to eat on the compost heap, she would call to him and they would forage together. Side by side, they used to hop down our lawn, talking to one another, or sit near each other, sharing a squawking conversation. When she was sitting on her nest in the old hawthorn tree, he would sit on a branch in sight of her, making dove-like cooings of encouragement. They used a large, brown plant-saucer of water as a drinking bowl on warm mornings, but also as a bird bath, and they would take turns to dip in and splash, making their black and white feathers look quite bedraggled. You could see in everything that the bond between them was deep. Then one morning it was clear that he had had an accident and had damaged his wing. We did not see him again. And neither did she.

For the whole summer she was bereft. She would sit on a fence post next to their old hawthorn bush, calling for him. At times she would fly to their nest, sit and almost cry in human terms. It was heart-breaking to hear and watch her grief, and there seemed to be no comfort for her. At times her cries were so anguished that my human heart responded with her. We can identify with that cry of loss, the aching heart, the impossibility of turning the clock back. Her life was empty; there was no purpose, no companionship, and her feathers began to look uncared for and dull.

There was unfortunately, no happy ending for her. The next spring she met another younger, larger magpie who looked good and they mated. But he did not know how to make a nest or collect the right sticks. He was young and inexperienced, a bully to other birds and without any tenderness for her. I even put out hay from the stray cat’s winter nest and cut up little twigs for nest-building materials to make it easy for him to do his share! He soon found them but, after one or two attempts at building a nest, they must have moved away, for I have not since seen them in the garden.

Death is very, very sad and so final. It means changes in our lives that
are lasting. Yet it is something that we must all face. In our lives, loss will come to us all. Even though we are constantly reminded of this fact, when it comes to us personally, it is still a heart-breaking experience. It seems as if love and pain are very close companions. If we love, then there is going to be pain in separation. The separation of death is cold and bleak. In television films, we see people die every day, but we know that, when the camera stops rolling, the actors will get up and continue their lives. In real life, the tragedy and the tears have be faced and lived through. There is nowhere to escape, and the sadness cannot be reversed. We cannot wake up and discover that it was all a dream.

It is not surprising that so many taboos, rituals, superstitions and beliefs have built up around this subject over the years. Death is an unknown. When we die, where do we go? What happens to us? What is it like?

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