Last week, I happened to read something online about the death of broadcaster Rachael Bland, who died at the age of 40 after a two-year battle with breast cancer. But I’ll be truthful – I hadn’t actually heard of the Radio Five Live presenter until I read about her death. Why her particular story stuck out to me amongst the headlines, I can’t say – but something about her resonated. Echoes of all-too familiar scenarios we’ve become accustomed to in our families, neighbourhoods and friendship groups no doubt played a heavy part.
I was drawn to finding out more about Rachael, and the You, Me and the Big C podcast she presented with two co-hosts. In it, Rachael, Deborah James and Lauren Mahon talk about life with a cancer diagnosis with honesty, frankness – and also a lot of laughs. The podcast aims to open up the conversation about cancer and help others going through the treatment process. Last week, You Me and the Big C rose to number one in the podcast charts – a touching tribute to Rachael and a testament to the fantastic work she and her co-hosts did.
On one of my walks last week, I listened to one of their podcasts on the subject of dying – particularly poignant considering it aired only a few short weeks before Rachael herself died. I defy anyone to listen to it without feeling emotional throughout the whole episode – yet at the same time I think it’s something almost all of us should hear. To listen to someone talk with such grace and clarity about a mortality staring them in the face is humbling, and more than that, the podcast opens up on a topic that is generally taboo. Death tends to be shied away from and couched in language that keeps it hidden and often scary. I know that I won’t be alone in saying that the fear of death is very real.
When I was a kid, I remember worrying about death quite frequently. From the age of about 12 I used to lay in bed at night frightened about what death would really mean. I would worry about my own death, or about members of my family dying. I suppose we all reach a point in life where our sense of mortality becomes real to us and we start to wonder about things more.
Not so long ago, I noticed the same worries in one of my children. Like me at that age, he became anxious about what happens when we die. In the typical manner of anxiety, worries would always creep up at bedtime. With hugs and comforting words the stage passed though. I think assurances that these thoughts are scary to lots of people helped.
In talking about death so openly, Rachael and her co-hosts did a huge service in opening up a conversation that is so often hidden away from the everyday consciousness. Things that are taboo become by their very nature, scary – in fact terrifying at times. These kind of conversations remind us that 1) we are not alone in our anxieties and 2) it is always good to talk.
I’m not sure I will ever get to a sense of peace about one day dying. I think I will forever wonder where people and the bit that makes them ‘them’ eventually goes. I realise that a lot of the past anxieties in my life – fear of flying, travel or just about anything that contains the element of risk, are actually rooted in that death fear. Although I’m no longer religious, I find faith amazing for those who have it – I assume it takes that element of fear away.
The fact that I feel odd about sharing a post discussing death is telling. That twinge of shame at confessing any of the above says a lot about the society in which we live.
But then I think about Rachael and her friends and try to be a bit braver, a bit more open, a bit more vulnerable.
And once again, I turn back with the whole of my heart to living.
Because that’s the least we can do for the ones who no longer get the chance.