What we don’t see

How many times have you seen a dead person, or sat with someone you knew was dying? When did you last have to deal with someone in the throes of total mental breakdown? How about care for an incontinent adult? When did you last encounter someone with serious physical disabilities or learning difficulties? Unless it’s your job to do so, or a close family member has been in this position, the odds are you don’t have this kind of experience at all.

Modern, industrial, affluent culture likes to have things tidy. If you aren’t able to cope with the mainstream it means the odds are you are tidied away from public view. Now, on the one side there’s a lot to be said for having experienced professionals care for people who need extra help – they know what they’re doing. Caring is incredibly hard work, and being able to go home at the end of the day and rest is worth so much – those who look after an ill person at home seldom get much respite. But many people do it, and are very isolated as a consequence, as are the people they care for.

One of the consequences of this, is that when we encounter these kinds of scenarios full on in our own lives, that’s often the first time we have to deal with it. People I know have managed to get into their thirties without anyone they care about dying. Lots of folk only start dealing with the trials and distress of old age when their parents get into difficulty. People who become physically or mentally disabled often do so not having had any prior experience of people in the same situation. It’s frightening. We hit crisis with no points of reference, and no idea of how to cope. We may be the one being shuffled out of the way. That’s a very scary process as well.

Community is about sharing – not just in the good times, but with the harder stuff too. Altruism aside, there are a lot of good, pragmatic reasons for being more involved. If you’ve listened to someone else when they were close to cracking up, if you’ve sat with someone bereaved and grieving, if you’ve kept in touch with someone obliged to go into a home… not only are you supporting them and doing a lot of good, but you are also learning. The hard times are that much harder when you have no idea what’s going on or how to cope. None of us are immortal. None of us are immune to accident or injury.

It may seem like defensive behaviour, moving away from the hard stuff other people are going through. Who wants to hear the doom and gloom stories? Who wants to deal with another person’s grief? It’s all hassle, it’s not our problem. Only it is, and it will be, sooner or later. If we can’t reach out to each other for reasons of compassion, we ought to be doing it out of self interest.

We don’t benefit, as a culture, from hiding away the people who aren’t part of the whole working and breeding system. The sick, the elderly, the troubled… most of us do not have to think about them, most of the time. We are ‘free’ to get on with our lives. Right up until it happens to us. If we weren’t so keen to hide away the ‘problems’ there are a lot of people whose quality of life would improve dramatically. There would be less to fear – it’s bad enough being ill of body or mind without the added fear of social rejection and isolation. We could do so much better with this issue.

6 thoughts on “What we don’t see”

  1. I had to help my dad take care of my mom when she had a stroke, and later, care for both of them when he had terminal cancer and my mom had dementia. It is NOT easy. It is definitely a shock learning experience to jump into without exposure or practice. I know I need to write and share what I went through because if I put it out there, it might help others. So far, I haven’t been able to do more than touch on it here and there. It isn’t easy.


  2. We had a saying in the South, “We don’t stuff our crazy people inside nursing homes or mental institutions. We keep em up in our attics, but we don’t hide them. No, when company comes over, we graciously bring them down and show them off.”

    That being said, we do live in a world where is someone hears voices, we dope them up on psychotic drugs or we throw an old fashion exorcism.
    Sadly, my Aunt has been so fried off of those meds that she is basically a living Zombie now. And my mother has willingly accepted those meds when she started hearing voices, that now she won’t take two steps without help….she has lost her willpower or want to live.
    We have made ourselves and others depressingly miserable.


  3. Do you think part of the problem nowadays is that in western society, a lot of people don’t live in the traditional family unit anymore? By this, I use the example of my childhood living with my parents, grandpa, grandma, my mother’s two sisters and my 3 cousins. As a child, I remember my grandparents dying at home, then my aunts and eventually my parents. I can remember the illnesses, the grief and it seemed a natural thing for a child to live through back in the “old days”. Some people may disagree that this was not a good idea for children but I think it has definitely given me the strength and compassion to help other people with life’s traumatic events.


  4. You’re quite right. It would make such a difference to the way people live their lives if they had a real intimacy with death, dying, sickness and disability. It would take it out of the realm of horrors, things to be avoided at all costs.

    What is the one thing you can be certain of? That you will die. Yet most people spend their whole lives running away from it – hence botox, mutton dressed as lamb, HRT, et al.

    As a pagan, I was delighted when I felt I had begun to enter my crone-hood, invited loads of friends round and had a big party. Additionally, I’m severly physically disabled and have been for 30 years. When I was a child the village midwife was also the woman who laid out the dead, we children went to help her in laying out. worked with dead bodies of dear old souls who’d probably fed us tea and cake last week. We learned to gireve. And we learned that death is not awful. And that it’s OK to miss someone terribly. As pagans, we learned they were not gone forever but that we would see them again in another life.

    What lovely things today’s children miss out on, and their parents too. And look at the rubbish attitudes and lack of compassion we all suffer as a result.

    Thanks for this post …


  5. I deal with this every day in many ways. My youngest son has autism, my mother has dementia, I teach high needs students in my job. These things are what bring the most sadness and frustration in my life, but also the most happiness. One student in particular is 17 and slowly dying of a brain disease. He has lost the ability to swallow and speak; and now has been transferred to a wheelchair full time. I’ve known him since he was 12. There is hardly a day that goes by that he doesn’t put a smile on my face and he is one of the first to comfort others who are sad. Imagine, this boy…17 and dying; comforting another teen who is sad because her girlfriend wore the same dress to the dance or some such trivial thing! This boy is my inspiration and every time I feel sad, bad or mad about some little thing, I think of him and how he faces each hardship and carries on with a smile, a laugh or a thumbs up!


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