The question I need your help. Specifically, a woman therapist’s help, in fact. Even though I’ve got a perfectly good and helpful therapist, who’s helped me a lot in the three years since I was diagnosed with stupid cancer aged 43, I’m finding that the thing I want to do is probably quite female and when I mentioned it to him, he said: “That’s what women do.”
Long story short: happily married to a lovely man. No kids of my own, wicked stepmother to a 24-year-old. I was busy-busy-busy working when I got a terrible cancer diagnosis. Loads of chemo, loads of weeping. Grim prognosis. Still, I’m cracking on and writing this from a hotel on a jolly to London. Quite at peace with death, although obviously I’m sorry it’s coming so soon. It’s the living through to the end that’s killing me.
I have the desire to manage my soon-to-be-former life from beyond the grave. I fantasise about music for the funeral, how to make it work for everyone, as though I was thinking about a wedding. It feels as if I am being forced to walk out of my house, leave the door open and not mind what happens next. The cat escapes for a start, because my darling husband never closes the door.
Watching my sensitive husband watch me die is too agonising to bear and I don’t want to leave the party: we’re having a great time. I think he’d quite like me to still be “around” somehow after I conk it. And I’d quite like to, too. Perhaps I’ve answered my own question.
Should I ask a friend to send him a birthday card from a stack of 40 every year? Do I leave him a box of helpful books? And sweet notes and pep talks from beyond the grave? How will any future Mrs feel about this? She could do with a manual – he’s complicated.
How can I graciously give my life away? Have you met anyone who’s micromanaged their life from the afterlife? God, it’s just insane.
Philippa’s answer Thank you for a beautiful email showing a way of how to graciously give your life away. You did answer your own question. I will store your lesson away for myself for sure. I love your idea of books, a sort of manual, notes and birthday cards beyond the grave. If you carry out these ideas of yours, I would see the result as your art, your legacy of love that you must urgently make. I love it, I really hope you do it.
I’m a bit cross with your therapist for what sounds like his dismissive misogyny, but we all have blind spots and he has been helpful in other ways. No therapist is ever perfect.
The emotional work of the home can be invisible if you are not the one doing it, so not only will your manual be a beautiful gesture, I’m sure it will be a useful practical guide as well. When my mother died, my father rang me because he didn’t know what brand of loo roll she used to buy. A micromanagement manual would’ve helped him, though of course it was only an excuse to ring (tell your husband he doesn’t need excuses to ring anyone). Your death will be awful for your husband, but a beautiful funeral will make it easier to bear, so will having familiar loo roll, or whatever else you need to tell him. Such apparently little things don’t feel so little when you are grieving. “Being controlling” is not always a bad thing.
I went abroad once, not the same as dying, but I was so devastated when I rang in the evening to find my husband and our daughter had forgotten his birthday. Wish I had delegated it to a birthday monitor. If your husband doesn’t like the birthday cards, he could read them all at once, or stop them.
Your lists, manual and books will not only guide your husband (and stepdaughter), but they will also give them something of you to hold on to. The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott called the teddy we leave snuggled with our child a transitional object. Something to remind them of the presence of you, when your presence cannot be there. Your gifts from beyond the grave will become their transitional objects and I am sure they will cherish and appreciate them.
I imagine all of this will be a transitional exercise for you, too, so that while you are alive you don’t feel you are dying all at once, and that something concrete will be left of you once you are gone. The “living through to the end is killing me”: you have no control over the cancer, no wonder you want whatever control you can have. Do whatever you need to do to make your living to the end more bearable.
If I was your next of kin, I would want something of you to cling to for a while. I would also like a manual of me to give to a next partner because that might just be the permission I needed to move on. It is not mad. It is beautiful. Oh, and put a notice on the door so the cat doesn’t get run over. It won’t be able to leave a manual.