In a two-part piece, Helena reflects on how her family background has given her insights into the very different approaches to death in England and Greece…
I grew up with my mum in my grandparents’ home. My English-Irish Grandad brought my Yiayia (Grandma) to England from Greece after they met in Athens shortly after WWII.
Yiayia wasn’t afraid to talk about death. Long before adulthood it had confronted her many times. Her mother died when she was a toddler, her brother was executed by the Nazis, and she was raised in a harsh rural environment. As a teenager she was captured and taken to a munitions camp in Germany. Walking from Greece to Germany prisoners were forced to step over the frail and dead, and were semi-starved in the camp.
Understandably it all left a great impression on her. In turn she left one on me, as she passed on the lessons she had learned during our long chats. We talked about current affairs, wars (Iraq was a big issue back then), her culture and faith amongst other things. I became aware of the light and dark sides of humanity in a way I might not have been otherwise. One sunny evening when I was seven and her health was failing, we were sitting in the garden enjoying the flowers when she said “You know, one day I will die, like everyone does. Do you understand?” I was shocked and upset. I didn’t want to hear that. I might have run away. I don’t recall the exact context, but the memory never left me and when she did die just over a year later it changed my world forever.
My Grandad didn’t discuss emotions or death. The first time I recall seeing tears in his eyes was after Yiayia passed, but after that he rarely spoke of her unless prompted. He didn’t talk about his early life often and I only learnt as an adult that he too had experienced the trauma of death relatively early, when his father collapsed and died before his eyes with an aneurysm when he was 12. It meant he had to leave his education behind and find work. It would have affected his whole life, but I don’ t know how because he never told me. I think his reluctance to dredge up painful memories is common to all people and cultures, but it can be argued that in the UK (and the West generally) keeping emotions in check and carrying on is the predominant cultural response to death and trauma, particularly in my grandparents’ generation.
My beloved Grandad passed on suddenly 18 months ago. It was a blow beyond measure. He stoically endured long term health problems but still didn’t talk about death. But then I didn’t want to talk about it either. Would it have helped if we had? As I sat with his struggling body in the cold, grey hospital fear and pain sat like ice in my heart and I don’t think any prior conversations would have helped at that point, but maybe afterwards it would have. We hadn’t ever discussed funeral arrangements, so Mum and I had to decide. We knew his wish was to be buried with Yiayia in Greece but it wasn’t a viable option at that point, so we chose to bury him here. Immediately after his passing I was wracked with pain and worry over what I had not been able to say, to do. My priest suggested that anything I didn’t say to Grandad could still be heard by him now, in a different way. I will always hope that is true.
From our personal losses to crises like the current one in Syria, ignoring death won’t make it go away and we all need space to confront our feelings. Some people might think my Yiayia’s topics of conversation were too serious for a child but in a way it was probably helpful that I was familiar with the concept from our chats. I was greatly traumatised by her death, but in many ways it informed who I am today. I hope I’m a more empathetic, compassionate person because of what happened and I would encourage everyone to talk about their experiences of death, even to quite young children, because it is a part of life they cannot be shielded from.
Helena Clennett is from Oxford. She is a volunteer community journalist with Oxford Community Media and a family carer for her uncle. She holds a Bsc in Sociology and Anthropology from Oxford Brookes University, and has particular interests in issues around mental health and learning disabilities, cultural diversity, religious studies and women’s’ health.
In her spare time she enjoys cooking, reading, jewellery making and has just started a blog focusing on Greek-inspired dishes.