When we are born, the only thing that is certain about our life is that one day we will die. How and when are unknown, but one day our time will come.
For most people, that idea is terrifying. The idea of being here one day and not the next is enough to make most people want to cry. We shudder at the thought of death and shut down conversations about our inevitable fate, almost as if death is contagious. Death looms over us, getting bigger and bigger the older we get, the fear of it getting stronger and stronger.
Joelle is on a mission to change our perception of the inevitable.
A bereavement redirected the path of Joelle’s life and she is now using her experience to open up discussions about death and normalise what is a definite, but tough, part of life. Joelle is a fan of true crime, ghosts and someone who says she ‘personally thinks she has a great sense of humour’ (she really does – we were in Film Club together at school and they were one of my favourite sessions on my timetable thanks to Joelle). If there’s anyone that can make death an accessible conversation topic, it’s Joelle.
I know that the loss of your Grandad was the thing that changed your perception of death and I just wanted to start this interview by saying that I’m really sorry for your loss. Can you describe what happened with your Grandad?
My Grandad had been poorly for a few years. He had multiple strokes, lost the function of one of his arms and needed a lot of care. I knew that I didn’t have long left with him. We had a lot of false alarms, and because of these I thought that I was prepared for when he did go.
Two weeks before he died, he said that he’d seen his Mum and that she had told him that she was waiting for him along with his sister, his brothers and Dad. When my mum rang me and told me that, I knew he didn’t have long left. I’m not religious, but I do believe in spirts.
Two weeks later, my Grandma called and said my Grandad wasn’t moving or making any noise. My Mum asked me and my Dad to go to the house because she was in the bath and we just expected it to be another false alarm. My Grandparents lived a few minutes away from my house, but when I was in the car something just didn’t sit right so I rang my Grandma and asked if he was making any sounds at all. When she said no, I told her to call an ambulance, but at that point I kind of knew already what was going to happen.
When we got there, my Dad told me to stay outside first and then called me in. I had to help get my Grandad on the floor so we could give him CPR. I was on the phone to the paramedics, but I knew he was gone.
I can only imagine what it must have been like in that moment for you. Can you describe how you were feeling?
I have a relatively small family – my paternal Grandad died before I was born and my paternal Grandma died when I was very young – and I have never had any real experience with death. This was my first time experiencing it and my first time seeing a dead body. I was in shock. I couldn’t believe what I’d seen. I’ve always been a bit weird and I read about stuff like death and murder all the time, but seeing a dead body in person is a very surreal experience, especially when it’s someone you love.
When we were waiting for the funeral directors to come, I didn’t really feel anything. I felt horrible for my Grandma and my family and I felt upset that I was never going to see my Grandad again, but when they came to take his body to the funeral home, I didn’t want him to go. I felt horrible about the fact that some strangers were putting him in a dark van and taking him somewhere where he wasn’t surrounded by family. I didn’t know what the procedure was or what was going to happen to him and I felt guilty.
From going through this experience, you have a better understanding of this process than you did at the time. What do you wish people knew about what happens when they die?
I think, especially here in the UK, we think we just have to get whisked off to a funeral director, pay lots of money to let them get the body ready and let them organise the funeral.
That’s not the case. You don’t have to have the body taken straight away, you can dress them yourself, so if you know what your Nana’s favourite outfit was and how she liked the bow tying on her dress, you can do that yourself. There’s also the idea of donating organs and things like green burials, both things that not everyone knows about, which is sad.
You have gone back to university to study to help you make discussions on death more approachable. What are you studying and what are you hoping to learn from this?
I’m doing my MA in Death, Religion and Culture at the University of Winchester. It’s a distance learning course, which means I can work at the same time – I’m far too poor not to! I’ve always enjoyed learning about religion – I think it’s beautiful. More people should be learning about religion, I think it would make the world more peaceful and understanding.
I’m hoping that when I graduate, I can give talks to people and get them prepared and fearing death a little less. I want to be like a bereavement counsellor, but before the actual bereavement – a PREbereavment counsellor, if you will.
Even though death is part of life, so many of us are fearful of even mentioning it. Why do you think this is?
I think we’ve brought up to think it’s something really bad, but it happens to everyone. Yes, sometimes it happens too soon and sometimes it’s horrible how it happens, but not talking about it makes it far worse.
I think we fear it because in a way we don’t really understand what happens afterwards. People have their own beliefs but, unless you pull a Flatliners, you’re never really going to know.
One thing you actively promote is open discussions about grief, death and what happens to a person’s body once they die. How do you think these discussions will improve people’s attitudes and understanding?
I think talking about it openly will make people less afraid. That way, when someone you know dies, which is inevitable, at least you’ll be prepared. You’ll know what to expect. You’ll know what you can do with their funeral and their body. I think it will make people more comfortable with discussing what they want for their funeral. It’s your funeral – talk about what you want! You’d be amazed at what you can do.
I’m not saying don’t grieve, because you need to. What I’m saying is that talking about it openly and knowing what to expect stops death from stopping your entire life. Death is hard, but talking about it can make it a little less harder.
When we talked about the idea of this interview, you said to me that you want to bring ‘light into a subject that most people find really dark’. Why is this important to you?
I don’t want anyone to go through the experience I did. I want people to not let it affect them in a way that cripples their life. I got really bad anxiety and panic attacks and I didn’t function properly for a long time.
But when I learnt more about what was happening and did some research, I felt so much better. I had a lot of questions that I didn’t think it were normal to ask, but I want people to know that Googling what happens when someone is cremated or how they make a body presentable for viewing is a normal thing to ask. If you’re curious, I’d recommend checking out Ask a Mortician on Youtube.
What advice would you give to someone who is grieving?
It’s shit, there is no easy way to put it. But if you’re uncomfortable by anything going on or if you don’t understand something, talk to the funeral director or whoever is helping you with the whole thing.
When someone dies, try not to think about not seeing them because that is shit. Think about all the good times they had and the life they lived. I have great memories with my Grandad and I don’t want them to be shadowed by the fact that he’s gone. Keep positive. Cry. Crying is so important – don’t hold it in. Talk to someone like a bereavement counsellor. It’s their job and they’re good at it. I think viewing it as you were lucky enough to be on this planet at the same time as that person really helps.
If you could sum up your outlook on life in one statement, what would it be?
It’s short. Death comes to every living thing. Imagine being like Dorian Gray and living forever, who wants that? Not me! I’d be bored and everything would be pretty meaningless. Enjoy the time you have. Enjoy doing things that interest you, even if that interest is something super weird like death. Have fun, and be kind. Try not to give a fuck about what other people think about you. Just be happy!