Musings on life and death

This is somewhat of a departure from my usual writing style but with John’s death it was something that I needed to think about in detail so that I could have a frank and honest discussion with my children while telling them about Granddad.

Before you read on, these are my musings. I apologise if they upset you; that is not my intent.   Neither is it my intent to get into any religious or philosophical discussion with friend or stranger about anything written here. These are my current thoughts, beliefs if you must, but I am not saying that they will always be my understanding. I may do an about turn next week or indeed in 50 years time (if I am still here in 2065), that is my prerogative and the freedom of not subscribing to a rigid belief structure. I sincerely hope that you take this essay as it is meant to be: one man’s internal discussion about life and death and how it can possibly explain this to his young children.

At times such as these one often turns to their religion for solace.  This is whether you practice or are your denomination in name only.  The belief in a supreme being and an eternal reward are very comforting in times of great loss.

I was born and raised a Roman Catholic, indeed I have been Baptised, taken my First Holy Communion and have been Confirmed; I attended a Catholic Primary School, a Catholic Secondary school, was an Altar Boy, served as an Usher and rarely missed mass in over 20 years. Despite this impressive C.V., I grew to realise that I did not believe in many of the tenets of the religion and simply did not have Faith. This was not solely the fault of Roman Catholicism but my years of questioning and investigations reading Catholic doctrine, secular essays and everything in between drew me to become areligious. This is not necessarily the same as atheistic; I think that there can be a huge gulf between not believing in religion and not believing in God.

The way that I see religion is that they all start off with good intent. They tend to be the teachings of a wise man (I am not being sexist here, but the World’s current domination religions are broadly misogynistic and have very few teachings by women) about setting rules for a fair and just society. Most can be distilled into one phrase: ‘Be nice to each other’. However this message is corrupted by those in power in a bid to make their religion dominant and thus increase their own individual power.  This power struggle leads to this fundamental message becoming marginalised in their teachings and thus somewhat ironically, it becomes the one thing that most religions are not, especially to someone who doesn’t believe in exactly the same thing as them. Unbelievers are labelled Pagans, Infidels and denigrated to the point of sub-human. There are examples throughout history, throughout the world; indeed it is still going on today, whether subtly through media manipulation or blatantly as is evident in the Middle-East. This is not just inter-religious but intra-religious with denominations of the same religion having a tendency of dislike through to full blown hatred towards each other.

So religion, per se is not the issue but moreover the way it is used by those in power. Religion is a powerful control mechanism. If people believe, or are afraid, then you can manipulate them to your will and that is what those in power do, to ensure that they remain in power. The reward that is Heaven or the punishment that is Hell, are abstract notions that can never be proved nor disproved but can help mould a society build on social inequalities. How can one justify a child dying of starvation while its Lord dies of surfeit? By offering the dividend that is eternal life. If one disagrees then it can be arranged for you to find out, a lot sooner than you would prefer, the reality of an existence of an afterlife, lest you start a murmuration in the populace.

Thus, you can see my dilemma of how to broach these deep metaphysical discussions with a seven and a five year old (Ezra is too young). I do not believe in religion; I do not believe in an infinitely merciful, benevolent supreme being and neither do I being in Heaven and Hell; something that someone who lost their father at 14 years old can not, and should not, take lightly.

So what do I say to my children?

My scientific mind sees the beauty all around without resorting to a creator. I revel in the fact that the only place that heavy elements are created (and from an astrophysical point of view heavy elements are elements above Lithium in the periodic table, i.e. not Hydrogen or Helium) is in the death throes of a star. Indeed the abundance of heavy elements in our neighbourhood can only have come from one, if not a number, of supernovae. You are literally stardust. A star has to have been born, ‘lived’ and died in an astronomical explosion to create the building blocks of matter that allow you to exist. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.

Even more mind-blowing than that, is the fact that you are immortal. Not strictly you, but the energy that is currently in the form of matter that forms you, has always been and will always be. Many of you may have heard of Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2 without truly understanding what it means. Effectively, it states that matter is energy – and an awfully large amount of it. To put this in some perspective the annual world consumption of energy is somewhere in the region of 6 x 1020 Joules, this is the equivalent to the energy held a little over 6.7 tonnes of matter (at rest, for the pedants).

In addition to this, there is the first law of thermodynamics. The law of the conservation of energy states that the energy of a closed system must remain constant – it can neither increase nor decrease without interference from outside. Therefore, by definition the universe is a closed system so the total amount of energy must be the same throughout time. The form that energy takes may change and matter is one of those forms.  I’ve lost you, haven’t I?

The above merely states that the energy that was once a star was converted into the matter that formed you. It may have been a trilobite, a dinosaur, a tree or the heat from a fire warming the hands of a child before it was you; it may be a table, a lamp post, the sound of heavy-metal concert or the heart of a star sometime in the future, but that energy will always be.

This is without any discussion on the goldilocks zone, evolution or even just the odds of your birth.

So how do I disseminate these complex notions to my children and explain the fact that their grandfather had died. Then field their questions of what happens to you when you die and what comes next. Then, do I go a little further and try to explain the innate injustice that is life?

When discussing death with children it is important to use the definitive, they are dead. Do not use euphemisms like ‘they have passed’ or ‘they have gone to sleep’ or ‘gone to their rest’. Children will not understand these nuances and take the meanings literally, leading them to be frightened to pass things, or go to sleep or lie down for a rest for fear that they might die.

This was the approach that I took with the girls. I explained that Granddad had died and asked them if they understood and whether they wanted to ask any questions and we sat in a huddle and hugged each other while crying. I thought it was important for the girls to see that I was upset too and thus there was no shame in crying.

Questions ranged from the scientific from Éowyn, (‘How do you catch cancer?’, ‘What happens to your body?’ etc.) to the practical from Amélie (‘Who is going to cook me pancakes? ‘Who is going to fix my toys when I break them?’). I answered them as honestly as I could, without going into any dark details. Then came the question ‘Is Granddad in heaven?’ ‘Can we go and visit him?

Now, I may not believe in Heaven, but then again neither do I believe in Father Christmas. Like Father Christmas I am not going to crush the girls’ belief with my adult logic (flawed or otherwise), it is more important for them to believe in the magic. In the same way that the belief in the magic of Christmas is embodied in the personification of Father Christmas then Heaven is a belief in the enduring love of those we have lost.

I took this opportunity to introduce the girls to imagery that I use to help explain love and loss. My vision is that whenever you have a relationship with someone you both exchange a piece of your soul, your heart if you will. These pieces are connected by a silver thread binding the pair together. The deeper the love you share the larger the pieces that you exchange, and the thicker and brighter the thread shines.

Sometimes the relationship fizzles out, you grow apart. In these cases the thread, dulls and withers and eventually the link is broken without too much pain. You still have, however, a piece of their heart (and they yours) that you can nurture or ignore at your want.

However, when that relationship ends suddenly, in the case of a death, the thread is severed and you feel the pain of that loss. Nevertheless, you can perhaps take comfort in the notion that although they are gone, and with a part of your heart (hence the hurt), you have been entrusted with a part of theirs. You, therefore, have a responsibility to nurture that heart and in that nurturing you should take comfort that they have not gone. Not entirely.

I like this imagery on so many levels and it shows that we are the sum of our experiences and our relationships shape and hone us, not just in the big ways but subtly and even the smallest of relationships are kept in our hearts. It also shows that are loved ones are never too far away. Even death can not separate you because they are an innate part of you.

This is not a complete theory in any sense. I have not discussed the good that religion brings to the world and have completely avoided the question of conscientiousness to wit: the soul.

Regardless of my stance on religion the basic underlining tenet of love thy neighbour is something that we should aspire to. To quote Adam Hills and place it in more contemporary language: ‘Don’t be a dick!

When someone dies of cancer (indeed whatever reason), it is perfectly natural to feel anger; to somehow, personify cancer (the cause) and vent vitriol upon it. We bemoan the fairness of life. To paraphrase the man in black (the Dread Pirate Roberts – not Johnny Cash) ‘Life isn’t fair; anyone who says differently is selling something.’ Death even more so.

There are traditionally five stages of grief that have been identified that those who have lost someone typically go through. They are not linear steps neither does one have to go through them in order, or indeed even experience them at all. When one realises that Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and finally Acceptance are all perfectly natural stages it somehow helps to guide you through the rocky road of grief, giving you the tools to better cope with the loss. It is important to realise, however that everyone experiences grief differently and one should respect another’s grief journey, regardless of how it compares to yours or indeed the stages outlined above. Again I refer you to Adam Hills.

So what is it that I want to impart to my children?

Life is precious, everyone’s life is precious. If you consider the events that need to have occurred for you to be sitting there reading this and can manage to stop considering this before your head explodes, you should realise how special you are and how precious your life really is. You are only dancing on this earth for a short while. This is not, however, a reason for you to ‘do what thou wilt’ and again I refer you to Adam Hills.

Life is not a race. Sometimes you seem to be ahead and sometimes you know that you are definitely behind, but in the end the only race that you have is in your mind, with yourself.  So don’t race, just enjoy the journey.

Life is not fair. It is not meant to be, and you have no right to believe that it should be. It does not mean that you should not strive for fairness but remember that the one great leveller, the one thing that will unite us all, is death.

Keep dreaming. Never give anyone the power to destroy your dreams. If you have a dream, keep it safe, keep it in your heart, live it; for you will still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not.

Keeping learning. Never think that you know everything, about anything. Never be afraid to put your hand up and say I don’t understand. There are no stupid questions but fear of looking stupid will leave you wallowing in ignorance. Don’t be ignorant.

But above all: Love. Love your parents; they love you more than ever imagine and you never know when they’ll be gone for good. Love your siblings; they are your link to your past and most likely to be there for you in the future. Love your friends. You cannot choose your relatives but you can choose your friends. Choose wisely. A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow; no man (or woman) is a failure that has friends.

As I said at the beginning of this essay I said these are my current musings. I have tried to avoid internet memes but there are a number of film quotes and song lyrics (try to find them if you can). This is not a definitive and it certainly isn’t my entire belief system but just the ramblings of a man who is trying to explain to his small children the sad news that their Grandfather has died.

Peace and Love


When I’m 102!

Well aren’t you blessed?  Two updates within the arbitrary fortnight deadline that I set myself.  However before you get excited there will not be the 27 or so photos this time, you win some, and you lose some.

Éowyn has just finished her half-term break and pre-school beckons.  Unfortunately, I was at work for the majority of it so the onus for entertaining was entirely in Lucinda’s hands.  This was made more difficult with the meteorological spring ending in a similar vein to the previous three months (cold – indeed the coldest spring since 1962 and the fifth coldest on record, according the Met-Office or the coldest since 1891 according the Central English Temperature Series) there was not the opportunity to go out and enjoy the weather.  Nevertheless, Lucinda managed an admirable job entertaining them (as always) heading to friends’ houses to relieve the boredom of being stuck in the same house.

I may work long hours but nearly every night it is I that read the girls their bedtime stories (assuming they haven’t lost them as a punishment).  They have free range over which stories they chose and often go through phases of what is their particular favourite: any of the Julia Donaldson stories, Mr Men, Disney, ‘Traditional Fairy Stories’ or one from their big book of Princess stories.  However, Roald Dahl now finds himself added to that illustrious list.  It began a couple of months ago with me introducing Éowyn to the Candy Man by Sammy David Jnr.  That lead to reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which both girls love and once we had read the book I let them watch the Tim Burton film version.  As you may or may not know there was a follow up to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory called Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.  In my opinion, it is not as good as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (sequels rarely are – Empire Strikes Back the obvious exception).  Nevertheless I began to read it to them (we have since given up and begun to read the BFG!).

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator begins as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ends with Charlie and his entire family in the aforementioned Great Glass Elevator along with Willy Wonka heading back to the Chocolate Factory.  Now, the method of entry of the Great Glass Elevator into the Chocolate Factory involves gaining height in order to fall to the Earth with enough force to smash a hole in the roof of the factory.  (We will ignore the science behind terminal velocity, deceleration on the human body or the tensile strength of glass and just suspend our disbelief).  As all good adventure novels begin something goes wrong and Willy Wonka is distracted at the vital moment and instead of hurtling to Earth, the Great Glass Elevator and its occupants enter orbit (again ignore the science, it is a children’s book!).

As I read, Éowyn asked what ‘in orbit’ meant.  I explained it is when you go into space and circle the Earth. ‘Daddy, I would like to go into space.‘  I explained that so would I.  She then asked as to whether we could go into space.  I explained that when I was a boy we were told that we would be able to take holidays on the moon but unfortunately that hasn’t happened yet and only astronauts or very rich people can go into space at the moment, however when she was Daddy’s age then hopefully there would be affordable trips into space.

That would be great, I would be your age and you would be 102 and we could go into space together.’  She has got her sums a bit wrong but idea is wonderful and very sweet that she would want to take her daddy, so I replied that I would like that and then I made my mistake.  There are times as a parent when you say something and as soon as you say it, you realise that you shouldn’t have said it, but now it is too late and you have a long drawn out discussion ahead of you.  I made one of those mistakes.  I replied that I would like that and that I would be very happy just to live to 102.

Éowyn picked up on this immediately and began to cry.  I asked her what the matter was and she replied ‘You’re not going to die are you?  I don’t want you to die.‘  When do I go with this?  I said that everyone dies and that 102 is very old and that she would be very old (well 67) if Daddy lived to be 102.  ‘But Daddy I would miss you and wouldn’t be able to see you ever again‘  Fighting the lump in my throat and the tears in my eyes I reassured her that I wasn’t going to die any time soon (well I’m not planning on it) and that I would always be there for her.  She hugged me tight and sobbed into my shoulder, while Amélie looked on oblivious.  It is nice to know that I am still her hero, for the time being and I will have to remind her of this if she turns into a stroppy teenager wishing her parents would just leave her alone!  Better still remind her of the story in 2075 when I turn 102!

It is not like Éowyn to be so loving and emotional.  She is usually the stoic one, headstrong and determined.  Amélie on the other hand is the more loving.  While Éowyn certainly went through the terrible twos (although not as bad as some children), you would not know that Amélie has reached that stage.  Her only slight rebellion is the refusal to eat meals (but she doesn’t have the iron-will of Éowyn and folds usually by the next meal) and the fact that she will ‘swipe’ things (indeed, you may remember that when she was younger we nicknamed her Swiper after the Fox in the Dora the Explorer cartoon).  My nail-clippers disappeared for about two weeks, Lucinda’s tweezers for the same length of time both found in Amélie-type hiding places around the house.  However, we may have to forgive Amélie because it might be someone or something else, a house pest of frightening proportions.

An ornament had disappeared and found on the floor in the middle of the landing.  Sensing the unmistakeable signs of Swiper I said to Amélie ‘Did you take this?‘  Looking me in the eye, she sincerely replied ‘Daddy, it wasn’t me.  It was the Big Bad Wolf!‘ I think she needs to work on her lies either that or I should be slightly concerned about the house pests in this part of town.

Amélie is certainly growing up, she is potty trained during the day and now is in the process of occasionally waking up at night to use the potty, which is a huge step of a 2 year old.  In addition, her cognitive powers are certainly increasing.  If she refuses to do something or wants to do something and you ask her why she wants what she wants she will reply with the conjoiner ‘’cause‘ to buy herself some thinking time.  However, when I type ’cause it doesn’t quite do justice to the word that Amélie uses.  A close approximation to the word that Amélie uses is ‘caaaaauuuuu-uuuuuusssssssseeee’, which lasts about 2 seconds and more accurately could be described as a whine that varies in pitch, starting low, ascending with a descending dip before ascending sharply.  Have you got that?  For older (UK) readers somewhat similar to the way that Richard Briers’ character would say the word ‘Ann‘ in Ever Decreasing Circles.

Although Éowyn and Amélie are very different in temperament, both seem very forward for their respective ages.  I find it fascinating sometimes where they pick things up from and have to be careful exactly what you say, either to them or around them.  Éowyn for instance was eating her lunch and said, ‘Daddy, this is delectable!‘  Now I personally do not think that I have ever used that word (I even had to check that I had typed it correctly as I wrote this) and neither has Lucinda.  Therefore, although I am not sure where she has picked that up but kudos to her that not only did she use it but knew in what context to use it.

With the summer comes a return for me of a Monday to Friday working week.  I now get weekends off, like normal people, but the trouble is there seems to be an awful amount of people around.  However, I do now manage to go to events and this weekend saw one of the first of the summer:  Ashford on the map.  Held on the playing fields of Brooklands College in Ashford it is the ninth annual fun day.  It seems that they had booked the weather for it had turned particularly summery with bright sunshine, although there was still a chill in the air; it was probably the warmest day of the year.  There were about 100 stalls, pony rides, fairground rides, face painting and all the usual things that you would expect at such an event, including a display by the Spelthorne gymnastics club that Éowyn was a member of, and indeed the display has inspired her to go back.  Watch this space to see if she is still interested next week.

This was the first time that we have visited it and it was excellent.  The girls thoroughly enjoyed it, especially Éowyn who, in addition to getting her face painted, won a prize on ‘hook a duck’ and happily threw herself down the 10 metre high inflatable slide.  Unfortunately her parents caused the only problem.  We didn’t expect it to be so big or have so much to entertain the girls so we only paid for 2 hours of parking at the local car park thereby enforcing an artificial deadline on our fun or at least the girls’ fun.

Amélie fell asleep on the return home; it had worn her out so much.  Therefore, with Amélie asleep, Ezra snoozing between feeds and Éowyn happily amusing herself I mowed the lawns.  What a perfect picture of modern suburbia.

In other news, Ezra is still behaving himself and growing at a rapid rate of knots (am I allowed that mixed metaphor?);  Éowyn’s current favourite song is Think by Aretha Franklin and Amélie has begun to craft stories, and not only to shift blame from her direction. While the next big change in the Bagnall world, selling our house, is a slow process with no news to update you with yet.  Rest assured though you will be the first to know.

Therefore, before the length of this update (and it has to be close to taking the record for the longest update of the site) causes you to pandiculate I will bid you adieu and leave you with a few more photos.

Peace and Love


Manha, manha – Mud!

June has nearly been and gone and still no sign of summer.  Even last week’s Summer Solstice saw no let up in the unseasonably cold and wet weather indeed following the wettest April on record and a wet May this has been the wettest June on record.  Something that I am acutely aware of for last weekend I was camping on the Isle of Wight at the annual music festival.  As you may have seen in the media the heavy rain and tens of thousands of pairs of welly-clad feet churned the camping fields into a veritable mudbath.  Fortunately we avoided the traffic jams caused by the influx of visitors but need not avoid the rain while pitching our tents or the storm (45mph winds and 1 inch (25mm) of rain) that fell on the Saturday night.  So after 3 days of mud even the lure of Bruce Springsteen, The Vaccines, Noel Gallagher and other smaller acts was not enough for us to endure another 24 hours of inclement weather conditions. I was at Glastonbury in 1997 and 1998 so I have been there and done that and have no need to try and prove myself to anyone.  Lucinda and the girls were surprised but very pleased when a muddy, tired, welly-clad daddy walked through the doors just before noon on Sunday afternoon.

That was last weekend and obviously there has not been many updates this month so what else has been happening in June 2012? With the poor weather it has not been the best of months to galavant through the English countryside and indeed use our Merlin passes.  However, we are a stolid bunch with regards to the weather, being English you have to, and it did not prevent us from having a barbecue around Nanny and Granddad’s to celebrate Auntie Cristina’s 40th birthday.  We even dressed warmly and ate outside (thankfully it stayed relatively dry).

Éowyn returned to pre-school the next day with a lot of encouragement from Lucinda and me to be good.  Thankfully she has heeded this and so far this term we have had glowing reports about her behaviour.  I think because she is relatively clever, but also relatively big that she is used to getting her own way and gets frustrated when she doesn’t.  All part of growing up but still not good as a parent when you get called in because of her behaviour.  With this in mind we have enrolled her in gymnastics classes at Spelthorne gym.  Éowyn is very flexible (she will idly stuck her toes for instance) and forever pretending she is a gymnast and so we thought it would be good discipline couple with good exercise.  We asked Éowyn if she wanted to go to gymnastics and she became very animated and excited about the prospect.  The first time she went Lucinda was running late and so there was no time for Éowyn to think about what she was going to do and happily went in and thoroughly enjoyed it.  In fact all week she was excited about going again, however the next week they arrived in good time and Éowyn became nervous and didn’t want to go in and Lucinda had to end up pushing her through the door.  It seems very cruel but it was what she needed and again she thoroughly enjoyed herself and so currently our eldest is a fully paid up member of British Gymnastics.

On the weekend between Cris’s birthday barbecue and the Isle of Wight music festival we paid a visit to West Bromwich and Nanny Fran’s. Éowyn has been asking lots of questions lately about my Dad (Granddad Vic).  For those of you that don’t now my Dad died in 1987 (25 years ago!) and so not only did Éowyn never meet him neither did Lucinda, since he passed away 20 years before we were married!  Obviously Éowyn realises that Lucinda has a mum and dad and I have a mum but where is my Dad, so we have been explaining it to her as best as we can.  So part of the journey was hopefully going to go to Dad’s grave and show her where he was buried and being Father’s day it seemed apt.  Unfortunately the weather was so poor that we never managed to go, hopefully next time.

Nevertheless a good time was had at Nanny Fran’s even though it was another flying visit.  It has been a little while since Nanny Fran had seen Amélie and at the moment Amélie is going through one of those rapid development stages and so kept Nanny Fran and Auntie Liz amused for the entire weekend.  Her vocabulary is growing, almost daily and she is now stringing words together to make sentences.  Usually surrounding food, things like: ‘My daddy, breakfast please.‘ which is her usual greeting in a morning.  Both girls love their families and they gt to see a lot of Lucinda’s side because we all live relatively close but because they don’t see Nanny Fran and Auntie Liz that often they do get very excited when they pop up to West Bromwich.  That is not the usual reaction West Bromwich gets from people in Surrey.

As you may remember Éowyn first cinema visit was in February to see the Muppets movie (a particular favourite of Daddy’s too).  This month saw the release of the film on Blu Ray and DVD and so it needed to be bought.  Since we have bought it, I think Éowyn has watched it half a dozen times at least.  It has definitely stuck in her brain because she will quite often burst into verses of Manha Manha, very amusing.  There is another song that Éowyn has become fond of singing and that is ‘You are my Sunshine.’  It may be that she has inherited her father’s love of music but unfortunately at the moment it seems as if she has also inherited my singing voicing.  Poor girl at least she has her gymnastics!

In addition to a lack of major days out, there is a dearth of photos since the last write up too, hence most of the below photos are from Cristina’s birthday party.  We will try harder for the next write up.

Peace and Love