‘Isn’t it too early for daffodils?’ asked Nanna for the hundredth time, as she packed up Luke’s wooden semitrailer and carefully placed it back on the coffee table ~ for the hundredth time, only for Luke to pull it down and begin unloading the cars again.

‘Do you think it will snow?’ Nanna quizzed us on the likelihood of snow for the hundredth time, as was her custom, since Alzheimers crept insidiously into her life and ours.

Her life of wandering from her home, across a main road, a creek and a railway line, and suddenly appearing in her daughter’s kitchen, had become the norm. She would then transform Marj’s kitchen into a café, with every teacup and saucer laid out on the bench. Nanna would brew pots of tea and methodically pour the tea for people who didn’t exist. Washing up followed and the process began all over again.

Nanna had drifted away into her own mysterious world, whilst we all looked on and adjusted to this new lady who was part of our lives, but with whom a meaningful relationship was no longer possible.

In time, she moved in with her family, to a place of companionship and safety. Whilst her daughter and son-in-law attended a conference, Nanna went for respite into a wonderful Nursing Home in the hills. The surroundings were very much like her home.

On the first day of the conference, an announcement was broadcast over the loudspeaker. ‘Could Marj K… please come to the administration office?’ Not the sort of broadcast one wants to hear.

‘We’re sorry to tell you, but your Mum has disappeared from the Nursing Home and we are looking for her,’ said the police officer. Thankfully, Nanna was found, safe and well in the middle of a vineyard many kilometres away.

Nanna’s foray into the world of Alzheimers was an education to us all at a time when little was known about this condition. In a way it was also the early part of our grief for a lady who had morphed into someone we didn’t know.

Grief doesn’t have to wait until someone dies. It’s actually lurking in the wings, ready to pounce, unannounced, when a situation of change rears its ugly head.

In time, Nanna’s body-clock wound down and died. Our son, Luke, was two and a half when she went and we took him to her funeral, thinking nothing of it.

Tsk, tsk … we could almost audibly hear the looks of disdain that were cast in our direction by most of the small number of people who had come to say their goodbyes to Nanna.

It never occurred to us that it was improper to take a child to a funeral. Where did this notion come from?

For Ron and I, death was a part of life and not something to be feared or hidden.

Several months after her funeral, Luke had to come face to face with grief and death, when we had a baby girl who was born 15 weeks prematurely. Sadly, Katie lived for just over an hour.

Luke didn’t fully comprehend what was happening, ~ he just knew that his Mummy and Daddy were sad.

One of the things that made us sad was the fact that hardly anyone would talk about Katie, the little girl who was born and died, but who no one in the family had met.

Most people acted as if I was never pregnant and we realised that when people don’t know what to say, they either say something inappropriate or completely avoid the subject ~ hoping that it will go away.

In time, the sun began to shine again and the busyness of caring for Luke consumed my time. The old adage, ‘Time heals,’ is the last thing that I wanted to hear, because when anyone said that, I felt like they were pouring salt on an open wound. It hurt ~ really badly. ‘Time heals’ is actually true for most people and I’ve had many life experiences that have confirmed this to be so, but it’s not something that we want others to verbalise in our presence when we have a gaping wound of grief that we’re tenderly nursing.

When Luke was four and a half, we had another baby girl, Cathryn, also born prematurely. This was another traumatic time for Luke, as I had to spend weeks in hospital prior to Cathryn’s birth, attempting not to have her early. Unfortunately, the best of medical attempts were not enough to prevent what my body wanted to do.

Cathryn progressed wonderfully, and by the time she was two years old, she had caught up to any full-term baby. She was a wonderfully happy child with curly blonde hair, blue eyes and sky-blue metal-rimmed spectacles. Her mission in life was to ensure that everyone was happy.

One day when she was at Grandma and Grandpa’s place, Dad wasn’t feeling well and was lying on his bed. Cathryn climbed up next to him, planted a gentle kiss on his cheek and enquired, ‘Does that make you feel better Grandpa?’ Her delightful nature was infectious and she made friends wherever she went.

On a cold winter’s night with a full moon lighting the crisp midnight sky, Cathryn went to bed but didn’t wake up. She succumbed to a sleep apnoea condition, that normally only takes the lives of adults.

So here was our Luke, aged 9 years old, attending the funeral of the sister he adored. Those who gave us the ‘Tsk, tsk …’ treatment at the time of Nanna’s funeral, because we took a child to a funeral, were now silent, as it was necessary for Luke to be at Cathryn’s funeral to bid her farewell. We can’t always shelter children for the sad and unwelcome events in this life.

What many people avoid for most of their lives, Luke had experienced twice, before he even finished primary school.

My sister then faced the dilemma of how to handle the fact that her children didn’t want to go to Cathryn’s funeral.

‘Do I make them go to the funeral and then figure out how to deal with their potential distress?’ she pondered.

‘Or do I let them stay home, then risk them feeling like they were shut out?’ What a conundrum! It’s a question without a clear answer.

They came to the funeral, not very happy to be there and 26 years later are still not happy that they were made to go – but who’s to know how they would feel if they hadn’t gone.

Death, grief and how we handle it, is a personal journey.

I wrote a book entitled ‘Unscrambling Grief’ about our journey and the things we learnt along the way. At the book launch the speaker said, ‘I don’t mean to be the bearer of bad tidings, but no one escapes this life without having to deal with grief.’

So many people have told me how much the book has helped them, because it’s not a textbook tome that they had to wade through, written by qualified professionals who may not have personally walked this path.

Rather, it’s a 1 hour easy read, with cartoon illustrations to lighten the subject. And it’s a real story about a real family who experienced real emotions when they met with a real life journey they never intended to take.

In the May edition of Palliative Profile SA, Dr Alison Edwards says, “We don’t talk enough about death and grieving and I guess it is hardly surprising that some, without the lived experience, struggle to understand.”

This couldn’t be more true! And this is the very reason that people will often make inappropriate comments or adopt avoidance tactics, not because they’re unkind or thoughtless ~ they simply haven’t walked in the shoes of the person to whom they’re speaking.

Avoidance isn’t only enacted by the onlookers. In the early stages of our raw grief, I couldn’t face the supermarket. I would turn into a new aisle, see a face that I knew, but wouldn’t know whether that person had heard of Cathryn’s death. Not wanting to retell the story that was still so gut-wrenchingly painful, I would do a U-turn with the trolley (and you all know how hard that is!) and look for an aisle full of strangers, where I would be safe.

Eventually, when some logic returned to my life, I realised that if I shopped outside our local area, I would be free of this weekly pain, agony and aisle surveillance exercise. My favourite illustration in the book is of a lady with a shopping trolley on the ice in Antarctica. One of the penguins is saying to its mate, ‘That’s what I call extreme avoidance.’ That’s the honest truth about the way I felt at that time, but like they say about everything, ‘This too shall pass.’ And so, in time that phase did pass.

Ron and I didn’t spend time going to grief support groups because my side of the family and several close friends provided the listening ears that we needed. Importantly, these listeners didn’t offer advice, just a wonderful caring, listening ear, usually right when we needed it. How grateful we were for these people.

Equally important was the fact that these same people have always been prepared to talk about Cathryn. Rather than making the assumption that mentioning her name will cause us pain and angst, they know that in talking about her, they will allow her memory to live on. She had some funny and quirky little sayings, like ~ ‘Shouldn’t you take my tempriest with the breeometer?’ When anyone recounts something like this we are immediately transported back to a time of happiness ~ the way we felt when she was still here.

Talking about the person who has died can be a dilemma – ‘Do I mention their name and risk upsetting the bereaved, or do I just let that thought go because it may make them miserable?’

The trick is to simply ask the person if they mind you talking about ‘Cathryn’ (just fill in the name). They will say Yes or No and that’s your answer.

Last year a young mother of three who lived nearby, lost her battle with cancer. For anyone who believes that it’s inappropriate to take children to funerals ~ think again. Her farewell was an amazing celebration of a short, but wonderfully lived life, at which not only her husband, but all three of her boys (under eight years old) spoke. Nothing could protect these three youngsters from having to face death and a funeral, because they needed to say their final farewell to the Mum they loved and adored.

When we fail to talk about death and prevent children from experiencing the final part of our earthly life, by keeping them away from funerals, we shroud the topic with mystery and perhaps even fear. Could we perhaps spend some time preparing our children for the inevitable in ways that are healthy, by having open and age-appropriate conversations with them?

As I mentioned earlier, at my book launch we were reminded that ‘ … grief escapes no one’, so we may as well prepare for it by hearing about real life stories of people who have walked that road and want to encourage others to do the same in their own way and their own time.

Gail Miller

Speaker and Author of ‘Unscrambling Grief’ and ‘What we’re Wheelie like’




Email Gail to book as a Speaker – topics on which I speak

  • Why I wrote Unscrambling Grief
  • Coping with Grief forums
  • Palliative care – from personal experience with both parents
  • Why I wrote What we’re Wheelie like
  • ‘How I reinvented myself at 55’
  • You are what you think – how mindset influences our outcomes
  • And I may be able to adapt my topics to suit your requirements (I’d welcome you enquiry)