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Death and the (young) maiden

  • 02 March 2016

Earlier this year my family faced an existential crisis. Wolfgang Amadeus Theodorus Philosophus Gittins, our noble, 16-year-old apricot Spoodle, was failing. While we had successfully alleviated his arthritis, he was mostly blind and deaf.

More disturbingly, our furry familial was prone to sudden bursts of fear and disconnection. He no longer instantly knew us. His mind, in football parlance, was 'gawn'. Wolfie had, as a family friend and veterinarian explained, gotten to the point where he had 'lost his essential dogginess'.

I drove him to the vet, where a kind practitioner carried out an act of mercy. I held Wolfie as he reclined, lay still and breathed his last. Our dog's passing was sad for me, my wife, and our son. But for our daughter, preparing for her first year of high school, Wolfie's death presented a looming disaster.

A sensitive child who has observed the passing of six great-grandparents and assorted relatives in the past 18 months, and who's attended several of the funerals, Emily wasn't ready to say goodbye.

Her fears led me back to a phone call in September 2006, co-handled by a good mate as we drove to photograph and interview some local musos. 'Daddy,' the empathetic three-year-old had confided, 'I [sob] don't [howl] wanna die!'

She was at home perched in Mum's lap, watching Steve Irwin's televised funeral. The sight of Bindi Irwin and little bro Bob hit home.

We talked it out, then and later, but death's existential maw has continued to loom. Death, as she points out, sucks. Her aversion to an expiry date is not unique; I recognise that. We've been flummoxed at how to go about alleviating this most human of anxieties, and it's truly a work in progress.

Mark Twain is purported to have said that 'the fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.' Timidity equals preoccupation with mortality? No disrespect to Samuel, but it's unlikely he shared that gem with his daughters and granddaughter.

More helpful, for me at any rate, has been some research on the much-talked-about quality of 'resilience'. The New Yorker recently opined that 'resilient individuals were far more likely to report having sources of spiritual and religious support than those who weren't', and that, optimistically, 'resilience is, ultimately, a set of skills that can be taught'.

Individual, psychological factors and external, environmental factors, once serving as traumatic factors, can sway how