Friday, 14 August 2009

A Child and Understanding Death

On the 14th December 1995 Lord Haddington's mother, the Dowager Countess, Lady Sarah Haddington, died. She was a few months short of 100 and had been quite frail for some time.

I'd been living in the east wing of Mellerstain for just a couple of months. The winter snow blanketed the countryside; pristine white and beautiful.

Lord Haddington's mother, Lady Sarah, was brought back to Mellerstain from the Nenthorn House nursing home. Her coffin was laid on trestles in the centre of the library. She laid there facing south, looking towards the serene snow-white back gardens.

Here she would stay for a few days; her many friends and relatives would come to say their final goodbyes.

Four large candles were at each corner of the coffin. I would light them at about 8 a.m. and douse them at 8 p.m. each day.

On the second morning Lady Jane Haddington came into the library just after I'd lit the candles. With her was little Isobel, aged five. Isobel (full title Lady Isobel Jean Baillie-Hamilton) is the youngest of the three children.

The two of them stood there quietly for a moment or two, Isobel holding her Mum's hand. It was very quiet and Isobel was looking up at the coffin.

She then looked at her mother and, pointing to the coffin said: "Is Grandmama in there, Mummy?"

"Yes dear." That was all that Lady Jane said. There was a pause for a few moments.

Isobel then said: "Well, can I see her Mummy?"

"No dear." And another few moments went by.

Isobel: "Well why can't I see her?"

"Darling, it's only her body in there; she's gone to live in Heaven."

Isobel was still unsure. "Yes, but why can't I ..." and with that Lady Jane headed for the door, still clutching little Isobel's hand.

I can remember that episode as though it were just today. I went to the west wing in June this year to give Isobel her 18th birthday card and small gift. She is still that young pretty-faced girl to me. I retold the above story to her; she had no recollection of it. I am not surprised. So much has happened in the intervening years; prep school and then boarding school down in the south of England.

She had recently returned from a few months in South Africa, working at a Lodge in her gap year. She will soon be going to uni, reading philosophy. How fast this tempus fugits!!


scarlethue said...

I found you from Jo's blog over at A Majority of Two, and after reading a couple of your posts decided to follow you-- I love your style, it's poetic and yet conversational. I'm drawn to Britain and British writing anyway-- was born with a natural affinity for it and after having spent some time in London, I find myself even more attracted to it. Anyway, just wanted to introduce myself :)

PhilipH said...

How very nice to meet you Scarlet. And thanks for your kind comment.

I've just invited myself into your blogspot and your style is perfect. I really do love it.

I shall read a few more in time, but the five latest ones are just my cuppa tea (Lapsang souchon please).;-)

I especially liked the Aug 5th: 'no regrets'.

Do you like Edith Piaf? Or Jaques Brel? My favourite song is "Ne Me Quitte Pas" by Brel. So sad he died too young. There's a great youtube of him which I've had for some time on my desktop.

Cheers, Phil

the walking man said...

I would have done differently in the parlor had it been my child. *shrug*

I have been having a discussion with a young friend of mine the same age as Lady Isobel Jean Baillie-Hamilton; of what use is a degree in philosophy?

PhilipH said...

Mark, what use is philosophy? It seems that books on the subject sell well on Amazon! Well, that's what I told young Isobel.

Apart from that, what use, in the end, is anything? That's my philosophy as I grow older.

You seem to philosophize quite a lot it seems to me. Or do I read you wrong?

Cheers, Phil

The Bug said...

I remember when I was a teenager my mom drove my grandmother to Baltimore for her step-brother's funeral. I went along for the ride. My mother was not at all comfortable with all the trappings of death - & she passed that along to me. Since we didn't know that family at all we sat out in the lobby & hoped that we wouldn't have to see the body. However, the casket was in plain view from the door & we could see his nose! For some reason we thought that was funny. Sigh. We were such philistines!

Argent said...

I think death is always a tricky subject to deal with when there are children involved. My mother was always of the opinion that children should not be at funerals, for example. On one hand, I can see where she is going: no-one wants possibly unruly kids disrupting the proceedings, but on the other I think they should not be denied the chance to say goodbye to a loved one. As to the use of a Philosophy degree? It teaches you to THINK and there's nowhere near enough of that going around at the moment (my OU degree was primarily Philosophy-based, of course so I'm not a bit biased :-)).

By the way, your writing in this post is very neat.

Land of shimp said...

In some ways it would be nice to retain a child's understanding of death, wouldn't it? It's said that children don't understand the permanence of that loss, that upon being told so-and-so has died it carries no meaning, the child fully expects to see the person again.

Although not very practical, because sooner or later the realization will dawn that, no, that particular person is coming back. Still, it would be nice to have that as a first reaction, it certainly would soften the blow.

That was a very nice post, Philip. It is a great privilege to see people through from the beginning of their life, to the dawning of their adult consciousness.

As for what good a degree in philosophy might or might not be, she'll expand her understanding of the world, and the possibilities of it. Learn to think and consider, and become more knowledgeable. She's fortunate to be able to pursue something, not having to ask first and foremost, "How much money can I make in this particular area?"

I hope she enjoys the journey!

PhilipH said...

I think, therefore I am.

Thinking about it, might it not all be a dream? How can one tell? I often have dreams which are so 'real' - so how do I know that everything is not a dream?

Makes me think ... hmm.

Thanks Argent.

Pauline said...

Funny - you set out to illustrate fleeting time and end up with a discussion about what's child appropriate when dealing with death and the use of a philosophy degree. That's what makes blogging a fascinating phenomenon.

My own first experience with death was with birds found along the roadside after DDT was sprayed to kill mosquitoes. My mother explained to me that their life force went elsewhere and the lovely little birds had to change their form. I still think of one's death day as their "change form day."

As for the uses of a philosophy degree: one can use their new-found skills in critical thinking, debate, and communication in such fields as law, government, business administration, journalism, etc. (Though at the moment, those critical thinking skills seem lacking in much of our government... and here we go with another topic, all because you recalled a scene from your life 13 years ago!)

PhilipH said...

Yes Pauline, it's like mixing paint. Dab a splodge of blue onto the yellow splash and you find a shade of green. A drop of red on that new colour and it melds into brown. George Brown, he's the P.M. ... Oh no! Now see what you've started!

Brenda said...

Interesting timing of our 2 blog posts Philip. The post I just did on "The Time Travelers Wife" (though it is fiction)discusses death in a way that I would like to believe is acceptable to most of us. One day we will all see our loved ones who have passed. We just don't know when. I do hope you have chance to read the book and see the movie. They are both excellent! Thanks for visiting my blog!

PhilipH said...

Thanks Brenda. I think I shall enjoy the book; the film? Usually disappointing if I've first read the book - but not every time.

Reasons to be Cheerful 1,2,3 said...

No doubt she'd have remembered it had she been able to look inside the coffin.

I enjoy the style of your writing.

Thanks for visiting my blog and leaving such a useful comment!

Barry said...

Fascinating little slice of life, Philip and beautifully written.

I'm happy to learn the little girl has developed into such an independent woman, but you could sense some of that in her as a child.

Nicely done.

Jo said...

I loved reading this stories of Lady Haddington. I think everyone is fascinated with the British aristocracy. I can just imagine the three elderly ladies, all equals in their advanced years. I imagine Julia in "Brideshead Revisited", now ancient.

I remember when my grandmother died, I was five years old, and I wasn't allowed to attend her funeral. Funerals were "not for children". It makes death somehow more fearful and mysterious to a child.

the walking man said...

Philip..Philosophy has a place, a huge place but the question is what use is a degree in it? How does one make a living at being philosophical?

*shrug* Guilty as charged I do espouse philosophical questions.