A story of grief by a man and a boy
Warning! Psychologists say that you’re very likely to want to ignore the subject matter of this blog post. Take it from me, though: it may well have the power to change the lives of those you love one day.
I’m not sure if I’ve ever told anyone this before, but when my wife, Desreen, died I checked her emails and found one from Amazon about a package she had arranged to have dropped at one of its lockers at our local supermarket. It was only mid-November but I discovered that it was a Christmas present for me – she was so well organised like that.
Her gift was doubtless designed to be something for us both to enjoy together; I’m absolutely positive she intended to make 36 Hours, 125 Weekends in Europe part of our shared ‘bucket list’ for the future. I wasn’t even meant to have opened it yet but, tragically, it already had the makings of pilgrimage instead.
I don’t exactly remember when bucket lists and ‘things to do before you die’ became, well, ‘a thing’, but I do remember being quite young and feeling rather unsettled by both. A twenty-odd-year-old me wondered, How can people face into death in such an upbeat way? And were they even doing that, or had the subject of death only come into it to give people the excuse to take time out of everyday life to do the things they love? Perhaps when death is the bit that comes after a chronology of amazing life experiences, then it’s not so tough to swallow.
‘So why then,’ I asked a psychologist some months back, ‘do people so often avoid talking about the consequences of death when they really must be dealt with in life?’
Dr. Thomas Webb, a social psychologist at the University of Sheffield, and I were talking about life insurance and, more specifically, why so many adults with children don’t have it.
‘Terror Management Theory can probably explain it,’ he suggested as I stared back at him blankly – my knowledge of psychology not stretching far beyond sitting opposite a counsellor once a week. ‘It suggests that people have a tendency to suppress thoughts of their own death so quickly that they often don’t even surface in consciousness.’
I immediately thought of how my son used to deal with his mum’s death when he was still really small.
‘Daddy, I really miss Mummy,’ a two-year-old Jackson would cry as his words took hold of my heart, crushing it. ‘Oh look! A squirrel!’ he would then exclaim excitedly, instantly distracted by his own immediate consciousness. As I picked my emotions up off the floor, he could invariably be seen chasing a small creature round the park, laughing hysterically like it was the best moment of his life.
Dr. Webb and I were working together on a study by the Institute of Inertia – a partnership between comparethemarket.com and the University of Sheffield – of which he is chair, following my own tragic (yet merciful) experience of life insurance. Desreen and I took out a policy just eight months before she was killed, which has since afforded me the house that our son and I now live in together in southeast London.
According to the study, though, roughly half of British parents don’t have life insurance and over two-fifths have never discussed the financial implications of death with their partners.
Although I’m now pretty much obsessed about making sure my friends all have life insurance, these stats really doesn’t surprise me at all. It wasn’t until our hands were forced, when Desreen started her own business, that we even thought about it. It wasn’t like we had avoided it – it just hadn’t even crossed our minds.
But how could that be when we were otherwise such conscientious parents?
‘It’s straightforward,’ Dr. Webb explained, ‘people suppress thoughts of their own death simply because they don’t like thinking about it. And there’s evidence to suggest that they do so relatively automatically too, which may indeed prohibit people from protecting their families.’
So how can anyone be expected to address the financial uncertainty of their death if they aren’t even naturally programmed to be able to think about it?
The answer, apparently, can be found not in life but in love. The new study proposes that the word ‘life’ may inherently make people think of death, and that when they think about death they quite naturally switch off.
As a result, the Institute of Inertia set out to investigate the idea of reframing life insurance as ‘love insurance’ – a label social psychologists suggest may be more engaging as it alludes to more ‘mind-pleasing’ security and protection, rather than death.
Dr. Webb explains, ‘It’s possible that removing the word ‘life’ and therefore the idea of death from life insurance could help people protect those that they love should something happen to them.’
The research looks promising, too; nearly a third more parents say they would take out a ‘love insurance’ policy.
Shakespeare’s Juliet famously said, ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,’ but perhaps she was wrong after all. Maybe a label has the potential to change everything.
Hers, like so many others’, was a tragic story of love ultimately challenged by death. Perhaps this insight has the power to see love challenge tragic death right back – even if only financially.