Rainer's Blog

One month on...

Emmaline died at lunchtime on the 1 June 2015 at Caritas Christi. We put in place a plan for funeral director Libby Moloney to come and pick up her body and then we had five hours to sit with her before she was taken away. The staff at Caritas were very respectful and made a lot of space for us both in her room and throughout the building. It was an incredibly important time. We drifted in and out of the room. Anouk and Christian spent time with her. Nelleke sat on her bed. Sometimes we were in silence other times we talked to her. We walked in the garden and prepared and ate food. I spent a lot of time on my own in her room, cleaning her face and body, dressing and arranging her clothes, holding her hand, saying goodbye, and crying bigger tears than I knew were possible. She was so peaceful, in contrast to the previous couple of days of struggle. It took hours for the warmth to leave her body.

Shelf in Emmaline's room at Caritas Christi, 1 June 2015.

Shelf in Emmaline's room at Caritas Christi, 1 June 2015.

The week after Emmaline died was so hectic. We had to let people know what had happened. And there was so much to organise. On the other hand the flurry of organisation was totally absorbing and distracting - a good diversion from the reality of what had just happened.

Emmaline had told me that when she died she wanted me to arrange a home vigil. She wanted her body brought back to our house so that close friends and family could be given an opportunity to come and say goodbye. She wanted it to be creative, healing and connecting, especially for our girls. The prospect was daunting, and I'd talked about my hesitation with her before she died. But she said that getting the vigil right was what was most important to her. She didn't mind what happened with her funeral.

So on the Saturday following Emmaline’s death we started to prepare the house for her return. We completely cleared out the front room and rearranged the furniture throughout the whole house. This in itself was therapeutic, an acknowledgement that everything in our lives was now to be different. We bought a single bed from the op shop which was to be her bed for the day. We decorated her room with garden flowers and foliage, and Nelleke's paintings and drawings. Nelleke selected objects from around the house, that were special to Em in different ways, to place in the room. In the lounge we set up a shrine with photos and other special objects. I selected Brian Eno’s Music for Airports to play on repeat, an album that was special to us as a couple. In the garden we put up signs with photos and quotes from Emmaline about her love of gardening. 

When Emmaline’s body arrived on the Sunday we wheeled her in on a trolley and laid her in her bed. Libby put a little make up on her face to give her some colour. Nelleke painted her nails – not a bright colour just a subtle sparkle. We lit a single candle. Then through the day we had a selection of close friends and family come and pay their respects. It was an imperfect list and we didn’t manage to invite all the people that I wanted to invite, but it worked. People brought flowers and foliage from their gardens and laid them around her bed. Libby and celebrant Sally Cant met people at the door, told them what to do and expect, and helped manage the flow through the room. They gave the event an air of graceful formality. Em had said she wanted to be buried in a shroud rather than a coffin. Cremating a coffin seemed wasteful, and the idea of hiding her body, hiding death, seemed repressive. So we chose a shroud and laid it out in the living room and as people came through the house we invited them to draw or write messages on the material. Nelleke helped with the decoration.

So many people helped with the event. Em's cousin Trina Power stayed with us after Em died and did so much. Our friend Nina Roberts helped Nelleke to make beautiful artworks to decorate Em's room. Tessa Fluence and Emma Kowal worked on the garden signs. Caro Macdonald filmed the vigil. Gabrielle Sullivan took photos. Donna, John, Christian, Anica and Freya were all pivotal. So many other people gave so much. 

I'd never spent much time with a dead body before and was quite apprehensive about the day. But from the moment Emmaline arrived at our house I felt so proud. Emmaline was as beautiful to me in death as in life. She was really cold, there was none of the fading warmth that I had felt in the hours after death. But her body was still her's. I'd been so deeply distressed when she'd left our house for Caritas Christi. I'd really wanted her to die at home, but in the event it had seemed too hard. It was such a huge, huge relief to bring her home. I'd worried that our girls seeing her dead body might lead to them having nightmares or that seeing her body might give me nightmares – but as it turned out it seems that precisely the opposite is true. Now I think it is the hiding of death, and the imagined dead body, that causes nightmares.

Many of our rituals around death are about hiding the fact. The dead body is taken away, often as quickly as possible. We imagine the morgue as a place of horror. The coffin hides the form of the body. Sometimes the funeral director will arrange a “viewing” but only in a highly controlled and unfamiliar environment divorced from our everyday lives. The body can be subjected to invasive treatments, embalmed and filled with toxic chemicals. Connecting in a meaningful way with Emmaline's body was just so deeply therapeutic. I'm so grateful to her for insisting that we hold a home vigil.

The funeral was three days later on the Tuesday. For the venue we'd settled on Duneira at Mount Macedon (at Libby's suggestion). It was the first time they'd held a funeral but it was a perfect setting, with an amazing house (full of beautiful art and craft) and an old, rambling garden. We had a 300 person marquee set up on the tennis court, where Emmaline’s body was laid out. Nelleke’s music teacher Katie Hull-Brown arranged for her choir to sing. When everyone stood at the beginning of the service and the choir began singing "Let it Shine on Me" I just dissolved. I've honestly never been so moved by a piece of music: the song that opens your wife's funeral is inscribed permanently on your soul and becomes part of your DNA. People brought flowers from their gardens which were laid around Em’s body. Emmaline's aunt Gemma Schooneveldt was the celebrant. She gave a beautiful and moving service. Tessa Fluence designed and had printed out a beautiful memorial book, with wonderful photos from Tobias Titz. Lucy Mora coordinated amazing food. John, Donna, Christian, Amy and Trina all contributed to the service. Following the lunch, Anna Pulford, Nina Roberts, Emma Kowal, Juleiaah Koren, and Gabrielle Sullivan gave eulogies. Talya Mathews coordinated cakes for afternoon tea - and more than 30 friends and family baked them. Many other people helped in diverse ways.

The funeral was beautiful, and I'm enormously grateful for that.

I had spent a huge amount of time thinking, and talking with Emmaline, about how Nelleke and Anouk would deal with their grief. As much as possible I wanted to make a safe space for them to process their feelings and find ways to live without Em. But I hadn’t thought much about my grief. After the funeral it has hit me: violent, visceral, deep, raw pain. 

Probably to the outside world I look like any normal functioning person, but inside I feel completely destroyed. I'm on the edge of tears the whole time. When I get a moment to myself I sob and sob. 

Following Em's death (and particularly following the funeral) all the objects in our house seemed to differentiate and rear forward at me. Every part of our inanimate world carries layers of memory and grief. Every item in our lives has a complex shared story. There is no escaping my grief because everywhere I look is infused with Emmaline's presence.

And it's not just objects but all the places where we've lived out our life together. Everywhere I go is overlaid with memory and association. When I can I drive and walk around the city to places of particular significance to us - houses where we'd lived, parks where we'd spent time together, cafes, restaurants, shops, libraries... I just stand in these places and cry. Strangely, the supermarket is a place of particular pain. It's like it's an extension of our private, domestic space. For so many years we've shopped with or for each other and every decision to buy or not buy something now just highlights Emmaline's absence. 

I'm also filled with regret about our relationship. Over the years Em and I were together we loved each other deeply, but often we didn’t care for each other very well day to day. Our issues, pre-cancer, were as Em put it, "so commonplace as to not be worth mentioning". But my regret now, my wishing that I'd been more present and caring for Em during the time we were together, is in some ways the hardest and sharpest part of my grief. It really hurts. It'd always felt like there'd be so much time to sort out our issues. Things didn't need to be perfect on any given day because there were decades to get things right. We both wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. And starting a family is so demanding: it felt like nurturing our love for each other was something that could wait. I was wrong.