Podcast Episode 5 - Erica Buist on 'Don't Fear The Reaper'

With Halloween right around the corner, our story this week comes from journalist Erica Buist, who shares an intimate and moving story about coming to terms with the sudden and unexpected death of her father-in-law.

Here's her story:

"It's funny how your brain lies to you about where a story starts. I know really that this story doesn't start with me snooping in a dead man's fridge. It wasn't an official post-mortem, but my fiancé's father was still upstairs in his bed and I needed a quick answer. 

Of course, confirmation bias is what it is, and there aren't many causes of death that can be diagnosed by looking in a fridge. I saw everything I knew he'd been eating for years, in an unflinching daily routine, stacked on the shelves like a visual NHS list of how to drop dead of heart disease - chocolate, cheese, bacon, sausages... a few wrinkled baby tomatoes. 

The dead send all sorts of signals to let you know they've gone. It takes a while to spot them because we're rather more calibrated to the messages of the living. We notice phone calls and emails more readily than a week of silence. And we're quicker to register a neighbour walking his dog than a front door that hasn't been opened or a car that hasn't been driven. Milk and papers left uncollected on the doorstep shout a little louder. But nothing matches the deafening scream of finding the man himself in bed - with a book on his chest and glasses on his head, horrifyingly transformed by eight days of decay. 

It took us eight days to realise anything was wrong. And I know that because I also performed an amateur time of death investigation by looking at his emails. Which he checked the same time every day - so, thanks for that Chris... 

I know the story really starts when my husband Dion got a call from his Dad's cleaner. He sent me a text that said 'Bobby's at Dad's and he's not answering the door or phone. Milk and paper haven't been collected and the dog is barking. He's probably just asleep or out, right?'. 

Suspicion that something's wrong. Confirmation that something's wrong. Denial that something's wrong. 

That text was as good as a death certificate. 

But also it was 8.30am on a Tuesday. No way was he asleep. We lived with  his father for two years while we studied and muddled through the worst of the job crisis, and he once whispered to me conspiratorially that he'd had a lie-in until 6am! Anytime I got up after 8am, he'd be like 'half the day's gone!'. 

Newspapers left uncollected. He'd usually read them and assumed their opinions as his own by now. Milk left on the doorstep - with half the day gone? Unthinkable. 

One of us had to go and find him dead. And it had to be Dion. 

There must have been at least a few fibres of my being that weren't sure that Chris was gone, because as I was walking to the tube, still not sure whether to go to Chris's house or to work, and Dion called and told me in a strangled voice, 'you have to come, he's dead', I stopped in the middle of the road. My vision blurred, and people crossed the road around me. I stumbled through the gates at Bow Road and a cheerful cockney told me 'Cheer up darling, it might never happen!'... 

On the tube from Bow Road to Archway, which is approximately three tissues and two vomit scares long, realisations went off in my head like explosions. We're not seeing him next weekend. He won't be at our wedding. We're not going to South Africa next month. Dion has no parents left. 

I arrived at the house and found Dion mopping up dog mess in the kitchen. His dad's Doberman Troy had been trapped in their for a week - unfed, unwatered, unwalked.

Dion had arrived at 9.30am, opened the door and called 'Dad'. He went to the kitchen and saw the mess, and Troy's ribs. He fed him twice, already knowing what he would find upstairs. 

He opened the bedroom door and saw his Dad in bed. He must have nodded off while reading. But it had been 8 days. The sight and smell of what was in that room would linger in our minds for month, wake us up at night, and randomly pierce our thoughts like knitting needles through the temple. 

Dion slammed the door shut, and the rickety old handle came off in his hand. He called 999. The paramedics arrived a few minutes later, went straight upstairs, took one look at Chris and leaned over the bannister to call to her partner - 'Don't hurry!'. 

A few minutes later, the police arrived, and they called some undertakers to take away the body. We waited downstairs in the kitchen behind a closed door. We wanted to keep Troy from running upstairs, figuring that everyone should be spared the sight of what happens to a corpse after a week - even a dog. Then there was a knock at the kitchen door, and the police officer came in. 

He said, "Sorry to disturb you... er... we have a situation. The undertakers are here to remove the body, but the handle on the bedroom door has come off."

And Dion said, "Don't worry, that handles off all the time, it's not a problem.

He said, "Yeah, um... the thing is though, the window was open, and unfortunately the wind slammed the door shut, so they can't get out. We need your permission to break down the door."

It took a moment, and a second explanation for us to understand that they were trapped in a room with an eight-day-old corpse, and we were being asked, just ever so politely, if we might authorise their release. 

And Dion said, "Right... that's pretty funny...". Yeah, we laughed too, really loudly. I kind of feel really bad now, because all I know is that the undertakers were being asked to be let out, and all they would have heard from the police officers was (mimes walking, talking and laughter). 

They broke down the door. The smell filled the air. We cowered in the kitchen as they brought the body downstairs, put it in a van and drove it away. 

When I went back to work two days later, I just walked around the office like a zombie. I don't mean I consumed the flesh of my colleagues. I was like a zombie who had just eaten, just like vacant and slow, and stupid... And sometimes they would ask "how are you?", and I would accidentally tell them the truth, and watch their faces contort in horror as word like 'dead' and 'corpse' and 'trauma clean' just tumbled out of my mouth, when the only correct answer was 'Great thanks, how was your weekend?'...

But I was secretive about other things. Like repeatedly finding myself knotted in the corner of my sofa and trembling. And being tempted to ask to work from home, because I genuinely had no idea how I was going to get all the way to the front of the flat, find my shoes, and put them on.

I didn't feel entitled to this level of grief, and that was reinforced with every "How is Dion?".  No one asked how I was. I didn't begrudge them, thinking this has little to do with me. No one assumes you're cut up about the death of an in-law-to-be. Even though the traditional family is falling by the wayside in Britain, we all revert back to traditional ideas when it comes to death. People assumed I hadn't lost anyone - not really. He wasn't MY dad. I didn't have to see the body. I didn't even have to clean up the dog mess. So, when people asked 'How is Dion?', I told them he was coping heroically. But I didn't tell them that I, for some reason, was not... 

So, like anyone else with anxiety, I have - and I believe this is the medical term - an inner shithead, who tells me, with really rational  arguments, why everything is terrifying. Shortly after we found Chris, she pointed out that anyone I'm not looking at might also be dead. And it was hard to fault her logic, so I started the somewhat full time job of ascertaining that everyone I knew was alive - checking their social media posts for recent posts,  nagging them to answer texts and emails, and I now answer the phone with 'Good!'. 

But when I started a new job, working from home, my inner shithead moved on to a bigger project. She started pointing out, with increasing regularity, how much nicer indoors was than outdoors. And I started making her arguments for her, I was like, 'why is everyone so big on going outside EVERYDAY? Like, seriously, who is outside's PR team? Are there outside lobbyists? Like, I have a window! You can Vitamin-D from leeks, and I have four!'. You actually can't get Vitamin-D from leeks, as I found out, but the reason there was so many in the fridge was because Dion had been keeping it stocked, knowing that if there was no food in the house, I would rather stay inside than eat. 

And eventually my inner shithead revealed that there was nothing wrong with outside, per se, it was all just a dirty rotten trick to make me agoraphobic. Just classic inner shithead! I walked right into that one. 

So I did what any journalist worth their salt would do, and I googled, hoping to find an article about curing agoraphobia with a glass of orange juice and an hour of Netflix. But it turns out that the only cure for agoraphobia is basically just to go outside. So I got dressed - didn't have to google that! Totally remembered. And I pulled on a hoodie that said, kind of ironically, 'Life's a Beach'. Which I was reading in a French accent - 'Ze Life, she's a Beetch!

And I went outside to buy a sandwich. Now, I'm going to describe what that was like because I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume there are no agoraphobes here tonight. 

I don't know if you've ever had to wade through a crowd of screaming belligerent drunk people, but that's what the air felt like. So as soon as I stepped out, I was like 'oh, okay, the air is touching my face in a really oppressive way'. It sort of seemed to thicken in my lungs. And - I'd love the CCTV footage of me walking down the street that day, my inner shit head would get a real kick out of that. And I was also sort of cringing away in terror when anyone passed me. It's not that they looked scary - I'm going to level with you, this was Crouch End High Street, so it was basically yummy mummies en route to or from Zumba - so it's not that they looked scary, it was kind of like, you know in the horror movie, when they go into the room and there's a child sitting on the floor, and they're doing something perfectly normal like playing draughts, but they're doing it slowly and they're not blinking... "Mummy, would you like to play draughts with me?"...

That's how everyone looked to me - normal but sinister. And if the air outside was oppressive, the air in the supermarket was just screaming in my face. I went over to the sandwiches - you know they're in those triangular packets, and I was looking at them going 'God, that is a nightmare, the corners, just... what if I drop it? I'll never reach it all the way on the floor..."

So I grabbed one of those sandwich baguettes just for the ease of grip. So I was going to wade over to pay when someone approached me. And she was, in real life, just a nice lady trying to offer me a discount on Jaffa Cakes. And I treated her like she was a toothless demon with open sores, going "Give me a kiss!"...

I believe my exact words were - "NO!!!" and I just threw the sandwich and ran home. I'm sorry to her too.

When I got home, where the air was gentle and thin enough to breathe without effort, I thought, this isn't a normal part of the grieving process is it? I'm pretty sure it's not denial, anger, fear, sandwich throwing, acceptance. No, this is probably what happens when you refuse to grieve because you don't feel entitled to. 

But also, I don't believe Britain is a very good to be when trying to overcome a trauma involving death. We're too afraid of it. We avoid direct mention of it. We have no mourning period, we're just expected to go back to work. And when Death Cafe's started popping up - people meeting to talk about death, that made the news. People speaking openly about death makes headlines in this country!

And I cast my mind back to when I used to live in Mexico, where, as I'm sure you know they have an annul festival for the dead. And I started researching other countries where they have death festivals - or Deathtivals as I now call them. And, as I was doing this, my inner shithead put on Blue Öyster Cult's (Don't Fear) The Reaper to take the piss out of me. 

But the joke's on her, because it actually became the soundtrack to my research, so screw you inner shithead. 

I found out that there are parts of the process of finding someone dead that I would never have assumed are cultural - such as priority number one. Priority number one when you find someone dead is get rid of the body. And then, I found out that in Ifugao, which is a landlocked region of Indonesia, when someone dies they don't get rid of the body straight away. Instead they will prop it up, in front of the house, and leave it there for up to eight days before internment. And during those eight days, they'll perform death rituals, and crack jokes, and have drinks, and basically just have a party while the body decomposes in the stifling heat and humidity. 

Now, I'm not suggesting we import this ritual to the UK - Hampstead would look like Shaun of the Dead wouldn't it, it would be awful. But it is interesting to note that the horror of a decomposing body isn't necessarily instinctive. And this little research expedition that I performed with (Don't Fear) The Reaper on repeat, still wearing my 'Life's a Beach' hoodie, lead to what I'm pretty sure is the opposite of agoraphobia, in the form of the project that I just launched last night, which is called The Deathtivals Project. I am now writing a book in which I will travel the world, attending Deathtivals. Eight of them. One for every day we didn't find Chris. 

And I am aware that people will see a woman travelling for answers and label  it "Eat Pray Love with corpses", but whatever... 

I already started by revisiting Mexico last November, and (Don't Fear) The Reaper was the song that I played while I was waiting for the plane to take off, and - this is embarrassing, but I'm going to share it because I feel we're all friends here now - but I was sat there composing what I thought would be a clever and thoughtful last tweet in case the plane crashed... 

I know I am a strange person to be writing a book about death. I'm not old, or terminally ill, and as the daughter-in-law of the person who kicked this off by dropping dead so unexpectedly, I am an outsider. And I have been told that I have no right to even feel this loss. But writing this book as a grief outsider, I do of course hope to heal what time can't, and perhaps even to understand why facing death makes some people throw a party and others throw a sandwich."


To find out more about Erica's Deathtivals project, check out her website - http://www.thisisnotajourney.com/the-deathtivals-project/