How I understood the value of the death knock

We were talking at work today about our former lives as newspaper journalists. A colleague asked whether we’d ever had to knock on doors when someone had died. Of course we said yes – death knocks are an unavoidable reality for most journalists on regional or local papers.

I’ve had doors slammed in my face. I’ve had people try to wrestle my notepad from my hands. And I’ve also had the privilege of being welcomed into people’s homes at the most difficult of times to try to do justice to the memory of their lost loved one by telling their story.

Social media has probably changed this kind of reporting job now – I guess it’s easier to plunder Facebook for tribute quotes and photos of the deceased than to knock on a bereaved stranger’s door with your heart in your mouth – but there’s still no substitute for that kind of personal touch which encourages a grieving family to share their memories with you.

I used to dread being sent out on a death knock. I’d drive out to the address with a knot in my stomach, willing the journey not to end. I’d sit in the car with my heart thumping. Sometimes I’d bottle out completely and just stick a note through the door with my contact details. I was all too aware that inside the house was a family who had lost a loved one, usually in tragic circumstances. Why would they want to speak to me?

It wasn’t until one particular death knock that I really understand what it all meant. I will never forget the 11-year-old girl, Cherry, who died in a tragic accident when a tree fell on the car she was travelling in with her mother and sister during a storm in October 2002.

The family lived in a town on the edge of my patch. It must have been one of those times when I popped a gentle note through the door, as by the time I got back to the office, the father had already called to say he’d like to speak to me.  Back I went, less nervous this time – he wasn’t going to swear at me and slam the door in my face! – but still not looking forward to it.

He welcomed me in, made me a cup of tea, and proceeded to tell me all about his wonderful little girl. She was such a sweet,  friendly, caring child, who had so loved the kittens playing around our feet. He cried; I cried.

When I finally headed back to the office, I was armed with scores of photos and pages and pages of loving memories. Writing the story was easy. If I remember rightly, it made the first three pages of the paper.

I thought about Cherry often and later did a follow up with the family. It was then that I found out the true value of the death knock.

Cherry’s father had had my story laminated and carried it with him at all times. Whenever someone asked him about his daughter, he pulled out my story and showed them “this is who she was”. It was comforting to him to have a permanent public record of his daughter’s life. She lived, she was here, and she was loved.

Ten years on I still feel moved by the memory of this particular assignment. Talking about Cherry today at work still made me well up. I feel immensely proud to have done work that truly made a difference.

If you’re interested in this subject have a look at Why I’ll Never Get Used To Death Knocks. The post itself paints a very well-written picture of what a death knock is like, but the author gets a real mauling in the comments. It was so interesting to me to see some public perceptions of this difficult task.

The secret meaning behind In The Night Garden’s opening words*

UPDATE April 2017: Comedian Jason Manford likes this post so much that he made a video of it! 

* according to my husband

After the doctor gently told us that our 14-month-old son had pneumonia and tonsillitis, I put my faith in strong antibiotics, an inhaler and Calpol to help him recover, all washed down with extra boob, plenty of snuggles and back to back episodes of In The Night Garden.

The adventures of Iggle Piggle and friends will always remind me of these past few days, cuddling up with my poorly boy and seeing him improve little by little. I’m finding myself humming the opening theme and working the words into my everyday conversations.

The night is black

And the stars are bright

And the sea is dark and deep,

But someone I know is safe and snug

And they’re drifting off to sleep.

Round and round,

A little boat

No bigger than your hand,

Out on the ocean,

Far away from land.

Take the little sail down,

Light the little light.

This is the way to the garden in the night.

I get a little shiver down my spine whenever I hear these words, especially the last few lines. It’s so zen, isn’t it? Take your sail down to get where you’re going; take your light with you to see the way in the darkness.

With echoes of the much-loved bedtime favourite The Going to Bed Book by Sandra Boynton (“The moon is high. The sea is deep. They rock and rock and rock to sleep”), this restful beginning grabs my son’s attention and leaves him spellbound.

But thanks to my husband, I now have a shadow meaning chasing my little shiver of pleasure as Iggle Piggle beds down for his journey.

Do not read further if you want to keep this image from your mind……

So, hubby says: Iggle Piggle is a dying sailor, blue with cold. Facing his unavoidable, lonely demise adrift in the middle of the ocean, far from land and hope of rescue, he admires the beauty of the night sky and acknowledges the vastness of the sea which will claim him. He decides to take down the sail to use for warmth, knowing that he no longer needs to it to help him get anywhere, and lights a lamp to aid retrieval of his body, should a boat happen to pass.

As he sails towards the garden in the night – death – he starts seeing flowers in front of his eyes and hallucinates happier times of running towards his (departed) friends, who are waiting to greet him in the sunshine. He imagines more and more fanciful things – colourful birds, huge inflatables bouncing along with manic grins, Tardis-like transportation bigger inside than out – until all his friends leave him behind.

At the end of the programme, Iggle Piggle is of course the last to go to sleep, the last of his crew left. The omniscient narrator reassures him: “Don’t worry, Iggle Piggle! It’s time to go!” – something we would all want to feel in our final moments – and he drops down flat on his back, sailing off into the night back in his little boat.

Thanks for that, hubby.

* November 6th, edited to add:

I should mention that my hubby reckons I’ve painted an overly dark picture of what he said. “The Night Garden is not an unpleasant thing – it’s predominantly a paradise rather than a negative experience.” So there. Actually, we agree that it’s really just about the experience of falling asleep. There’s no point trying to force sleep; the only way to sleep and to dream is to take down your metaphorical sail. We all know that the harder you try, the more difficult it is to drop off. Sleep tight, Iggle Piggle 🙂

UPDATE April 2017: Comedian Jason Manford likes this post so much that he made a video of it!