One Big Hand

Today’s writing prompt is death and its inevitable altering of our perspectives, which will help me introduce a story that stopped me in my tracks last week.

As someone living, death is one obviously peripheral thing. Much like having kids, it is a thing I can appreciate the magnitude of while maintaining the pleasure of ignorance and dismissal. When someone dies around you, it is not often death that suddenly comes into focus, it is something else, some other issue or idea that comes out from the blurred side line. Ideas, issues– people that have spent a lifetime out of view.

When Laura Winham died in November 2017, she was 38, and she had first taken a blanket and situated herself on the floor. Three years later, it would be her estranged brother who would see her blanketed foot through the letterbox. If Laura had not been dead and only sleeping, she may have awoken only to find the nightmare prolonged– she was afraid of her brother and much of her family; but her unsubstantiated fear of them ended with her hushed death. 

In this case, unlike Sheila Seleoane from No.16, we know why Laura Winham was dead and unfound. Before Laura had taken to the floor, she had perhaps first accepted that she had run out of food, that she no longer had the capacity to sift through her mounting debt– a small hill of letters from creditors were found blocking the doorway. She’d run out of food because her disability allowance had been cut off without so much as a welfare check. Her disability allowance had been cut off, because she was thin, largely immobile, overgrown with neglect, and suffering from Schizophrenia; she was not in the position to rectify anything. 

The adult social care teams that orbited Laura in the decade after her sectioning in 2006 had tried with her initially. Though, where they saw relentless care as something that far exceeded their duty, Laura’s family did not, which is why we know of Laura Winham today. 

When a person is found dead, has been dead for a longtime, but has slipped away without so much as a ripple, the idea that they ever did exist becomes far more debatable than it was when they actually did. The kinds of people who die in this way are not often the sort to write themselves down anywhere, there is little evidence that they were ever here. For this, their legacies are not thorough and passionate, they are pleas– cautionary tales. It is simply: ‘what things allowed this incomprehensible thing to happen’, because it cannot go much further. Laura took a steep decline after beating many odds to graduate from university– this is the skeletal story that deepens the shade of the tragedy while further starving us of absolution. Our instinct is to try and know these individuals, so that we can offer up the love they were routinely denied, albeit too late now, we cannot. 

Though Laura’s family were alienated by her, they did know her, they did love her when it mattered to, which spurred the relentlessness of their concern. Maybe we cannot ask social care groups or housing associations to know their clients enough to love them. Maybe there can be no room for idealism, no talk of going the extra mile when there are issues of funding and resources. Does that then leave love-inspired prevention tactics to those of us that are deeply hurt by these stories? Must we work our way into the lives of those we may come across with some unspoken deep struggle? I’d see this as fairly reasonable, if we were not all having issues of funding and resources. 

I once had a neighbour we all used to find ourselves avoiding. Pam was in her 60s and very concerned with our lives. She would always ask about Nana, about the dementia that lived next door, but really she was less of a listener, more of a talker; more of a motorway town person, where solidarity is strengthened by mild interest and a long chin wag. All of the neighbours knew this to be true, we all found the 30 minute conversations fatiguing. One day she collapsed in her flat. The light remained on for days. Those of us that saw this light on at 1 in the morning, 4am, 9am, midday thought we better keep out of it, if it were anything at all. She was carried out on a stretcher later on, I saw the ambulance as I was walking home from work. The neighbours from her building were lining the sidewalk. Her brother had raised the alarm, they were always on the phone to one another and she barely missed a call. She died in hospital within days. Someone brought the light up, how they’d seen it but hadn’t wanted to intrude. None of us ever wanted to intrude. 

I am following these sorts of stories closely as I’m sure you are. If Laura or Sheila had been in our buildings, had been in our lives, we would like to comfort ourselves with the idea that we somehow would’ve saved them. We would’ve spent the hours with them, or we would’ve known of their deaths the moment they occurred. Many of us are so perturbed by these stories because we know deep down we wouldn’t have noticed, not right away anyhow. We don’t have much to spare. So, who does that leave? Whose hand is large enough to catch a person as they fall through the cracks?

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