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How sleeping next to the dead body of a loved one can help people grieve.

I’ve always regretted not seeing my grandmother’s body in her open casket at her funeral.

It’s not a sharp, overwhelming regret. It doesn’t keep me awake at night. But it’s there, a small pang, every time I think about her.

At the time I didn’t want to see her like that. I wanted to remember her as she was in life, feeding us savoury mince and treats and then more (oh, way too much) savoury mince.

Now, I wish I’d done it differently. Seeing her body would act like a snapshot in my mind, a piece of evidence to prove to myself she is no longer the happy, cheeky, savoury mince-loving person that she was in life.

I needed a way to transition from the last time I saw her – eyes alert and twinkling behind her too-big-for-her-face glasses – to what there is now – absolute nothingness. Only now do I realise seeing her body would have completed this transition.

Listen: How a $9 teddy bear can help your kids cope with grief. Post continues below.

My story is very different to that of Ilse Fieldsend in the UK, who lost her three-year-old daughter Georgia to an unexpected brain aneurysm. It’s different again to Russell Davison, who lost his 50-year-old wife and “soul mate” Wendy to cervical cancer.

Both Ilse and Russell have been in the news over the last week for not only viewing the body of their loved one, but taking that body home with them. Sleeping next to Wendy. Washing Georgia’s hair. Holding their hands. Stroking their foreheads.

It’s unconventional in a society that finds it so difficult to talk about anything that has anything to do with death.

The headlines – ‘I kept my daughter in her bed for 11 days after she died‘ and ‘Man who slept next to his dead wife’s body for six days‘ – hit us in a place we don’t expect. They make us cringe, squirm, feel uncomfortable. But the concept is the same as an open casket at my grandmother’s funeral.

It’s about saying goodbye. Acknowledging the transition between life and death. And providing evidence to the mind for what the heart can’t accept.

Both Ilse and Russell said the time they spent with the body of their loved ones was invaluable.

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“I stroked Georgia’s forehead and told her how much I loved her,” Ilse told The Telegraph.

“I was a wreck, and often left her room to cry, but I still savoured every moment I had her next to me.”

Russell called it a “decompression chamber”.

“We just found so much comfort from it,” he told The Independent.

“Wendy had died, but we had still got her. We knew she was no longer alive, but it felt like an emotional decompression chamber, to start the [grieving] process.

“Otherwise it would have been such a sudden thing.  Your loved one dies, and normally within a few hours, the funeral director takes her away in a black plastic bag in a black van.”

It is not a new concept. Some cultures have always understood the importance, benefits even, of having a transition period.

In Maori culture, for example, Tangihanga is a funeral rite that sees the body surrounded by people in the three days after death. The body is specially presented and rarely left unattended, usually held at a sacred site.

But in Australia ours is not a culture that honours the dead. We don’t talk about death. We turn away from funeral arrangements. Headlines about mothers sleeping with their dead daughters, or men with their dead wives, are more shocking than they are touching.

Maybe it’s time this changed.

Ilse and Russell have shown us a beautiful way of coming to terms with a horrific and heartbreaking truth.

And, the same way I wish I’d seen my grandmother’s body at her funeral, I envy my brother for being brave enough to seek out his evidence – the proof he needed of her passing.

It didn’t stop him from remembering her as she was in life. It just helped him understand a new world, that was sadder and less sparkly and had fewer servings of savoury mince, without her in it.

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