We excel at birthdays. But when it comes to deaths, we are positively deficient

Although the members of our little group are rather good on the populist political implications of the fuel crisis and the pseudo-relationships engendered by Big Brother, we're not so hot when it comes to dealing with the death and terminal illness that overtakes our parents from time to time.

Part of the problem is our thoroughgoing individualism. We are so committed to the idea that we are creatures of our own making that we avoid talking about mothers and fathers, lest this is seen as an admission that we were, even partially, constituted by genetic or childhood influences. One or two of us are vaguely aware that Geoff's mother spends most of her life in a wheelchair and that Sarah's father has a neural complaint that occasionally causes him to fall over in public. But otherwise, we prefer to regard parents as mildly irritating burrs that somehow attached themselves to our identity while we were looking the other way.

This doesn't mean that we don't have standard recipes for dealing with parental emergencies. So when Judith turned up at the meeting we had arranged in The Yorkshire Grey last month to discuss the relationship between paedophilia and the sexualisation of childhood, and announced that she would have to leave early in order to travel to Huddersfield for her mother's funeral, Geoff was immediately on hand with some necessary consolation.

What Judith had to realise, he said, was that old people were frequently relieved by the prospect of death. Whereas people of our own age were thoroughly immersed in forthcoming projects, those whose lives were drawing to a close tended to live in a world that was already circumscribed, like a child's, by nothing more than the brute contingencies of life: getting out of bed, making a cup of tea, opening the door to the woman from social services.

He remembered his own father saying, on his deathbed, that he was positively glad it was all over. Old age had never been any fun, and he now felt tired and looked forward to a long, deep sleep. At least then, there would be no more pain. All of this might have been considerably more comforting if Geoff had only had the sensitivity to wait for Judith's further information that her mother had died at the age of 64, after being hit on a zebra crossing by a drunken motorcyclist. "I could have sworn her mother had bowel cancer," he protested weakly, after Judith had made her final tearful excuses and set off for King's Cross.

Even without her newfound knowledge of Geoff's insensitivity, Judith would have been unlikely to suggest that any of us might like to attend her mother's funeral. She would have known from experience that, although we are excellent at celebrating each other's birthdays and occupational achievements, we are positively deficient when it comes to mourning. When Mike lost his father last November, we all regarded it as a mark of character that, only two days later, he felt able to come along to our seminar on globalisation and had even found time, in between ringing undertakers and crematoria, to work up a powerful critique of Manuel Castells's views on the age of information.

When Geoff praised him afterwards for his phlegmatic attitude, Mike happily quoted Goethe: "It is always better to enchant friends a little with the results of our existence than to sadden or worry them with a confession of how we feel." I immediately jotted these words down in my quotations notebook. They might come in very useful if Judith finds it difficult to snap out of her current grief in time for Mike's monster 50th at Groucho's next week.

This article first appeared in the 25 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Women: still firmly in their place