28 March 2023

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Shobna Gulati: A refreshing approach to dementia

Have you ever thought about your fantasy funeral, pondered your dream epitaph or wondered what you do if knew you had a week left on Earth?

A selection of six writers, comedians and actors shared their innermost feelings about death, dying and loss with us with a carefully crafted combination of candour and comedy in our podcast series Dead Good.

Shobna Gulati
Photo credit Andy Hollingworth

We’ve picked out some of the best bits in a new series of articles and if you like what you read you can then click on the link at the end of each one to hear the whole of that interview. They really are rather good – Dead Good in fact.

“I know this sounds sort of strange, but I look forward to death. I look forward to it as much as I look forward to every day of living. It’s kind of like a balance for me.”

That’s the philosophy of dinnerladies, EastEnders and Coronation Street actress Shobna Gulati. Her journey to reaching this point of acceptance includes the sudden death of her father when she was just a teenager, years of caring for her mother with dementia and then her own role as a mother keen to provide her son with an awareness and understanding of death and dying she had to teach herself.

Growing up in the UK with grandparents and extended family in India, Shobna was aware of the dreaded phone calls in the middle of the night to communicate bad news but was protected from their full impact. That was until one night in January 1985 when she heard her mother answering one of those calls in the wee small hours to be told her husband, Shobna’s father, had died while on a trip to India.

She was in the middle of her mock A-Levels and so didn’t travel out for the funeral but clearly remembers finding great comfort in the fact she’d resolved an argument with father just before he flew out.

“Thank goodness I did, because I don’t know how that would have affected me otherwise, you know, if I hadn’t had said goodbye and I’m sorry.

“Well, it has been important to me. I can’t speak for everybody else, but I feel like that has given me a certain amount of peace in my grief.”

In contrast to her father’s sudden death, Shobna’s mother was ill for many years with dementia and then bowel cancer too. She says she lost her in stages and found it a, “complicated, hard, frustrating, saddening, devastating process to be in.”

This feeling was though more than balanced by the journey of discovery to find her mother, as a person.

“We found something between us that was so, so special. And I found out about her. I found out about her as a woman, in a way, and as a child and as a woman.”

Shobna believes her training as a dancer and actor provided her with a coping mechanism when her mother finally died. This included taking on the role of organiser of her mother’s funeral.

“So that performance, that performance at my mum’s funeral was very much I felt I’m producing the show. I’m the manager.”

There was another performance as she and her sisters sang a reworking of the Beatles song All My Loving – one which they used to perform together in a band called the Golden Eagles, managed by their father.

As for her own death and dying legacy, Shobna is determined to ensure she passes on less of a burden to her son and ensure that he’s no stranger to the concept of death and dying.

“I speak about it all the time. I thought, well, I have to teach him everything.” This included teaching him the hard realty of life and death – by watching Bambi, when he was just three and now involves planning for the future. “I feel like one of my jobs whilst I’m alive is to sort things out and write him notes.

I got no clues from my mum, it’s just, it’s the hardest thing. I think losing somebody. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle that I can’t solve. And that is really frustrating when you are a person like me who needs answers.”

Shobna’s Departure Lounge

We asked the questions you want to know but might be afraid to ask!

How would you spend your last week on earth? Nothing! And true to form miss her death deadline.

Fantasy Funeral: To be organised by her son and include a dance to a Prince track and a moment when everyone said her name – pronouncing it correctly.

Epitaph: It’s a beginning.

For Shobna’s theories on the comforting effect of Punjabi food and on how gardening can help you better understand death and dying, listen to the full interview in our Dead Good podcast here.

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