On Death

Ponderings February 12th, 2007

We live in a privileged society where death is but a remote possibility. It’s something that happens, yes, but it’s something far off and distant. We don’t even think about death. When someone who’s close dies suddenly and unexpectedly it is an affront to our fundamental view on how-things-are. We are not prepared, and when it happens we are so unaccustomed to such strong feelings of sorrow and grief that sometimes it leaves us completely altered.

Death can come at any time – this was highlighted last week by the death of a guy who was in the year above me at school. He died of an aneurysm whilst traveling in Canada. No warning signs, no sickness, BANG – brain dead before he hit the tiles. He was 27, just one year older than me, and far younger than the average life expectancy (at birth) for males of 78.5 (83.3 for women). Sure, he’s not close to me; He is that far off distant guy who dies and you actually hear about. But he’s close to somebody. He’s someone’s son, and someone’s boyfriend.

He’s about the 5th person I’ve “known” who’s died. I say “known” even though I couldn’t tell you a thing about him. I’d met him, talked to him at a couple of parties, and that’s about it. I’ve only been to two funerals, one was for my Grandad (obviously not the blogging Grandad), and the other was for my good friend’s brother who committed suicide. The first death was semi-expected, people get old, and they die – so you don’t get that great sense that somethings gone terribly wrong in the world. Sure you grieve, but it doesn’t leave an open wound: you get over it. A sudden death, and in particular a suicide, leaves you wondering what part of society failed. It leaves you feeling cold. It makes you ask yourself some pretty confronting questions. It was a real head-fuck for me and I barely knew the guy. I can only imagine the feelings my friend would have experienced for the loss of her brother.

So here’s my advice to you. Think about death. Think about the death of a loved one when you lay in bed at night. Think about what would happen if they were taken away suddenly. What would happen? Would you have to tell the parents? How would you react if they blamed you? Could you make a speech at the funeral? Would you write on your blog about it? What would it be like lying in your bed at your house knowing that they’ll never be back, that you’ll never see their smile again, hear them talk or feel their touch. Think about every detail – what happens when you go to solicitors office to sort out inheritance? Would you be relieved to inherit something? Or distressed?

You’ll choke up, at least I hope you do. It should make you feel bad, woeful in fact. Don’t dismiss these feelings just yet – follow them through. What would happen afterwards? Would you move away to try and bury the pain? Or would you stay close to your friends? How would you feel when someone asked about it? Would your friends always look at you with a sense of pity? How would you react to that?

Maybe instead of a quick death, think about long, slow, painful deaths like cancer. Say your partner gets a tumor, what does it feel like to know that they’re going to die? Could you even stand it?

Do this alone, in a place where you can fully experience the grief, anguish and pain that is associated with the thoughts. Immerse yourself in the situation. Do this, because you can always just tell yourself that it’s not true, and that it hasn’t really happed. Your loved one is fine and sound asleep right next to you. You can still reach out and touch them.

Death is final, it’s resolute, there is no going back. No Ctrl-Z Undo or F7 restore-to-last-save. Maybe these thoughts will spur you to change some things, maybe try to get to know your parents or grandparents a little better. Maybe you can just sit back and appreciate that they are still alive and you can enjoy some time with them. Maybe you won’t feel like changing anything, but you’ve now experienced the tip of the ice-berg, you know what it might be like if you encounter the sudden death of a loved one. Maybe it won’t be such an affront to your core being because you’ve actually thought about it before. You have felt what grief and anguish feels like and will be able to recognise and deal with those feelings when they well up when/if the real thing happens.

7 Responses to “On Death”

  1. grandad Says:

    when I was younger than you, there was a war on and people died quite regularly and suddenly. People were there one day and gone the next and one didn’t seem to expect the permanency of life expected today. Accordingly, people didn’t seem so concerned with death and were more interested in enjoying there life as it was. Often very hard especially by modern standards but still there was things to celebrate and laugh about.
    The matter of suffering is quite different to life, the person that suffers is often waiting for death and the loved ones are sometimes also hoping for a similar relief fot their loved one. People can withstand great suffering and still remain sane and recover, e.g. the people in the Nazi concentration camps were reduced to living skeletons yet still those that survived frequently managed to return to a normal life though they must have been scarred. I suppose that you could say that suffering is life just as much as is enjoyment and birth.
    If you are to get the most out of life, you should always try to understand your fellow men and women and not expect them to be exactly as you are but to hope that they will also respect your views. You should also always remember that life is a ” joke ” , it can be cruel and kind and it works without regard to what you think you deserve so you see people that do every thing that you despise and yet succeed relatively, whereas, there are others that seem to deserve a lucky break and get it but it’s bad luck. It is no good bemoaning these set backs and apparent miscarriages of justice, you just have to appreciate the joke and keep trying to do what you think is right and what in the long run will enrich your life.
    I suppose that Grandma and I are approaching the end of our lives but I think that we have accepted that death is really the climax of life and since we have enjoyed our lives and had a good innings we can’t grumble. If we have been successful we will have people mourne our passing and remember us for a few years at least.
    All of this is hypothetical because until we actually get there we don’t really know how we will make the last gasp! All I know is that at the present time we enjoy living and don’t wish to die any sooner than we have to, a lot of the enjoyment of life is sharing with our families and friends and having their love and regard given to us so freely.
    So don’t worry too much about death, it will come to you and to all of us when our time is up!

  2. Simon Gemmell Says:

    I’m not going to worry about it too much, my point was that us young people live in a privileged society (i.e. no wars, no famine etc) and we really don’t really appreciate the gravity of death.

    Sure, we shouldn’t let thoughts of death impinge on our enjoyment of life, but we should give death the credit it deserves. It’s final and it’s resolute. If you don’t think about it, or don’t experience it then it’ll be a big shock to the system when it does come around.

    I think thats one of the really good things about pets – they teach people about death. When a well loved pet dies it causes all the same emotions as the death of a loved one would, but without the same intensity.

  3. grandad Says:

    You are taking a narrow view of life and treating it in too localized a way, there is plenty of famine and wars going on, your experience in India should have shown you that not all the world is a comfortable place.
    However, you should have also realized that even though the people of India live at a different level of luxury, they also still have their loves and pleasures, hates and struggles and eventually they face death.
    When faced with the death of a loved one there is mourning and great sorrow; however, life still has to go on and time tends to soften the loss.
    Some societies show great emotion when faced with death, others are more stoic and less emotive, however, death in every case has its difficulties.
    Grandma and I live alone mostly and we both know that eventually one of us is going to fail to wake when called. This is a time which I, and probably Grandma, dread the coming of. When one dies, he or she is released from any more resposibility, so is no longer in a state of caring. However, the one that doesn’t die has the problem as to what to do next? Do you call the police, a doctor, an undertaker, the family? How do you keep your cool at such a time, it isn’t just the mourning that one has to worry about, life still goes on and there is a crisis to be settled and this state may be what helps one to ride through the trauma.
    You should also realize that age has nothing with death, as one gets older, one naturally is approaching a state where the body wears out so death becomes more likely. However, if you work on statistics, there are probably less octogenerians die in any one year than there are teenagers so this indicates that one is more likely to die at a younger age than an older one. Which gives me hope for the future!

  4. Simon Gemmell Says:

    You’ve got it completley backwards, I am NOT taking a localised view at all. I’m saying that people who don’t come into contact with death don’t deal with it. In other countries where they experience death as an everyday occurance, it just becomes a part of everyday life, e.g the slums of Mumbai. My argument is that it’s NOT a part of every day life here and therefore is a huge shock to the system if it does happen. Familys of 8 children where 5 die have a great understanding of death.

    I would be quite happy to get old and die. To know that one day one of you is not going to wake up is completley different to having your partner killed suddenly in a car crash at age 25. You’ve even proved my point, you’ve THOUGHT the fact that one of you isn’t going to wake up. I don’t think us young people even consider it in the realm of remote possibility, and so we don’t think about it. Then it happens and not everyone recovers!

  5. Simon Gemmell Says:

    I would go as far to say that some people my age don’t really know what death is.

  6. A Thought Adrift » Blog Archive » A Dark Theme Says:

    […] had a chat to my good friend, who is also a psychologist, about my thoughts on death. He made me seriously reconsider my standpoint. In his opinion it’s perfectly OK to be […]

  7. Abby Says:

    when I get frustrated at my Mum (why did I never rebel as a teenager?!) I think about that song “Hymn to Her” and I get all misty eyed. Even a hard cold hearted bitch like me!

    Funny that, though, I think of Matt dying or me dying, and I feel worse about me dying because I worry about Matt and how he would feel.

    Matt’s grandfather died last year and he was ready and all that, and said to my mother in law that he just didn’t know how to. I guess in death we are all as different as we are in life.