Death is a topic I wish I had been taught about at school. The skills surrounding death—that is, living with and thinking about and talking about and dealing with—are never taught to us. We have to learn through often bitter experience. Had I had some sort of education, I would have been better prepared to meet the concept when it inevitably introduced itself to me, as it will inevitably introduce itself to us all.
No topic is seemingly off limits these days, save for the d-word. Mention the end that awaits all things and you create panic and unease. We shield ourselves, almost at any cost, from thinking about one of life’s true certainties in a myriad of ways. Our language becomes woolly and euphemistic: we refer to people having passed away, or beloved pets being sent to farms upstate. Our thoughts skid right over the topic.
You’d almost think death was invisible in society. Except it obviously isn’t. On a daily basis we are immersed in death. The news, our media, people and animals we know are all replete with death and dying. It is impossible to escape death, a fact as true now during the COVID-19 era as it was at any stage throughout history. Death is the erupting Mt Vesuvius that will claim us all.
And yet the sheer quantum of death and dying rarely makes us think about our impending death, or even the fact that we will die at all. We go to incredible lengths to avoid thinking about death. Why? For a host of reasons, both cultural and psychological, and for a host of unknown reasons, too, I’d wager. As much ink has been spilt about topics such as love and politics has also been spilt discussing death.
We have a fractured relationship with death, I think. We acknowledge its existence, because we cannot plausibly do otherwise, yet we essentially act as if it is a fictional and fantastical concept, one that simply bears not thinking about for too long, if at all.
I am no different. Or at least I was no different until a year or so ago. But first, another mandatory personal history section: both my parents are dead and died both young and suddenly.
Dad died maybe seven years ago. I got a call when I was at work one day. It was the hospital saying I should come as quickly as possible. The next few hours are indistinct in my memory, but I somehow got to the airport, on a plane and then a train and then walked through the dark from the station to the hospital, up hills and through car parks. I arrived just in time to talk to him. I don’t remember my last words to him, nor his to me. I was talking with the ED registrar in another room when he died. One minute he was there, the next, not. I remember the nurse simply saying “he’s gone,” when I could see him still there. It took me a few moments to process this, a few moments that felt like an eternity.
I wish I could say that the lesson of life’s ephemerality sunk in and never left me, the almost surreal fact that a person could be here one minute only to disappear forever the next, but of course it did not. Almost everything in society seems to reinforce that we just shouldn’t think too closely about death.
Mum died during the height of the covid pandemic. Border closures meant I couldn’t be there, either by the sick bed or at the funeral held a few days later. It was a death of absence, then, quite a different experience from when Dad died.
The thing with both of these deaths is they were incredibly sudden. There was no time to grapple with the question, to say long protracted goodbyes, to make bargains or to plead with medical staff. I have always understood this to be a blessing, of sorts—death on easy mode.
And so we return to the events of last year. My dog, my best friend, was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a very aggressive form of cancer that is usually related to a very short life expectancy. I didn’t cry much when my parents died, partly because I had become somewhat of an expert at repressing my feelings (I don’t mean to brag). I don’t think I ever cried as much in my life as when I heard the words “We’ve found a lump…and we think it might be cancer.”
Overnight, I was forced to live with the truth that he would die. And rather than it happening some time in the distant future, it would happen actually quite soon. Of course when one gets a pet, or a partner, or a plant, you know on some level that this thing will die eventually, but that awareness is so dim and is far from something that one ever really reflects on. We know they won’t live forever, but we don’t know it. Being forced to live with the reality of his impending death was an entirely different matter and unlike anything I had lived with before. It has been tough, tougher than I imagined possible. At first it was almost debilitating. I would be snuggling with him on the couch in the evening thoughts of his impending death would intrude on the moment.
I might have remained cursed with this knowledge had I not had access to an exceptional psychologist.1a sad irony of the mental health crisis caused – or at least, exacerbated – by COVID19 was it became virtually impossible to see a psychologist. I, luckily, was already seeing one before COVID19 hit.Through sessions with him, I began to feel slightly different about things. Was I afraid of death, or was I more afraid of change? And even if it was death itself I was afraid of, I found it so much more healthy to engage with reality and accept the situation. It was not an easy process of thinking differently, but bit by bit I stopped looking at the long greyhound noodle as moments away from dying and saw him for what he was: my friend who was very much alive and well, here in the moment.
Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote is a book I’ve been reading recently and is changing the way I think about things. I suspect I will write a separate piece on the book alone, but one section feels especially relevant here:
Thinking about the possibility of losing something you value shifts it from the backdrop of your life back to centre stage, where it can deliver pleasure once more. ‘Whenever you grow attached to something,’ writes Epictetus, ‘do not act as though it were one of those things that cannot be taken away, but as though it were something like a jar or a crystal goblet … if you kiss your child, your brother, your friend remind yourself that you love a mortal, something not your own; it has been given to you for the present, not inseparably nor forever, but like a fig, or a bunch of grapes, at a fixed season of the year.’ Each time you kiss your child goodnight, he contends, you should specifically consider the possibility that she might die tomorrow.Oliver Burkeman
The scourge of cancer has pushed me towards a place where I accept the wisdom of the above. Rather than a macabre reminder, I find it life affirming. Knowing, really truly trying to know, we will all die, can only force us to value the time we have with ourselves and with each other. By being forced to acknowledge life is fragile, we begin to strip ourselves of the delusion that we can ignore death. And by accepting this, it subsequently behoves us to make the most of the time we have. Of course, being human, and hence pathological disinclined to think about death, there is magic in the daily reminder. I cannot forget that he will die, but I can choose to focus more on enjoying the time I have with him, rather than cursing the fates. But my dog isn’t the only one who will die: we all will. And sooner than we’d like, in almost all cases.
Buddhist tell us that it is our attachment to things that is the root of all suffering. Certainly, my attachment to the longboy and the life we have together has caused me suffering at the contemplation of its demise. And equally, my despair at being so powerless likewise causes great suffering.
My psychologist, echoing old mate Aurelius, likes to remind me that pain is inevitable but suffering is optional. For too long in my life I had been hurting twice – the worry or fear around an event and then the pain when the event actually occurs. Viewing death through this prism is genuinely freeing and is quietly life changing. The more we try to resist the idea of death, the unhappier we become. Resisting the inevitable is a mad goal and one that will make all but the most zealous deeply unhappy.
The alternative is not compelling: pretending he will live forever. Ignoring the problem. There is a certain hollow comfort in this approach. I have certainly ignored problems with the hope they’ll just disappear or solve themselves. But while this approach—that is, denial—may work for dealing with a recalcitrant colleague, it is an entirely unsatisfactory approach to dealing with the cold reality of death. I think we all would choose a life of reality over a life of delusion if asked to express a preference on the matter and yet our behaviour often betrays that stated preference. Ignoring reality is a path to madness; and besides, reality simply does not mind if we ignore it, or choose to view it through the lens of hazy delusions; it will simply be.
We are all bags of meat, filled with liquid and bones and home to countless bacteria. We will all die, regardless of how afraid we are of such an outcome, and how we might vainly struggle to defy the inevitability. To ignore the fact is a delusional way of thinking. To be afraid of something we cannot change just does not serve us well, and, if anything, distracts us from realising that thinking about death can improve the way we approach and enjoy our lives.
The best advice is that which is the simplest. So, in that spirit: Be more dog.2a thousand thanks to the wonderful resource that is tripawds.com. They, and other carers of hounds, gave me the strength to be brave in the fight against his cancer. He isn’t sitting there worrying about dying, or indeed writing two-thousand word essays on the topic. Instead, he is living in the moment, and in this moment he is staring at me, wishing I’d deliver him a treat. So I better get to that.
- 1a sad irony of the mental health crisis caused – or at least, exacerbated – by COVID19 was it became virtually impossible to see a psychologist. I, luckily, was already seeing one before COVID19 hit.
- 2a thousand thanks to the wonderful resource that is tripawds.com. They, and other carers of hounds, gave me the strength to be brave in the fight against his cancer.