Below is the first essay in my upcoming collection about death, loss, and grief. Let me know your thoughts. And remember to always share the reading love.
Death is difficult to talk about. The word itself is aspirated and it takes the air from your lungs without you knowing.
Try it. Repeat after me: death.
Death is difficult to talk about because we, in the Western world, live in cities that promote longevity and fountains of youth. Gone are the days of the plague and small pox. We no longer have to see death, hear death, or speak its name. However, that does not mean death has left us. It comes in and out of our lives as we try to forget it. It is neither man nor woman, this thing we call death. It is a simply a part of us. The final destination of our journey, if you will. The gravity of this thing called death, is left to the peripheries of our society. We no longer wash our dead. We no longer bury them in the centre of our towns. For most people, the idea of an open casket—death laid bare for all to see—terrifies them. As Michel Foucault might argue, death has been pushed to societies liminal edges. It is kept in the dark, buried underground, burned into ashes and shoved into the walls of our complacent minds. Death is dislocated from who we are. It is homeless.
In a writing class at university, I tried to write about death. My niece had died and I wanted to put into words the pain I felt, not only for a life lost, but also for a life I did not know. I sat alone one night, in the dark because I thought this would be the most helpful setting, and began to write about the death of my niece. Words seemed to flow easy enough. After several rewrites and the arduous task of adjective selection I felt that I had done a beautiful job. I say beautiful job because there was also pride in my sorrow. Pride that I had taken on death, looked it in the metaphorical eye, and wrote about it unquestioningly. When I took it to my teacher we briefly talked about my treatment of death.
“You’re being too melodramatic,” she told me. “Say less. It will mean more.” She advised.
I did as she asked and cut paragraphs away from my story. Leaving the discussion of my niece’s death to two concise paragraphs.
My Father should be turning 70 this year. But he isn’t because he died of bowel cancer almost four years ago. To say that his death completely changed my life would be an understatement. Sometimes all we have are clichés. His death comes to me in my sleep. It wakes me in cold sweats and I scream out into the night begging him not to leave me. In my dreams my father talks with me, he is with me in memories that I relive to comfort myself from loneliness. At the end of the dream, he always dies. Just like that day in December.
After my Father died, a few weeks passed before the world started to remind me that I did not have time to cry myself to sleep. It was, inconvenient. When I returned back to work I was met with a few condolences, some sorry-for-your-losses, and one or two awkward embraces. The trend throughout all of these experiences was rather obvious though. No one really knew what to say. That wasn’t to say that the people around me had not experienced loss or death, they simply had never experienced the act of talking about it.
Death is an aspirated word and it will steal your breath before you realise.
I seemed to shrug off all of those experiences and many of them are almost incomprehensible. I think it is safe to say that when you experience a great tragedy your body shuts down, functions at its lowest capacity just so you can order tea without crying. I remember in one of these hazy weeks after my Father’s death, I told someone how I was really feeling. A complete stranger working at a coffee shop asked me, “How are you today?”
I simply replied with, “My Father died a few weeks ago. I feel like my insides have been scooped out and put back inside with a few pieces missing. Do you have soy milk?”
The coffee shop worker mumbled something about a 50 cent extra surcharge for soy milk and shuffled away to make my coffee. Clearly she was disturbed by my remark.
It was not until a few years later that the story of my teacher and me discussing how to write about death really made sense to me. My teacher, like so many people around me, stifled discussions about death. Say less. And say less. And say less until you say nothing.
Leave it in the dark, bury it in the ground, burn it to ashes and shove it in the wall of your complacent mind.
But it’s torture not to talk about death. And subsequently loss and grief. Save it for the quack-jobs, keep it for your journal. Write a sad poem and move on. Say less. Some might argue, that there are people who reject this silence around death. But these discussions about death rarely make it to the public. How do you tell your neighbour to read Paul de Man as she contemplates life without her husband? There are simplified, How-To books that talk about death. But how do you tell your friend that as soon as he gets past the ‘bargaining’ stage, there are only two more until he’s free of all grief and sorrow?
To talk about death, is to invoke an overwhelming fear.
Two nights before my Father died, he had fallen into a coma. He was no longer talking or drinking. We had nurses and doctors visiting saying it wouldn’t be long now, as though he was a baked dinner not quite finished browning. I could hear his ragged breath ring out in the night. I kept my dog in my room with me, in the hopes that another set of lungs would drown out my Father’s dying gasps. There were moments when I wanted my Father to die. Just so it could be over. Those moments were my darkest. When I was not asking for his release, I was begging him to stay. There were too many questions left unanswered, like what was the best time of year to grow butter beans?
Lisa Loeb laments, “We’re dying since the day we were born.” And while that is true, there is something very different to having an expiry date someday, and knowing that you will die soon. And why will you die? The very thing that called you into life, the human cell, is over-multiplying and its joy and will to live is bursting at its seams. This joy will engulf your entire body until you can’t control your bowels anymore. Cancer is just trying to get by in a world hell bent on destroying it afterall. To have time or not to have time, that is the actual question. Do you die quickly in a burst of flames, or do you slowly whither away until there nothing left?