Talking About Death
In a world obsessed with life
People get very upset when I tell them that I’m quite certain I’ll die by my own hand someday. Initially they’re offended, if we’re being precise about their feelings concerning my life and death, because they assume I’m being facetious about a topic that is very sensitive to most humans. It’s not until they see in my eyes that I’m not only serious but resolved to end my life when and how I see fit (If I indeed am privileged enough to see it last that long,) that their faces twist with real anger or pity. They find it disrespectful.
In fact, most people actively dislike when I talk about death, save for my husband who is bound by law to listen to me prattle and thus is somewhat resigned to it. It’s sad to me. Every day, millions of people suffer through the grief of loss alone, abandoned by people who are scared away by the specter of their own loss. Almost every one of us is visited by fear, when we lie awake at night or catch a moment of reflection amid the hustle of everyday, when we think of an inevitable demise and shake it off, desperately. We are all touched by death, created by it and beholden to it. Yet if you’re a person who wants to engage with it and control it, understand it and face it matter-of-factly, you’re morbid or wrong or insensitive. It’s odd, this denial, because to me it’s the ultimate affront to real living.
Once, I read a daughter’s devastating account of a father’s pitiable condition. As he aged, the doctors suggested that he receive a pacemaker to ensure a weak heart wouldn’t take him out prematurely. Years later, he began showing signs of memory loss. Years after that, he was living in the torrential pain of dementia, erased by his own brain while his body ticked on and on and on. His wife and daughter did not know the man whose time had come, because he was long gone. But his body remained on the planet because his heart pumped blood relentlessly, mercilessly. The daughter wrote a book about her father’s untimely death, because she wanted others to understand that there are things far worse than not living. Death can be a gift. It can provide dignity and restore peace. It can be a balm. It can be a savior.
My mother is ultimately the one who convinced me to kill myself someday. A fact that would appall her if she still talked to me. I made this decision after she told me the account of her own mother’s death. Towards the end of her life, my grandmother lived in a group home. Her roommate was a very old woman who could not speak or move. The roommate was too far gone to live, but not yet lucky enough for death to pluck her. Largely, the immobile woman did not provide any cues that she was aware of her surroundings, save for her eyes that might move like a painting in a horror movie, following life while she herself remained trapped behind the wall of poor health. Yet in my grandmother’s last moments before death, when she wept in fear and in sorrow to her eldest child by her bed, my mother turned back to find that the immobile woman had tears running down her face.
I used to think she was sad for my grandmother. Today I am convinced that she was sad for herself. The last jealousy, perhaps, of a woman who used to live a life.
It’s all about framing, you see. Some people believe their lives are very important. Good for them. Some delude themselves into thinking that their lives mean something to the universe, which is … okay for them, I guess. Still others think that there’s some moral catalyst underpinning life, some great fate that guides their every move. I don’t agree, but whatever helps people get them through the day. What is not okay with me, is when these people believe that their views on life and death are more valid than my own, or when they use them to stifle my own. When they don’t want me to control how or how long I’ll live. When they call themselves pro-life just because they believe that breathing is a better condition than not breathing. When they think me cruel or crude because I want to talk about something that isn’t rainbows and kittens. When they think me immoral because I want to create my own end to life.
Whenever people argue about euthanasia, I find it unfortunate that they make examples only out of the very, very ill, for whom they’ve deemed suicide acceptable if not palatable. For people like me, death is a sort of god whom I’ve gotten to know over the years, his face shown to me with each passing body that lies in a box or settles into a canister. Death has become a communion that I take when I’m with my loved ones and want to commemorate the moments that make up this fleeting existence. It has become a baptism that allows me to see life redeemed, as moments of love that might or might not live on after our death but matter in the moment.
Death is close. It is nearer to me than any other person. It is indistinguishable from myself. I do not like to think of it as an escape only for a desperate person. Rather, death is someone to call out to when the zeal for life has left me permanently — not just the means or viability of my physical body — but the zest that makes me remarkably me. I do not long to be remembered, because I will not be. I do not long to be special, because I am not. Because life means very little to me, I desire only to rejoice in the gifts I’m given until I pass, as they do, with my singularly amazing spirit intact.
When I think of death I do not see it as friend or foe. I see it as puberty or gravity. It is something that happens to us all. It is horrible when it happens early in life, particularly because of violence or sickness, and I pray to whichever God will still have me that it doesn’t snatch me up while I’m loving and laughing and fucking and listening and eating and working and hugging and remembering. Death is still tragic later in life, though it’s been foreseen and prepared for, with funeral services planned like one might organize their own birthday party. But is it bad? Is it wrong? I believe that it, in and of itself and not in the consequence it carries, death holds neither positive nor negative value. It simply is. It is what is in store for all of us and it is what is in us as I write and as you read.
Isn’t that a comfort, in a way?