Thursday, 5 January 2017

Death: Some Thoughts

Let me tell you a story.

Once there was a lady called Margaret Vobe, she was a kind woman, one of those women who always worries about people, who does their best to make everyone happy. She lived down the road from me as a child, a kindly old lady who was always there with a kind word and a cake if you needed it, or with rhubarb crumble. Then, one day, when she was very old, she contracted Alzheimer's. The change in her character was noticeable almost immediately. She became confused, withdrawn and difficult to predict. On good days you could still see the woman she was, and sometimes in her confusion, she would say things that were amusing - 'there's a cow on the bed', for example. But those were rare and it was more common for her to be... lost, really. And as the disease worked its course, it became more apparent how lost she was and eventually she was nothing more than a little bundle of bones, in a room with a TV.

She was also my Grandmother, so I got to see how it affected my Mum when there were phone calls at four in the morning because Granny thought her own Mum was lying dead in the hallway, or when she ran away from the home she went to because my Grampy needed a break. I saw the impact it on him, the way it hollowed him out as well.

Perhaps it's because of this, that I fail to see death as a horrible, terrible thing. Even with the famous people who died last year (and the many who died who weren't famous - and I'm talking normal deaths here, not things like Aleppo or the multitudes who died in the Mediterranean trying to get to Europe from Africa and the Middle East), I remain of the opinion that death is a good thing, a necessary thing in most cases. It can be tragic, especially if a life is cut short in or before its prime but for many people, it represents an end to pain either for themselves or for their loved ones, We should never forget that, and even in our grief we should never forget how debilitating diseases can be, or that death is part of nature, not an opt-in system.

This, at the start of 2017, is what concerns me. There's no denying that last year was a real annus horriblis for people dying, but we're at a point where a lot of famous people are dying, or have reached the age where they are going to have strokes or heart attacks and will run a greater chance of dying as a result. In fact, we may be heading into a dramatic period where a lot of people die and we, the lucky ones, will have to live through it as best we can. That doesn't mean we should be happy about things like this, but rather that we need to reassess our relationship with death.

Ever since the First World War death has been something of a dicey subject. The Victorians embraced it, to an extent, because it was ever present. In the East End, the average life expectancy was 19 years, infant mortality was high, no matter what your class was. There was a culture around death, memento mori, photographs of the dead (as seen in the film The Others). This reaches back through history, a reminder that we are all mortal.


In the last century that changed, we started to push death away as much as we could. Technology allowed us to live longer, it saved more children; as families grew smaller thanks to contraception, the necessities of urban living children and the growth of 'childhood' as an idea, children stopped being mini adults, or workers and became something else. As a result, their status changed, and today most parents would put the lives of their children before that of their spouse (as Fay Weldon said, in her youth, you would save your partner first because you could always have more children*).

We've had about a hundred years of that attitude and now, as we live longer and the things we die of become more complex, I don't think it works as well and I think it's tipped over into being unhealthy, especially when I see how upset people are that someone who's nearly 100 has died. Especially when the famous die. Admittedly at that point, I find myself wondering what we are mourning, after all, we don't know the person who's died. We have an image of them, yes, but that image has been carefully constructed by publicists and by speeches, books, movies and other art forms. And if all we ever knew them for was their work, we haven't really lost anything at all; those works are still there waiting for us to enjoy them. It's just now we might see them a little differently, might feel that absence. But that's life, you change and grow all the time and you can't dictate the way that happens. It seems awfully selfish in some ways to mourn so publicly, to clutter up social media with how sad we are in these circumstances. We are spared the messy jobs of clearing up the person's life, which must be that much harder when your loved one was in the public eye so much. Even if they managed to keep things secret in life, will someone go through the bins or the bags you sent to the charity shop, and discover something that they wouldn't want to be known? Will that colour their legacy (if for instance a dead singer was discovered to be a rubber fetishist, or a tabletop roleplayer or something that society is a little wary of because it breaks the narrative of what a good person is)?

I worry that what we mourn is ourselves, our passing and the process of getting older. Youth has become so fetishised and nobody wants to grow up. The passing of people who were key to our childhoods does reflect the passing of time, that everything, ultimately, must pass over to whatever happens next (if that's anything at all).

I'm not saying, not to mourn, not to grieve, just be self-aware enough to know what you're mourning. And don't just leave it there. If you're genuinely touched by someone's passing, convert it into action. Donate money to a charity that person would have supported, or to fund research into how they died, or to support people who also suffer from that medical complaint (and take a leaf out of George Michael's book and don't make a song and dance about it, true charity doesn't need Macmillan coffee mornings or garish pins, the act is enough by itself). Consider why they were important to you and try to step into their shoes. Sure, you might not have pull of Carrie Fisher, but you could write about the issues you've been affected by and increase understanding of them, or talk about gay rights, or whatever it is that made you look at the person who has passed and feel inspired by them.

That in part is why I'm writing this blog piece. If I have to choose a hill to die on, so to speak (outside of things like the environment, which I do think is important), it's this. My Grandmother's passing affected me deeply simply because I've always felt she was dead before she stopped breathing. Everything that made her, her, had gone and only a shell remained. It made me realise that life, or its semblance, can be more devastating than the short sharp shock of someone being snatched away. In the case of David Bowie's family, I only hope that the 18 months they lived through with David's cancer gave them enough time to say goodbye, though I suspect they will always find one more thing they wish they'd said.  I imagine the same is true for all the other families out there who have lived with something like cancer, or Alzheimer's.

In the meantime all I can say is memento mori - remember you are mortal and make your life count for something.

*Sadly I can't find the article.