On death, dying and being afraid of life…

fear_slideshowMy blog has been sorely neglected over the past 4 months. A couple of posts have made it here, the last in July, but for much of the time, there have been no words.

Bear with me for a little while…In the past four months I have lost my lovely old mum, and two months later, just as the greatest pain of that traumatic time had seemingly passed, we had to have our wonderful dog, Barnaby, put to sleep, quite without preparation. It seemed that I would never stop crying, huge tears, like those of childhood – unrestrained. Press FF >> and another two months have passed. Now my husband’s father has died. His children weren’t close to him, he was a difficult man and he never liked me much, but nonetheless, it is a final link lost with that generation above. Peter and I are now top of the tree.

I feel besieged by death, lost in melancholy thoughts of my own demise, or that of my husband. My own brush with mortality 11 years ago haunts me still and resurfaces in health anxiety to remind me that one day, it will be my turn. Death is always there, yet we fail to acknowledge or accept it, except perhaps when dealing with the death of others.

And sense the solving emptiness
That lies just under all we do,
And for a second get it whole,
So permanent and blank and true.
The fastened doors recede. Poor soul,
They whisper at their own distress

Philip Larkin, for the full poem, see Ambulances

Why are we, in Western culture anyway, so afraid of the inevitable? My lifelong battle with debilitating anxiety and bouts of depression leads me to think it is perhaps life I am afraid of, not death. I am afraid of enjoying it too much, in case it brings on disaster. I am afraid of the terminal diagnosis, (though in truth we have all had one, from birth) the potential suffering leading up to my final breath, and the leaving behind of those I love. There is also a little bit of me, I must admit, that resents the fact that the machinations of the world will all go on without me. I am curious to know what happens when I am gone, and cannot bear to think I can no longer intervene in events.

Why do we seemingly wish to live forever? Is it because we are so materialistic and self-obsessed we can’t bear to think it is impossible to continue to enjoy our possessions? Can that really override the realities of old age and the society those in their later years have to inhabit?

Joyous headlines suggesting it is possible for the babies born today to have a life expectancy of 100 years or more belie the distressing scenes I witnessed as mum and her contemporaries struggled with failing bodies and the loss of mental faculties. There were the endless little indignities and that depressingly regular occurrence – the loss of a friend or relation. That constant thought – ‘me next?’.

download (11)In a wonderful article on this subject for The Guardian last year, Margaret Drabble quoted the description of Jonathan Swift’s ‘struldbrugs’ on the island of Luggnagg, in Gulliver’s Travels.  Struldbrugs are immortal, but they live to extreme old age with ever-diminishing capacity…

“[Struldbrugs] had not only the follies and infirmities of other old men, but many more which arose from the dreadful prospect of never dying. They were not only opinionative, peevish, covetous, morose, vain, talkative, but incapable of friendship, and dead to all natural affection, which never descended below their grand-children. Envy and impotent desires are their prevailing passions … they forget the common appellation of things, and the names of persons, even of those who are their nearest friends and relations. For the same reason, they never can amuse themselves with reading, because their memory will not serve to carry them from the beginning of a sentence to the end …”

Drabble goes on to echo my own thoughts as she later describes the horrors perpetrated on the elderly person without a ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ label on their notes. One sees CPR used for upwards of an hour on a body essentially at the end of its natural lifespan. Broken ribs, a faint pulse, and any remaining time left to them stuck in a bed totally dependent on medical services for what is still termed ‘life’. It is hard to imagine anything more fear-inducing. Yet people with more money than they know what to do with are having their bodies frozen in the hope of a cure for old age and infirmity, without any real thought to the quality of life they can hope for should they be defrosted.

Let me die a youngman’s death
not a clean and inbetween
the sheets holywater death
not a famous-last-words
peaceful out of breath death…

Roger McGough – for the whole marvellous, humorous, insightful poem, Let me die a young man’s death see HERE 

My father in law was buried on Saturday, with a full Catholic mass, which to me was clearly the work of authors other than a benign spirit. I have never been to a burial, only cremations, and in my imagination, it took on all the trappings of a gothic horror story. That built it up into more than it actually was – a group of people, remembering two entirely different versions of the same man, crowded around a rather cramped little corner of a cemetery. Graves are dug not by a wizened old man with a large shovel, but by a mini-digger, which sat with gaping mouth just close by, ready to drop bucketloads of soil on the coffin. Floral tributes have partly given way to Chelsea flags, teddies and other items that clearly meant something to the deceased, but which assault the senses of the mourning. It seemed less like a place for all God’s children – despite the holy water sprinkled on the coffin – than the last remnants of a car boot sale.

The fear of death is a suffocating one that can override all others, and prevent us from enjoying our lives before ‘ashes to ashes’ and the final sods of earth are cast over our sightless eyes and breathless lips. The death of others brings this home to us like nothing else.

This blog post is my way of trying to work through some of these thoughts and as you can tell, and I appreciate, it is in no way a cohesive philosophy. I don’t want to die. I have too many books to read; too much research to do and articles to write. I have a lovely husband and two fine children I want to see into middle age.

So perhaps my philosophy should mirror that of Woody Allen:

I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens…

I’d love to know your thoughts…




This entry was posted in Health, Mental health, psychology, Religion, Writing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to On death, dying and being afraid of life…

  1. lucy says:

    Lovely post Suzie.

    I must admit I love a requiem mass. It is the horror of it all that appeals. 🙂 But I think rituals need to be things you know: the comfort of a ritual is the familiar, knowing what comes next, having the words trip out of your mouth before your conscious even registers what you are saying. Otherwise it’s entirely ‘other’ and probably very far from comforting!

    In many ways I think that writing is the best path to immortality… unless you are going to invent a lightbulb or something, it seems like the best way of whispering down the generations: I was here! I did this thing! You’ve accomplished such a lot with your writing – not to mention your amazing children! – keep it up! 🙂 XXX

    • keatsbabe says:

      Thanks Lucy! I was hoping the requiem mass would be like the wonderful classical pieces I do listen to in my most melancholy moments but it seemed a very worn ritual. No fabulous organ, just a man with a keyboard, and the only singing was rather ‘off’. There is also a tension in the family dynamic that rather held us back. Mind you – the Christina Rossetti made me cry 😦 I would love to think my writing will last the test of time, but to be honest you are right – my best legacy is my lovely children. I should never forget that 🙂

  2. Yes, we all have this terminal diagnosis from birth. This aging thing and my father’s illness have had me thinking too. Did we ever have a day when humans understood that there was beginning and end? Were we so fearful that we created this idea of afterlife so that we might not be afraid? Yet, as a child, that concept of the soul going on forever scared me very much. I think maybe in that way at least, I understood more then. If we live this, like it’s all we have, because probably it really is, I keep thinking, maybe we would treat each other better, treat ourselves better and enjoy the moments more. That’s what I’m aiming for as I enter this second half of my potential century on the planet (God, can my knee take another fifty years, though!). Bless you, dear friend. Read some Keats maybe. That’s what you got me doing.

    • keatsbabe says:

      There are lots of bits of me that are dropping down or seizing up now! You speak wise words though David and yes, I am reading Keats, along with other poetry that helps me make sense of the chaos of the moment. Peace, that is what I want, most of all I think.

  3. Mr Dennis Gates says:

    Death! What is DEATH, With my Lovely MAM, it was a way out of a VERY HARD LIVE of PAIN, REALY BAD pain, Watching a lovely hard working lady die slowly, MAINLY with T.B. over nearly 45 years ago, but a form of CANCER, as well as other thing we knew nothing about till seeing DEATH CERT.
    She was just Skin and Bones, but like most people of her ages, SHE never moaned.
    My memories of her last days are not nice, In Hospital covered in TUBES, SOME photos in our head we can not blank out.
    Same as with my DAD, We had our last few words, He was ARMY through and through, So his LAST words were ORDERS, which 99 percent I have carried out, if though it has took a while.
    I never saw that much of DAD, nor MAM, Poor mother was in a T.B. hospital in Wolsingham, County Durham most of her life.
    Dad a 25 years service man, It took a second marriage to see DAD with clear eyes, before that working TWO jobs to keep my family feed, What a waste of time that turned out to be, but that’s another BOOK in life.
    While writing my TRUE life story, No holes Bared, I am thinking more about my lovely SHORT time with MAM and DAD, and the pain is terrible, but some GREAT memories.
    I sit in the dark many times reliving odd times I had with MAM, not had many with DAD, because as I look back I see how I wasted my life with DAD, in STUPID anger, childish boy anger.
    Yes he was stricken, as his DAD was, Yes as I was, but as I watched kid around the doors to us as my children grew up, I worried about them, yes they hated me for it.
    Now I have lost them,
    As a FATHER I done my best, looking back I saved one daughter from a right mess, but they don’t look back like that.
    Now I am in Great pain as they won’t come round the corner to see me, not even for me to see Grandchildren, see on odd times.
    Yet I am made so welcome by my present wife’s large family, but the pain from not seeing My Grandchildren and Mam and Dad REALY hurts
    So reading what you say brings thoughts right out, More so as I write my will, mainly for things I leave, as money is none.
    Most things are DADs and go to his Regiment as he wants.
    Rest go with me, as they are MEMORIES.

  4. Ian Stevenson says:

    For many people, their attitude changes as they near the end. Peter Fenwick was a consultant Neurologist at the Maudsley Hospital (like Man U in footballing terms ) and supervised Penny Sartori’s PhD (our TAP speaker some years ago) .He describes what sometimes happens as we approach death. This is one of his best youtube offerings:

  5. keatsbabe says:

    Thanks Ian. More thoughts for the philosophical pot. I think we just don’t know till we get there. So perhaps anticipating the end is pointless.

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