Content warning: this article discusses death, grief and terminal illness in depth.
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For the past 18 months, the figure of death hasn’t been taking up its usual ‘looming in the background’ space, instead it has been present with us, almost every day. From daily death toll updates, the shocking murder of George Floyd in May 2020, the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard in March, and in our own lives, the loss of friends, family and loved ones to Covid-19 and the disruptions in our usual grieving processes.
Death has been close and ever-present in a way it rarely has in our living memory, sitting with us and refusing to go away. In Philip Pullman’s fantasy/sci-fi trilogy His Dark Materials, the main characters encounter death in a unique way that has helped me understand how death has materialised so vividly, for all of us, this past year.
Speaking to a mysterious man in the ‘holding place’, a town before the land of the dead, Lyra, the main character discovers just what death is: “…we found out when we come here…we found we all brought our deaths with us. This is where we found out, we had ‘em all the time, and we never knew. See, everyone has a death. It goes everywhere with ‘em, all their life long, right close by.”
Responding in shock and horror, Lyra asks, “Doesn’t it scare you, having your death close by all the time?” and the man replies, “Why ever would it? If he’s there, you can keep an eye on him.”
Keeping our deaths close
Writing for The Guardian, John Troyer, who is the director of the world’s only Centre for Death and Society in Bath, illuminates the experience of his sister coming to terms with her terminal illness:
“A common narrative around terminal illness often describes dying people walking peacefully toward death, exhibiting stoic acceptance. My sister was angry about dying. She fully understood and accepted that death was coming, there was no supposed death denial in her final weeks, but her exact quote to my parents was: “Dying sucks. It really sucks.” Julie just wanted a longer life. We did, too.”
This experience - of people, whether they’re the ones dying or those around them, defying this “common narrative”, these societal expectations seems to be the prevailing one. How many times have we known a friend or a loved one who has lost or is losing someone, worry out loud, “am I acting as I should?”, “I feel like I should be doing more”, “I feel like I should be more upset”.
These rigid ideas and norms of behaviour that we keep locked in a box, only ready for unpacking when someone is dying or has died, restrict us; both the dying and the mourning. Often, how we feel around our responses to death and the dying causes us anxiety and guilt.
For the dying, expectations of being “stoic” and “peaceful” or accepting, as John Troyer put it, can be extremely restrictive, frustrating, and even divisive between them and their loved ones. For those who are mourning, the expectation of the two binaries: overwhelming, debilitating sadness or a similar stoic, quiet grief makes anything but this seem inappropriate, suspicious or strange.
These expectations and societal norms that we have established, specifically in western culture, seem to be part of this idea of keeping death at a distance, understanding rationally, that it is there but never looking at it. Even the idea of a grieving ‘process’ or the 'stages' of grief insinuate that death and grief have parameters, a start and a beginning, restrictions – all creating this sense of death being far away, not part of our daily lives.
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In reality, death and life are infinitely entangled and around us at all times, like spacetime, they coexist and are one and the same
In a strange, devastating but fascinating turn of events, the last 18 months has forced us all as a culture and society to re-evaluate our relationship with death. It’s as if that box we keep all of our rules and regulations around how we are supposed to react to death and dying has been blown to pieces; but what if that could be a good thing?
In the midst of the first national lockdown in the UK last year, myself and my partner watched an animated series on Netflix, The Midnight Gospel, based on Duncan Trussell’s own podcast series, Duncan Trussell Fantasy Hour. Trussell himself voices the lead character, Clancy who travels through fantastical and psychedelic worlds to interview strange and irreverent characters for his very own in-world podcast.
The very last episode of this series, “Mouse of Silver”, explored death and dying in a way I had never seen before. In the world of The Midnight Gospel, Clancy, is interviewing his mother – except it isn’t Clancy’s mother at all, it’s Duncan Trussell’s real mother and the audio is from an episode of Trussell’s podcast that he recorded three weeks before his mother died.
As John Maher writes for Polygon, instead of utilising death in the episode as the instigating event for a hero’s journey, “it’s a reckoning, and a reconciliation. Instead of being a stop along the journey, it’s a return home. It’s the whole point.”
The discussion and the imagery play out in the episode as the cyclical nature of life, death and grief as if it exists along the instantly recognisable ‘infinity’ symbol. Speaking to Polygon, Trussell spoke about what inspired this representation in the series:
“For me, one of the odd things about losing a mother is that we don’t…Their bodies are gone, but I still have my mom. She’s in me. She’s in my DNA…she’s in me.”
In the episode, Trussell’s mother describes how in life, we close our hearts and “defend ourselves against pain” and how death “opens them”. In this way, death is both devastating, excruciating, but beautiful, and most importantly: natural.
If this episode can teach us anything, especially in light of the last year, it’s that when we accept death and life together as an inseparable fact of being human and mortal, we become more free, more happy, less restricted.
The anxiety, guilt, and shame around how we should and shouldn’t grieve becomes less pervasive because not only do we find that the box of rules and regulations around death and dying has been blown to pieces, but that actually, we don’t need it anymore. And in that, is freedom.
John Maher finishes his thoughts on The Midnight Gospel with these words:
“It’s a chance to accept the perfection, painful as it may be, of the cycle of life, and of the love that makes it bearable and unbearable at the very same time.”
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