On Death and Dying

 I seem to be constantly reminded, especially lately, of the transience of our existence and how quickly it can all be taken away from us, and life turned upside-down for us and our loved ones.

Recently, I have experienced, in varying degrees of proximity, the death of a school friend from a rare form of cancer, the deterioration of one of my closest friends from uni from treatment complications of leukaemia and the death of the daughter of one of Mr L’s friends, a little younger than Master L, also from leukaemia (or its treatment, anyway).

Without wanting to be particularly morbid, all these situations can’t help but make me think about my own mortality and that of those around me. It’s a complex range of emotions- from feeling incredibly lucky to be healthy and alive and to have so much, to profound sadness when it’s someone I know, especially when I’ve witnessed the whole drawn-out diagnostic, treatment, relapse and deterioration process, (or their “fight” as the lay press likes to refer to it- a term I find interesting but more on that later if I remember). There’s sometimes an element of guilt associated with that luck and at times, a feeling of panic, impending doom and pessimism: sort of a “who’s next?” feeling and dread of something striking me or one of my family.

Media “personalities”, naturally, are not immune and I was touched recently by the experiences of two people, both writers, affected in different ways by death and dying.

The first is the author Hannah Richell. I have only read one of her books (Secrets of the Tides) and I was struck not so much by the story line (although it is quite original and entertaining), but by the complexity of emotion she manages to recreate so vividly. In summary, a toddler goes missing at the beach, presumed drowned, while he is being minded by his two teenage sisters. One sister tells the other to make herself scarce while she meets up with her love-interest, each assumes the other is looking after their little brother. To complicate matters, the reason the toddler is being minded by his sisters in the first place, is that the mother is having an affair of her own and lumps her son on her older daughters for the first time ever, not something she would normally do. The end result is that there are 3 people who directly blame themselves for his disappearance. As I read it, I really felt the author may have experienced first hand some sort of loss or grief, the complexity of reactions and emotions just seemed so real. So I Googled her out of interest, and was saddened to find that she had indeed experienced her own loss, not before writing the book however, but since, when her husband was killed in a surfing accident last July, leaving her widowed with their 2 young children.

Hannah continues to write, sporadically, on her blog, and her posts since her husband’s death have, understandably, been about the grieving and coping process. It’s not easy reading- it’s confronting and sad and you feel strangely voyeuristic, not to mention self-indulgent, getting a small taste of the anguish she’s feeling without actually having to experience her loss.

One particularly poignant passage she writes (actually as part of her husband’s eulogy) is reflecting back to the day of her husband’s death. She recalls:

 “…on his very last morning, at his suggestion, he and I enjoyed a rare early morning coffee at our favourite cafe… Then as we left, we kissed goodbye in the sunshine. He turned and threw a last joke and a smile at me and we went our separate ways. For a goodbye you never want to come, it was pretty perfect.”

Occasionally now I have this awful thought after waving Mr L goodbye on his bike, or if he is late home from work, or slow to answer a text “What if that was the goodbye I never want to come??” But of course, thankfully, so far it hasn’t been, and I return to the relatively safe assumption that he will be home tonight and everything will continue as normal. There’s that old saying about living every day as though it’s your last, but as well as the fact that you’d never get anything constructive done, you’d be an emotional wreck if you thought that every time you said goodbye might be the last.

The other author I came across recently facing his own issues with death and dying, is Oliver Sacks, a Neurologist who has written extensively on neurological disorders and neuroscience is his various books, which are aimed not just at a medical audience but also at a lay population. He has recently been diagnosed with liver recurrence of an eye tumour which he had treated some years ago and was believed to have been cured of. His recurrence is incurable. He, however, is 81, obviously has time to “prepare” and contemplate how he will spend the rest of his days and make sure he spends time with the people who matter the most to him. He doesn’t mention if being 81 somehow makes it easier to bear, but you can’t help feeling that dying at 81 is somehow less unfair than dying at 38….

Timely to my own comparison of such different end of life experiences was an article I stumbled across via the BMJ (ok, and facebook) by a man called Richard Smith, who I hadn’t heard of before, about what kind of death he wanted- the slow type you can prepare for, vs the unexpected type you can’t really. After seeing my grandma’s very gradual decline and ultimate demise at the age of 95 last June, I said several times I thought it was better to go suddenly while you were still fit and healthy. The caveat to that, of course, is “but not while you’re still too young”… however young “too young” is. Harder, undoubtedly, for those around you but probably less unpleasant for the person who dies.

Anyway, enough of this, it all seems a bit morbid. At the end of the day, few of us get to choose how we go or how those around us go and so, while I don’t necessarily embrace living every day as though it may be our last, perhaps taking time to appreciate the small things, the big things, the everythings, is a more constructive approach to making the most of our remaining days.

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