I’ve been reflecting recently that a lot of my writing contains death. This is not a conscious decision. Death seems to worm its way into my stories like a recurring character in want of a cameo. And I’ve been trying to decide why I’m drawn to exploring this phenomenon. And I think I know.
The first reason is a rather simple one: I think about death a lot. This is not for any morbid reason. I don’t run fingertips over blades or stand on the edges of buildings rolling a foot over the corner. I’m a nurse. Death refuses to be ignored in my profession. Every time I interact with a patient who is wasting away I’m aware of death waiting in the background. Patients want to talk about it. Family members need to be consoled. Co-workers joke about it. This results in reflection on the nature of death, which in turn works its way into my writing.
The second reason is also rather simple: Death is dramatic. It’s an organic occurrence that shakes things up. It’s a way to test characters, to see their world view when confronted with loss. Death is a catalyst.
The reason I’m writing about death today is that I saw a patient recently who was thick in the absolute and utter realisation of her own mortality. This patient, let’s call her Pat, is a sixty-one year old woman with chronic leg ulcers. She has been in and out of hospitals for the past ten years of her life. She had been ill, recovered, and fallen ill again. And yet none of this was what triggered her sudden confrontation with the idea of death. It was seeing it in someone else that forced the truth of it into her mind.
Pat attended a doctor’s clinic for a regular review and saw another patient whom she had seen in the waiting room during previous appointments. At first she didn’t recognise the man. She though the woman with him was his daughter rather than his wife. It was when she went into the doctor’s room and found the doctor wiping away tears in an effort to compose herself that the connection clicked, and Pat realised that the healthy man from months ago had shrunk into the sickly old man she now saw in the waiting room.
Pat went home shocked. She sat in her empty house over the weekend chewing on the image of the man’s rapid decline. And when I arrived the following Monday she was scared, and desperate to talk to me about death.
So we talked. We discussed the obvious things first; the fate awaiting us all, the loss to ourselves and our families, and the misery of such a loss. And eventually we got to what really was bothering her: What was the point of it all? What surprised me most wasn’t the question, but that a woman almost thirty years my senior was looking to me for answers. And that I had something to say on the matter.
I told Pat that being aware of mortality isn’t a bad thing. It invigorates. It’s not a pleasurable notion to consider, but it forces you to acknowledge that you are alive now, and that that time is limited. It pushes you to make more of your time, and to appreciate the joys you get. I told Pat that I didn’t know what the point of it all was, or whether, in the face of death, our lives held a particular meaning at all. I told her what I knew: that in the face of no meaning, all you can work towards is contentment. That if you spend what time you have happy then you come away on top.
I had some form of an answer for Pat because I had thought about death. My profession meant that I couldn’t ignore the inevitable reality of it like most of us do, and I certainly did before nursing. We, as a race, are too skilled at pushing the knowledge that one day we won’t be on the earth anymore to the back of our minds. We cram it down into the crevasses of our brain and pile trivialities and day-to-day details on top until we can’t see it anymore. And we smile and think we’ve beaten it. But it doesn’t do any good down there. And for Pat, when the truth wiggled its way free and sprung to the forefront of her mind, she had no way to accept it.
Pat listened to my answers like an eager student. She smiled at my closing statement and seemed mollified. The haunted look wasn’t gone from her eyes, but she appeared to be in more control. She was contemplative rather than scared. And I felt shocked and proud that I had been the one to comfort her.
Thinking about death, and writing about it, had given me an answer. I don’t know if it was the right one, but it is better than staring into the void without a form of comprehension.
And reflecting on this, I think I’ll continue to write about death.