Let’s Talk About Death
This article is dedicated to Graham Hutton.
Upon hearing the news that lung cancer had killed my Grandad I did not cry. Does that make me a bad person? I remember feeling numb, with only one emotion present on my mind: regret. My brother and I never took that photo with him on Christmas morning, four mornings earlier, that we had intended to take. I cried at the funeral though. I cried at the empty seat in which he should have been sat, and at his friend who waved goodbye to his coffin on the way out of the service. I have never lost a loved one before. Nobody prepared me for it. Nobody wanted to.
I often wonder whether we talk about death enough. Some cultures celebrate it. Being an agnostic, pasty, white boy from the mud huts of West Yorkshire, you may see how that is a little strange to me. I am of the opinion that we must celebrate one’s life and achievements upon their death, but to celebrate death… that is fascinating. Yet in our culture we shy away from the topic. Death is taboo. Upon asking the students of Keele University for their thoughts on death, one student, Dylan, commented ‘death is a topic which should rarely be talked about as we should respect the dead and remember people we lose in memory’. The idea of respect for the dead is certainly an important one, whether you agree with Dylan’s opinion or not. But what constitutes as respect for the dead? Should death remain taboo? Or would the ultimate form of respect be to acknowledge and discuss the death?
The answers to these questions will differ for each person, and there is no right or wrong. Personally, I believe that discussing death does not upset the respect that we hold for the dead. But how do you even talk about death to somebody? Whenever somebody asked me “are you okay?” in regards to my Grandad’s death, all I could reply with was “it happens”, because what else is there to say? Nothing I say or feel can bring him back. Another student, Cara, held the same opinion, explaining that she ‘carried on with life as normal. I can’t do anything to change their death’ in her response to being asked if there was a correct response to the death of a loved one. One student believed that ‘every person needs to grieve in their own way and that can take as short or as long a time as is necessary for the individual’, with other responses generally forming the similar opinion that there is no correct, nor incorrect, way to react.
Of course, the death of a loved one probably should not send you in a homicidal rage, yet the way in which people react seems to be in silence. One student commented that they ‘became very isolated and depressed and anxious and developed sleeping difficulties’ after the death of a loved one, with another saying ‘I tried my hardest to not think about it at all, and try not to let grief become the primary emotion when thinking of this person. This continued for a number of years into I reached a point of acceptance about the situation’. Unfortunately, saying that nobody should suffer in silence at the hand of the death of a loved one is like saying that it is a shame that people have to live on the streets. As a race we have a remarkable ability to acknowledge a tragedy yet do very little to address it, and not out of a spite, but due to an inability to knowing how to solve the problem.
You may have taken note that I am rambling a little. When first sitting down to write this article I thought to myself “this will be easy. I’ll send out a questionnaire and weave the answers into an article about how we should talk about death a whole lot more.” But here I am, four attempts at writing this damn article later, with the realisation that there is no easy way to talk about death. I think that some of us do not talk about death enough because we do not know how to. One anonymous student said that we should talk about death more humorously, and I would be lying if I said that I have not cracked a few jokes at the expense of my own grieving as to not bring the mood down in a room. But is that it? When you truly sit down to think about the implications and finality of death, should it be something that we joke about? Out of the thirty replies I received, only one person said that we talk about death enough within society: ‘Yes, I think life is too short to worry about death and it would be a more morbid place if it was focuses on. Plus there is enough death going on in the news and there is no need for people to focus on it further’.
Now that is an interesting notion: death in the news. Twenty-nine people told me that we do not talk about death enough. However, as a society, I have found that we do not shy away from talk surrounding war, poverty, famine and so many other atrocities that cause death. We donate to charities to prevent death and promote them through various fundraisers that we conduct. War, poverty and famine are part of my daily discussions. The death of millions, if not billions, are part of my daily discussions. So why can I not bring myself to talk about the death of a man who would give the world to make sure that I was safe? A man who always made sure that he had breakfast materials in the house because he knew that my younger brother and I would polish the plates he put in front of us with our tongues. A man who only asked for one thing in return for the countless service he gave his entire family: for us to bring one rock back from each holiday they embarked on so that he could place it in his garden. Why is it his name which must remain caught in my throat when the names of so many others who I had never met bounce off of my tongue?
Nobody prepared me for this. At first I was angry about that, but now I realise that there is no way for somebody to truly prepare you for your first experience of a death of a loved one. Before he died I thought I would be able to talk about my Grandad’s death whenever needed comfortably, yet over a month later I still find myself with the inability to even say his name. Talking about the death of a loved one is so difficult because it is, along with the sun rising, one of life’s only certainties. Even the direst of situations have a chance to improve, and we hold onto that hope and it drives us to create discussion to better the situation. One day equality may be achievable. One day we may all love and respect each other. One day, as unlikely as it seems, I maybe struck by lightning and develop the ability to stop crime by releasing acid piss. Where there is possibility there is hope, yet where there is certainty there is nothing to power our voices.
I must, ultimately, apologise for the state of this article. This is usually the part where I would edit it across the coming few days, though I feel that to polish it would render the raw emotion behind the subject matter redundant. Furthermore, it is overabundant in questions, though I want everybody to walk away asking those questions to themselves and others. Let us create a discussion surrounding death, even if concrete answers fail to arise from it and that that discussion about death does not relate particularly to a loved one. When asked to add anything to the survey I released, one student said, in relation to death, ‘it’s going to happen. Make use of life, don’t waste it’. It is a sentiment that I would like to leave this article on. I will always know that my Grandad did not waste his life. He may not have lived it the way I intend to live mine, but he was happy. It is not about his death which I want to talk, but his life, and I feel that that sentiment runs true amongst so many others. It is to him, and all those I love who will eventually die, that I dedicate my actions. Death is inevitable, and so make the most of your life and the lives of those around you. I know that is what my Grandad would have wanted.