The first half of this blog was written by Simon Dewhurst, who works in the facilities team at the School of Social and Environmental Sustainability. The second half is written by Dr Marian Krawczyk, Lecturer and programme lead for the End of Life Studies PGCert/PGDip/MSc. The genesis of the blog was a serendipitous conversation between Simon and Marian on ‘mortality salience’ following a lunchtime seminar.
From Simon Dewhurst:
As a child I think I was always aware of death but never really understood what it meant. I saw people being shot and blown up and then not getting up on shows like the A-Team, but it was never explicitly stated that they were dead.
There was never any talk of death in my family and even when my grandad died it was swept under the carpet after the funeral and left at that. One day he was there letting me dip crisps in his pint of beer and the next he was gone with no explanation.
I still had no explanation or fully understood what death was until one Saturday morning when I was sat in the back of my dad’s car coming back from swimming. The radio was on and “Another Day in Paradise” by Phil Collins was playing. The song is about a homeless woman begging for money on the street while people just walk by and ignore her. While there is no mention of the woman dying in the song, for some reason an overwhelming wave of sadness came over me and I thought about the woman dying and how no one would notice or care and how much I would care if someone I loved died. It was at that point I think I fully understood what death was, and it cemented my belief that there was nothing at the end; the lights get switched off and that’s it.
I remember feeling scared quite a lot after that. I became hyper aware of all the things that could kill me! It didn’t help being made to watch all the terrifying public health films they showed kids at school in the 80s – films about playing on building sites, being electrocuted, or drowning in a slurry tank (that one gave me nightmares for weeks!)
As I grew older, death faded in and out of my life as I was faced with the death of both of my grannies. My maternal granny’s funeral was the first one I attended. I stood at the graveside as they lowered the coffin into the ground, and while my mother and her family cried, all I could think about was the £300 I was promised in her will! It may seem selfish but I think the grandchildren were told about this inheritance to keep us sweet and shield us from the reality of what was happening.
Later still in my childhood, the deaths came closer to me, including a friend who took her own life prompting all sorts of questions in my head and opening the door to a darker way of thinking about death. During a particularly dark period of my teenage years I decided to invite death into my life, believing that was the only option I had. Fortunately, on that occasion, death chose to decline my invitation which I am extremely grateful for now.
As an adult I have been on good terms with death. I actively seek out any information I can to answer my questions. I am no longer scared of it and regularly test that theory by chucking myself down the sides of mountains on my bike. I accept that whenever I get up in the morning, I might not make it back into my bed that night, and I’m fine with that. However, I’m not going to let those thoughts dictate what I do during my awake time because I’m not letting death control my life.
The most recent death in my life was my father’s. Our relationship wasn’t the best, but we tried to reconcile just before his death.
When I was told of his death, I was on the start line of the Amsterdam marathon, so I had the subsequent 26 miles to process what I’d been told. The woman who delivered the news to me was more upset than I was. Apparently, I was more concerned for this strangers well-being than I was about my father’s death. I only cried once when I rang home to talk to my partner and I never attended his funeral, although I helped to organise it. I felt the other people in his life had more right to be there than I did.
I don’t think I’ve ever grieved for any human as I grieved for my cat. When she passed away I was inconsolable for about a week! I’m not a cat person but I’m an animal lover. People around me were shocked at how upset I was considering how much I hated that cat!
In recent years I have been forced to think about death a lot. As a family we moved to Scotland from Lancashire 4 years ago and we have made lots of so many good friends but something that’s taking me a bit of getting used to is how much death there is here. We live rurally yet I have known at least 5 people personally die in that time and friends of friends dying from alcohol, drugs or suicide. The suddenness of these deaths is shocking and to see the aftermath has given me a whole new outlook on death. Like I said, I’m ok with death but that doesn’t mean you should just accept its inevitability. Celebrate life, do everything you can to make the most of it and cherish the people you care about. Who knows when it will end!
From Marian Krawczyk:
I think I’ve always been anxious about death, or at least that’s how it seems. A favourite story my mom tells is how, at the age of five, she found me hiding under the kitchen table clutching my chest. When she – quite reasonably – asked what I was doing, I apparently notified her that I was ‘waiting for my heart to attack me’. This belief came from hearing about our next door neighbour who had just had a heart attack (he survived and went on to live many more years). While my mother was able to coax me out with a promise of sweets, a vague feeling of impending doom never completely left me.
A full awareness of my mortality was still a few years off, when I was 11 years old and listening to the first radio episode of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The now-classic comedic story opens with the earth being blown up by aliens, mere moments after a woman ‘realised what it was that had been going wrong all this time and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work…Sadly, however, before she could get to a phone to tell anyone, the Earth was unexpectedly demolished to make way for a new hyperspace bypass and so the idea was lost forever’.
I was lying on the living room couch, in the middle of a sunny Saturday afternoon when my imagination put me in the middle of that action. Time slowed down to almost a stop as I became completely aware that I too one day would die. Not only that – every single person I loved would die too! No matter how smart or good or powerful I became as an adult, the end would be the same.
It’s difficult to communicate how physically powerful this awareness was – it was sheer terror. Adrenaline surged through my body, and I began to hyperventilate. I could feel my heart race, and a metal taste filled my mouth. I became hyper conscious of the green colour and rough texture of the couch, the heaviness of my breathing, and realized I couldn’t move. It was exquisite horror of realizing what a fragile thing the human body is, and how vicarious its complex and mysterious functioning over which we have such little control. Adrenaline mixed with rage. What was the point of being alive if we know it has to end, yet we have to walk around the rest of our lives with this knowledge stuck in our heads? I didn’t sign up for that – who asked me if I wanted to be born if this was the cost? It was SO UNFAIR! It felt like a fundamental design flaw in the universe – surely this error had a solution I just wasn’t aware of yet, right?
Time passed, as it does; the adrenaline wore off, and my mind quieted, exhausted, only able to trace the edges of non-existence for so long. While I don’t remember much past the immediate aftermath of this epiphany, I have remained equally fascinated and repelled by death ever since. I subsequently learned in my adult years that my concerns are the basis of existential philosophy, and I was relieved to know that I wasn’t alone.
These moments have surely shaped my professional path as an end of life scholar (along with several life-changing deaths of loved ones). When I think back on these early life experiences, I tend of think of them as a mark of a sensitive and somewhat odd child, so I was unexpectedly nostalgic and comforted when Simon mentioned his own youthful experiences in becoming aware of death. While I don’t think that talking about death necessarily makes it any easier, once again it’s nice to know that I’m not alone.