I have a friend who is a nurse. Not just any kind of nurse, either. She specializes in the care of people with ALS, which is also known as as the disease that makes everyone throw a bucket of water on their heads. The average person diagnosed with this terrible, degenerative neurological disease lives 2-5 years, so for her, experiencing death is a pretty regular part of caring for her patients. A few Christmases ago, my friend was awakened during the night by the cries of her mother-in-law, who was experiencing symptoms of a heart attack. The elderly woman, who lived with my friend and her husband, had been growing increasingly frail, sickly, and confused during the years leading up to this and had, as a consequence, filled out a Living Will, specifying that no heroic measures should be undertaken to preserve her life. Yet, when her cries awakened my friend, her natural urge was to rush into her mother-in-law’s room and start performing CPR. She called 999 (the UK version of 911) and began frantically pumping on the elderly woman’s thin chest. She thought about trying to administer aspirin or beta blockers and wondered how long it would be before help arrived. But after a few frenzied moments, she stopped. Instead, as she awaited the ambulance, she called her husband into the room. They both held the old woman and stroked her hair. They spoke softly to her and told her how much they loved her as she took her last breaths.
Even though I never met the woman who died, this story has really stuck with me. It shows how, even for those of us with a lot of experience with death and dying, the natural instinct is often to do something, anything to prolong life. So many of us can’t see what my friend was able to–that a lot of the time, we’re not prolonging life. We’re prolonging death.
By no means am I an advocate for giving up on life. Indeed, I’ve spent most of my professional career supporting biomedical research projects aimed at improving and extending life for both animals and people. And probably one of the things I like the most about writing murder mysteries is that I get to decide who dies, when. Unless I kill them, none of the characters I love will ever die. Even with that kind of omnipotence, though, have you ever noticed how most writers don’t raise people from the dead? Dumbledore, Gandalf, and countless other powerful wizards lack this one, very useful ability. And in fiction, as well as many religious traditions, when someone is brought back, they’re often a twisted, evil shadow of their former selves. From the zombies in Haitian voodoo to that creepy kid in Pet Sematary, lives that are resurrected aren’t restored. Instead, death, for them, becomes a prolonged, tormented state. In fact, the only positive examples of resurrection that come to mind are the few ancient Greeks, such as Achilles, who came back from the dead as gods, and Lazarus, who came back as just plain, old Lazarus. And then, of course, there’s Jesus himself, whose triumphant resurrection is thought to show that conquering death is ultimately possible.
For me, though, the lack of other example in literature or real life (the occasional “woman wakes up in morgue” story notwithstanding) is telling. I think we, on some very, very deep human level, know that death really is the bourn from whence no traveller returns. Now, I’m not saying that it’s impossible that we could go on to some other existence after our earthly deaths. As I’ve said before, I personally don’t think so, but it would be really nice. I guess I’m just saying that we all know deep down that when the party’s over, it’s really over. And that’s what makes just sitting back and letting go so damn hard.