Tag: writing about death

Life, Death, and Ginger Tea

Recently I paid a visit to a dear friend of mine who’s been ill. I shared the news of my pregnancy and told her about the unrelenting nausea I’d been experiencing. She, too, had been dealing with nausea, so she whipped out some Saltines for me to munch on and gave me her husband’s recipe for fresh ginger tea. We commiserated about how physical illness colors your entire worldview and makes it hard to concentrate. We both expressed some relief in the knowledge that no matter how bad things got, our suffering would soon come to an end.

There was a lot of commonality to discuss, but one major point of divergence–while I knew that my suffering would end with the birth of my baby, if not sooner, my friend knew that her suffering would likely only end with her death. She’d been told a few months previously that her condition was worsening and her decline would soon become inexorable. Just a week or so before I visited her, she began the transition from managing her chronic condition to moving towards in-home hospice care. She’s now in the process of spending her remaining time revisiting moments in her life with friends and family and cementing her legacy. Because she is the friggin’ bomb, my wonderful, compassionate, witty, vibrant friend is confronting her death with what feels a whole lot like joie de vivre. I can’t tell you how much I will miss her.

It may seem odd that in this time when I should perhaps be focused on the new life thumping away inside my womb, I’m instead spending a lot of time thinking about death. If you’ve read my blog for a while maybe this comes as less of a surprise, as I’ve written before about the way humor and death sometimes intertwine and how my own spiritual development is very much bound up in my views of the afterlife. You may also have taken a hint from the fact that I write murder-centric books about a hospital chaplain, who is often confronted with life-and-death dilemmas.

It turns out that I’m not the only person who sees life’s beginning and life’s ending as inextricably linked. In fact, I’d put forth that they’re not even two sides of the same coin. They’re more like the tension in a tug-of-war rope–the animating forces of the rope itself. Without them both pulling on you at the same time, the rope (i.e. you) would just be lying on the ground like a wet noodle.

If this post has put you in a philosophical frame of mind (and/or stirred up an existential crisis), I’d suggest some further reading, a recent New York Times piece “Looking Death in the Face” that my living/dying friend posted on Facebook. Happy living. xx

 

 

When your time’s up, even Gandalf isn’t going to be able to save you.

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.