Fascination is defined as “the state of being intensely interested (as by awe or terror)”. It’s safe to say that I am fascinated by death. I hate it. I fear it. Yet I think about it. A lot. And I hate that, too.
That I am writing this article at all is significant, and entirely at the prompting of my lovely wife. I am told it is time for me to face the monster, stare it down and confront the fascination.
I begin, therefore, with death. I trust it won’t cast a terrible shadow over your day.
When Heroes Fall
We describe some people as “larger than life” and often apply the term to celebrities, statesmen or personal heroes. By “larger than life” we mean that these people seem somehow too big to be contained by the limitations of life that we have otherwise reluctantly accepted. They have an other-worldly quality which would seem to set them apart – probably because we never met them and therefore never knew their particular failings. We don’t need to worship a person to find that they are nevertheless raised high in our esteem. All of which makes their fall particularly troublesome.
On 27 November 2011 the footballer Gary Speed was found hanged at home. It would appear he took his own life. Gary Speed took his own life! One of the best footballers of his generation, incredibly handsome, flying high as manager of Wales, a beautiful wife and children, loved seemingly by everyone who knew him, and hero to tens of thousands.
Gone. Age 42.
On 05 October 2011 Steve Jobs died of complications from a cancer that had pummelled his body relentlessly for eight years or more. The man who built the most profitable business on the planet, adored or simply admired by those whose lives his exceptional products had touched. An industrial giant who will be held in similar regard as Stephenson, Ford and Brunell.
Gone. Age 56.
Two very different experiences of death, yet both equally brutal in their own way. One seemingly leaping into the blackness of death to escape some despair in life; the other desperate to sustain life by employing every best mind available in an attempt to out-maneuver death. Both met their end – for now at least – in painful, humiliating, desperate circumstances. Neither wanted to be where they were.
Of course, that death comes to us all regardless of status is hardly a revelation. That being acknowledged, however…
It would be an understatement to say I’d slept poorly in the days following each of these deaths. You can call me superficial – and perhaps I am – but the feelings are real nonetheless. I don’t know what it is about these men and their demise that has haunted me so severely, although I can guess.
The death of Steve Jobs made such an impact on me probably because his experience – the long and terrible battle with cancer – is the one that grips me with a fear so real it almost has a personality of its own. Until very recently I literally could not bring myself even to say the word “cancer”. I still struggle now.
In the case of Gary Speed, I honestly cannot explain why I have been so haunted. He was an exceptional midfielder for, among others, my club Newcastle United and I have sung his name form the stands at St James’ Park many times. Yet even that doesn’t seem an adequate explanation for the impact I’ve felt. I cant even claim to have experienced grief, not in a real sense. I was shocked, and then I was scared.
Why was I scared? I’m fortunately not someone who would consider myself prone to suicidal thoughts. In fact I’d put myself in a similar category to Steve Jobs in that I probably want to avoid death for as long as possible. I think I was so scared by Gary Speed’s death because if he can’t make it work – even he – then what chance the rest of us? Whatever the complications in his life – and I can only assume there were some – how could all of the combined love, talent, wealth, that smile and everything else at his disposal fail to conquer?
So I dwelt on it – as I’m prone to do. I wondered about what could have driven him to such despair within hours of appearing to be so content. I read the endless stream of Tweets paying respects to him. I thought about his wife finding him like that, and my mind unleashed itself until it was wandering around that garage, where I could see him…like that. This hero, like that. My imagination conjured images I would skip quickly and fearfully past were I to see them on TV, but here there was no switch to turn them off. I’d try to look away but the image was everywhere; I’d close my eyes and it was burned on the back of my eyelids. I was haunted, and continued to be so for three days during which I could barely sleep. Finally I seem to have found that switch, or at least been able to turn down the volume, because although I know the image is there I can at least now avoid it.
What is that all about? I honestly have no desire to see these things and I am generally not morbidly curious – I prefer to flick over the channel or turn the page when a murder makes the news and even ER brings me out in a cold sweat. I have experienced that intensity of horror once before, after the death of my first Grandad (about which more in a moment). My imagination was flooded with images of his cremation…yes, those images. The ones on the other side of the curtain. I loved my Grandad so much yet for some reason my mind showed me things which terrorised me for weeks. I recovered of course – that was almost seven years ago – and I’m fine now. But I’d have been even better without the “memories” of those images.
So my question: what propelled my mind, on both occasions, into places I would never have chosen to go?
Was I seeking an indication of the other side of death, to satisfy myself that there is something more?
What if there is no more?
Closer to Home
As we journey through life the normal course of events is that we experience the death of family members older than ourselves. In some cases, which seem particularly tragic, we experience the death of those younger than ourselves.
Whatever the case, however, our experience of death is entirely second-hand (I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume all of my readers are among the living. To any who aren’t, well, good on ya!). Personally I have lost three close relatives – all grandparents – within a period of almost seven years. Two of those died within the past twenty months or so and all three died fighting a protracted and painful battle against powers at work inside their own bodies: a brain tumour, heart disease and lung cancer respectively.
What I discovered was a method of coping which helped me progressively. I have no idea of course whether that method will help me in future, should others depart before me, but I do know that I have found better ways to cope each time – whatever “better” means in these situations. Nor can I put my finger on what that method actually is. I do know that it has involved some of the following, to greater or lesser extents:
- Trying to be helpful to other people experiencing the loss (particularly those who might be feeling it even more acutely than myself).
- Drawing comfort from my faith.
- Concentrating on happy memories, looking over picture albums and sharing those recollections.
- Spending time, where possible, with the person while they are in their final weeks and days.
- Visiting the body of the person who has died.
This is no patented grief success story but, as I say, I have found it to be progressively helpful in the past; ingredients for managing the seemingly unmanageable. A way to smooth the ragged and spiky and uncomfortable experience of death.
Except wait a moment, because what I said earlier was important: our experience of death is entirely second hand. Although helpful, it is wrong to confuse the management of grief with an understanding of death. From general conversation, I think that many people make this confusion. It’s understandable, and it is almost certainly a more accommodating terrain for the mind.
But it’s false.
In fact I have no experience of death. Zero. Just like you. Don’t get me wrong, I am incredibly grateful for this, but it leaves me with the reality that I have nothing on death. My experiences dealing with the deaths of other people will serve me only in life. In death – or, more specifically, at death – they will be of equal value as the clothes that I wear.
The BBC documentary series Frozen Planet has recently had me captivated. The photography is beautiful. The animals are variously graceful/powerful/spectacular. But a common theme across the series was inescapable:
Death of the most appalling kind, by the way! Now I recognise that Frozen Planet merely presented the workings of nature; the natural order of things. But it turns out that this “natural order” is essentially brutal. For many of these creatures food is sparse – months without a meal is normal – and days are spent either planning an attack (to procure food), sleeping (to preserve energy and therefore cope with the lack of food) or repelling an attack (so that they do not become food). They are born, go to extraordinary lengths to feed themselves so that they can find a mate, and then they die.
This is terrible.
Now of course the existence of a human being is different to that of any other species. I’m not claiming any unmerited distinction for my fellow humans and myself when I say that; I’m not even claiming that the human existence is superior by any empirical measure. It is just different, and it would seem wrong to project human feelings, understandings and customs on other speices. Nevertheless, there is an inescapable tragedy befalling billions of creatures every day – right now on this very day, even – and it would appear to be the biggest preoccupation of life for most creatures on earth.
So a question: is life merely there to sustain and recreate life?
And another, perhaps more awful question: is life merely there, sustaining and recreating life, without even necessarily meaning to?
An accidental anomaly of self-perpetuating horror?
Humans are different?
We humans often make a special claim about our existence, i.e. that we are somehow more than our time on earth. We have a soul and that soul is immortal. Although the prospects claimed for that immortal soul vary extravagantly according to a person’s upbringing, understandings or beliefs, there is a common thread through most religions, belief systems and faiths that there is something other. Something more. We have no reason to believe (so far as I am aware) that other species share this claim.
I mentioned earlier that at times I have drawn on my own faith to help me through the death of a loved one. It has been immeasurably helpful, and I have been grateful for it.
But my faith is shaken.
In fact, it is shaking. The are many reasons for this but in large part it is almost certainly a response to the actions of other people who themselves profess faith and, indeed, authority in faith. I have seen these actions from afar and I have seen them up-close and personal. They are a more subtle, distinctly human form of the terror we have seen at play in the animal worlds, and their context has an immeasurable and undeniable effect on faith. At least, in my case it does.
Any Christians reading this (for I have been a practicing Christian since 2006) will right about now be eager to point out to me that I ought to step back; I must remember to separate that in which I have faith from those who profess that faith; focus on God, not those who act in his name. It’s a reasonable point and one which I understand entirely (I have made it many times in the past myself, after all).
But this leads me to a question: How can we validly avoid such human responses to faith when that faith is itself so deliberately anthropomorphic?
If faith is a construct – I’m not claiming right now that it is – then where does that leave death?
And what is death? An event? A thing? My witness is that it is almost invariably painful.
I do not even know why death must happen. This answer I feel is wider than simply “to make room for the next generation”. To understand “why death” we need to have some idea about “why life”. I don’t have that answer, either.
I do not know when death will visit again – either myself, those I love or those I admire from afar. I only know that someday it will.
I do not know how death will come. I expect it will be incredibly inconvenient.
I do not know if death is an end, the end or even a beginning.
I do not know and the fascination remains.
I wish that wasn’t so.
This is the first full article on my new blog. Admittedly it’s not the brightest note to begin with but it is written in the hope of discussion for I feel certain my questions are shared by many. You can add to the conversation by making a comment below, posting to Twitter or sharing on Facebook. Thank you for reading.