How we talk about death

Skeletons dancing
English Dance of Death. You gotta laugh.

bootcamp2015-small 2

 

In which I look back over the relationship of Death and me, see a pattern, and get overly personal.

 

Me and Death

“I can’t wait to die!” I was about seven when I horrified my mother Celia with this thrilling idea. “Because it’ll be such a great adventure! I can’t wait to see what happens!”

Rachel Taylor, 5 years old
A happy, normal little girl

“I can’t wait” didn’t mean that I really was in a hurry to die. I wasn’t that sort of kid. On the contrary, my personality was summed up for all time by a family carer who knew me very well:

“I can’t believe it was Rachel who became a writer. She was just a happy, normal little girl who used to blow her nose on the sheets.”

For this morbid childhood fascination, you could blame the Anglican church or my career choices. One of my ambitions was to be an explorer in deepest Africa and I saw death as the ultimate uncharted territory.

 

Death of an aunt

Death had touched our family already, which was perhaps another reason for Celia’s horror at my casual regard for death. Our four grandparents were very much alive, but Celia’s sister Lesley died of tuberculosis in her thirties. Her story was heartbreaking: she was young and bright and dramatically beautiful with a dashing RAF officer husband and a baby girl as cute as Sailor Girl.

Aunty Lesley’s tragedy fascinated me at an impressionable age, and I would visualise my family and fans weeping around my deathbed saying how beautiful and clever and above all how saintly I had been and oh the loss to the world.

In my child’s mind, not a jot of awareness of my mother’s grief. I just didn’t get it, not at all, not a bit. I’m sorry about that, but then again—I was just a kid.

Death of Katherine Mansfield

New Zealand postage stamp with portrait of Katherine Mansfield

 

When I discovered that Katherine Mansfield had died of tuberculosis, the romantic appeal of death was intensified. Yes, death had a glamour—but I was constitutionally ill-suited to the pale and melancholy look I aspired to. I would suck in my cheeks and gaze into the distance and do my best to loll and droop—but within seconds I would revert to smiling, healthy, and (terrible thought) normal again.

Real death versus literary death

Parker-HulmeRound two with death happened when I was 14. Two ex-classmates, Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker, committed a murder that sent a massive wave of salacious excitement through the country and affected me in ways I still haven’t resolved. This event shattered the cognitive dissonance that had enabled me to read Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh murder stories for entertainment. A literary murder was neat and tidy and thinkable. A real murder was unthinkable, fraught with guilt, panic, and pain.

Getting serious about death

In my poetry and other writing, death is a frequent protagonist or bystander. But hey, let’s not attach too much significance to this: I’m a poet, and death is one of our standard topics. At one point, it even seemed de rigueur for woman poets to die young for the sake of credibility.

However, I have a confession.  I did waste a few months planning my own suicide, and the go-dead date was getting close. Luckily I snapped out of the mind-set that had made this plan seem so wise, so thoughtful, so ingenious, so altruistic. A counsellor told me exactly what to do instead. I have learned that this syndrome is not uncommon, and it seemed to serve a purpose at the time.

Death at one remove demands a light touch

Look at those stories, so frivolously told! I am amazed at the way we can joke about death — as long as it’s not close to home. It must be a survival mechanism.

Don’t worry: I do know that death is not funny, not glamorous, not literary, not trivial, and usually not kind to others.

I’m glad I waited.

How about you? What episodes shaped your early attitudes to death?

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28 thoughts on “How we talk about death

  1. This is a fascinating reflection Rachel. I like the chronological movement, the patterns you see and your humour. I can relate to the death of an aunt at that age. I really didn’t understand it either. Such sadness for my mother in losing her sister and yet I really wasn’t aware of what that grief was like.
    Thanks for waiting 🙂

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  2. Great post. Death is also a part of the human experience I write about not fearing but, instead wondering and anticipating. Always hoping my views are right, for me anyway. It will definitely be the next great adventure when this journey is done. Be prepared seems a good motto for the event. 😇

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  3. Mmm… I recognise some of this, but my experience of death when I was a child was affected by the death of pets, of close relatives, and by the stories brought home by my dad who was a family doctor. Also, when I was a teen I was often extremely depressed and just wanted to ‘unbe’. A friend of mine (who I recently discovered died when I was in my twenties) said to me when he was very depressed one time that he’d wanted to kill himself but couldn’t in case the afterlife was worse. I think of him often. I don’t believe in an afterlife anymore, but do hope that his last days weren’t terrible.

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  4. Yes, it’s way beyond time we started talking about death, if only to give the grieving room to speak.

    In answer to your question, a great aunt who, unlike most of her relatives, had been kind to me, died and my family drove some distance to attend her funeral. Her coffin nearly filled the tiny front parlor and I, a tyke, kept asking people to lift me up to see her. I was trying to figure out if she was still in there. And I wanted to know what death looked like, not having encountered it before. My “curiosity” disturbed some of the elders, but I wanted to touch Aunt Annie and tell her I loved her and thank her for her kindness. The grownups understood none of that.

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    1. What a touching story! Poor little girl wanting to express her love and say goodbye to that special aunt! And you knew exactly what you needed to do. I imagine you are particularly sensitive to the needs of emotional children as a result.

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  5. We had a cousin born in the 1930’s with a major heart defect, who died at the age of ten. Years later, my brother, then in his fifties, was greeted by a stranger at one of his professional men’s conventions, and asked if he was related tot his cousin, as we have them same surname. He said yes he was and this stranger then went on to say that he ws a great friend of this cousin, and in the same class. The cousin’s death had a very rpofound effect on him, and it took him a long time to get over it. It must have shaken you up coniderably to have been attending the same school as Juliet and Pauline when they committed their crime.

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    1. Seems it is not so much death in general as one particular death that shapes us or traumatises us. I think children have even greater difficulty than adults in understanding this mysterious event, so an early loss affects them strongly. I didn’t understand the murder in my own world, either, but was mainly jolted by the weird ways that it affected almost everybody.

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  6. I had a near-death experience when I was eighteen. It took all of my fear and forbidden away from how I felt about death. I look forward to the time when it is my turn to venture to the other side. However, I have never been able to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, The Birds all the way through. For some reason, having a person’s eyes plucked out by birds is too gruesome for me.

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    1. Glynis, what an extraordinary — should I call it a privilege? That sounds presumptuous and yet this terrifying event has brought you such peace. As for the Birds, don’t make me go there.

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  7. Death is such a western taboo. Why? It’s very common. None of us is spared. I often hear people much older than me say its not death, per say, that they fear, but rather the manner of dying. I tend to think it’s fear itself. Having been honoured with the opportunity to be with each of my parents when they passed, I am very curious about this important part of the life cycle. Thanks for giving us an opportunity to talk about death, Rachel.

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    1. Thank you, Robyn, for this insight. I wonder what they mean, those who say they fear dying. Perhaps they’ve had experiences less benign than yours (and mine) watching our parents’ death. Is it terminal illness that they fear? Pain? Leaving their loved ones? Perhaps each has a specific fear that is highly personal. On the other hand, who knows how we will feel when the idea of death looms up close…

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      1. I should have said ‘perceived’ finality. Because frontier suggest a new (unknown) beginning. I might meet you on the other side! You’ll recognise me, as my old supervisor used to say, I’ll be wearing a scarlet cape and holding a leopard on a leash 😄

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  8. My earliest memory occurred about age 3 and is one of smell with a heavy unusual odor coupled with a visual view of a home’s dark interior. Learned this was a relative’s viewing in her home as was the custom so many years ago. Dying was just an expected part of the living process as spoken about casually in my family and I observed with animals. Emotional impacts of loss for specific people was felt in the years ahead when individuals close to me died at young ages due to disease, suicide, also elders with the latter seeming more to be expected. My work in health care has presented me with instances of individuals to whom I professionally connected as they took life’s journey to death on earth as we know it. I share my mother’s point of view (was with her when she died) as she always said she wasn’t afraid of dying, but she just didn’t want to miss anything. I would want to avoid my dying being a physically painful process. My husband went to sleep one night and didn’t awaken the next day with no outward signs of having discomfort, but we can’t all count on that being our experience.

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  9. What a powerful memory! I love your mother’s point of view: makes perfect sense to me. I find that many people describe the way they WANT to die as if describing it will make it come true: that’s one way of coping, but as you say, the time and manner of our death is not always a matter of choice.

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  10. Thought-provoking post, Rachel. I think I mostly assumed other people would die and I wouldn’t. I used to scare myself by thinking about death from cancer, rattlesnakes and evil people; but didn’t really believe my imaginings. Now I’m turning 75 and death has become something I think about, realize will happen, and, though I hope it won’ be soon because I’m still having fun, the idea no longer frightens me.

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