We Need to Talk About Death
CHARLIE BELL wants us to stop burying our heads in the sand and remember that we’re all going to die (and that’s ok).
It’s not really something many of us think about – our own demise. It’s going to happen, sure, but we don’t really believe it, and nor do we want to talk about it. It’s embarrassing, it’s morbid, it’s gross, it’s academic.
But it isn’t. It’s very, very real, and it’s about time we stopped defaulting to ostrich behaviour and woke up.
In third year, my dad died. I didn’t ‘lose’ him, he didn’t ‘pass away’. He died. When I came back to Cambridge after the Easter break (great timing, just before finals) nobody knew what had happened apart from a few close friends. And suddenly I experienced the very worst aspect of the collegiate system during my three undergraduate years: the acute embarrassment of watching other people freak out when I told them what had happened. Looking back, I remember it with some amusement. I had the criers, the embarrassing-laughers and the ‘oh my God how are you’s – who then never spoke to me again. The vast majority of people didn’t know what the hell to say; their Easter holidays had been one giant ball of stress and work. Most of them had never had to deal with something like this and would much rather I’d just lied than making them have to deal with it. Why the hell are we so utterly incapable of coping with the concrete reality of death when we can quite easily talk in no uncertain terms about some dull aspect of German grammar or the necessary skills to perfectly pipette?
We pretend death simply doesn’t happen because it makes us uncomfortable and, frankly, it scares us. It scares us so much and we’re so unwilling to even contemplate it that thousands of people die each year intestate, and thousands more never specify their wishes for when they are no longer in a condition to be able to decide for themselves.
We talk about ‘assisted dying’ in hushed and reverential terms, as an entirely academic topic, without ever thinking what that process entails. Anyone who saw the Terry Pratchett documentary on Dignitas could watch for themselves that far from ‘slipping away’ or ‘falling asleep’, the physical process of killing yourself with drugs is distressing for those around you and quite possibly for yourself.
The even more extraordinary fact is that we debate euthanasia like it’s normal, yet we don’t dare talk about our own dying friends or relatives for fear of upsetting people. I love to talk about my Dad; we had a lot of laughs together and spent plenty of time messing around and irritating other people – something I am delighted he passed on to me. Yet so many people shy away from even mentioning him, as though he never existed rather than having had dinner together two years ago.
As a medic I have to deal with death more than most. It makes me realise quite how fucked up we become as a society when we won’t talk about it, plan for it or acknowledge it. We stop children going to funerals, because it might upset them, and don’t for a second think that upset is a normal and healthy part of life. We medicalise grief and prescribe for bereavement. We talk about life expectancy without giving anywhere near enough thought to living well. We shut down any talk of death for fear of upsetting the unwritten rules of human social conduct.
Even this article will probably have appalled some people, and for others it may be somewhat painful to read. But if we don’t start to talk about our own death, and that of others, then things will just get worse. We live in a smart-phone world where actually speaking to each other is essentially outdated. We buy all our food in nice packages without thinking of the abattoir and we buy our cheap clothes without thinking of the slave labour that went into making them. Forget the Cambridge bubble – this is the western world bubble. Until we come to terms with what it means to be a human – an animal – then we will continue to live in cloud cuckoo land and cases of loneliness and depression will go up and up and up. If we can’t talk about who and what we really are, and who and what we will all have to face, then we have truly lost touch with reality.
We’re all going to die. Every single person we know and love is going to die. I’s not morbid; it’s true. So let’s talk.