Valerie Grove Artist

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Nature Strikes Back 

Negotiating with the Grim Reaper - looking for the best possible outcome
by John Few

​​​In common with many people, I would like to find a way of softening my fear of death and perhaps one of the ways of doing so is to try to write something about it. Professional writers and philosophers have long attempted to negotiate with, or accommodate themselves to, the prospect of their own demise. Death, like sex, is a constant in the media but both are, paradoxically, deeply taboo subjects. Do we entertain ourselves with these subjects in order to avoid a proper confrontation with the issues and dilemmas both present: human circumstances that are not only problematic but also irresolvable?

I am angry about being so discomforted by death, about the price we pay for our ‘self-awareness.’ The writers Phillip Larkin and Julian Barnes, for example, seem to be saying that this death thing is neither fair nor just. They are also exercised by the distressing ways in which it is possible to die, particularly if the mind is afflicted before the body itself gives up. So, there is a lot to get angry about. Dylan Thomas gets positively apoplectic in his exhortation on behalf of his dying father in: ‘Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.’

We seem to be quite reliant on a sense of continuity in our lives and on the fulfilment of future projects which give our lives meaning. In this context ‘death’ is bewildering, although the event of our deaths could round off our life story very well. Some, aware that they are dying might try to stay in character to the end. The polemicist, Christopher Hitchens, faithfully recorded his deteriorating health while staying in combative mood. I remember the merchant seaman in a hospice who managed his pain with copious quantities of rum, not only as a sedative but as a narrative component of his identity as a seaman.

But Larkin and Barnes, for example, seem to be saying that the rational, and inevitable, thing is to be afraid. Barnes expresses this in his smartly entitled book on death (Nothing to be Frightened of) where he describes his terror of oblivion. But some writers have been dismissive of all this hoo-ha about death saying that death is indeed ‘nothing’ a banal, frequent, universal experience of unawareness about which there is little to discuss. Barnes, however, is writing in fearful anticipation of eternal oblivion about which he has plenty to say.​

​​​​Philosophers from the ancient world can provide a resource to which we can turn to try and think our way out of a fear of death. Epicurus argues that worry is futile since death brings a lack of awareness, so why fear it? Lucretius builds on this with his ‘symmetry argument’ where we might draw comfort from the fact that before we were born we had experience of ‘nothingness.’ But as Barnes points out this period of unawareness comes to an end as we are born whereas at the end of life we are presumably looking forward to an eternity of oblivion.

Religion may provide comfort for some with the prospect of the soul’s immortality but others have challenged the assumption that immortality is likely to be a positive experience. They point out that life has meaning precisely because it is finite - living forever with its endless repetitions of experience would be ‘soul destroying.’ Larkin summarily dismisses religion as a source of comfort in the modern world with his ‘…. vast moth-eaten musical brocade, created to pretend we never die’ (from his poem Aubade).

I understand scientist Richard Dawkins’ bemusement that anyone can go along with the idea of ‘God’, whom Dawkins relegates to the role of ‘an imaginary friend.’ But as I suggest later: in the circumstances of my greatest anxiety, might I not succumb to products of the imagination when rational thought has no comfort? However, my experience of someone with religious belief dying was that it didn’t, for him, take away the terror of dying. His Catholic faith did not result in an enthusiasm for meeting his maker. As he put it near his end (and while clinging on to each offering of medical intervention, however futile the outcome) ‘God can wait.’

Some decide that dying is preferable to living the life that fate has handed down, and perhaps only by being in their shoes could we begin to evaluate the wisdom of these actions for them. If some see death as a release - is that a kind of perverse hope? Is it possible for life to be worse than death? Can death be preferable to life in some circumstances? Is death as ‘release’ a comforting idea at all? Death can also be a release for carers from the stress that may colonise their lives over considerable periods of time (however much they may wish for that precarious life to continue). When we are dying, retaining our value as human beings is vital but we should also, perhaps, have an honest, shared recognition of the burdensome nature of the process for all involved. Dying can weigh all of us down.

​​But if dying can be awkward it seems even more so for the medical profession who, on the whole, take an uncompromising position in wanting to prolong life and avoid death at all costs. Atul Gwande, in his book ‘Being Mortal,’ talks about the medical profession’s reluctance to address the inevitable decline as we age and the naturalness of death at the end. I remember a conversation a bereaved acquaintance had with a GP following the death of her father when she remarked: ‘Well, he was an old man.’ The GP wanted to put her straight about the matter in insisting her father was not so much ‘old’ as ‘ill,’ as if it was inconceivable that a man in his late eighties could suffer heart failure as a natural consequence of ageing. The organisation campaigning for ‘Assisted Dying’ legislation notes that while the majority of the population is in favour of new laws to allow people with a terminal diagnosis to be helped to die with dignity, bodies supporting the medical profession are resolutely opposed. Issues around ‘end of life’ choices are, of course, more nuanced. We do want the wholehearted commitment of the medical profession to alleviate our suffering or save our lives in the right circumstances. We do have to guard against the feelings of shame and unworthiness that may attend illness and disability and to encourage people to seek out and expect ‘care’ from others and to try and mitigate feelings of being a burden. We should try to cultivate an expectation of care of ourselves, and of our ability to care for others, and take stock of how opposition to the idea of being cared for can take root in our culture.
I look again at the prospects: religion involving an all-powerful deity does not provide a believable narrative for me. What about the Buddhist ‘small death - the death of the ego?’ Should I listen to the Buddhist teacher who suggests we ‘go about as if we are dead’ paring down our experience of life so the transition from life to actual death is a little easier? When Camille Paglia writes that Nature is not the least interested in ‘the individual,’ only in its own momentum, can I then build a realisation that my own life is of no particular consequence and I can therefore let it go more easily? Except that it doesn’t feel this way to me. Thinking about my ‘insignificance’ perversely feels like solipsism.

I suppose writers like Larkin and Barnes are simply saying of the death experience: well, that’s how it is; just be realistic. There’s something admirable, even reassuring, about their honest confrontation with the inevitable and their lack of false hope. Do their reflections on death constitute, for them, a kind of liberation (in putting their fears into words), perhaps providing the projects that take their lives forward into a literary continuity beyond their deaths? But many of us won’t leave such markers of our existence.

Acceptance of ‘how things are’ is one thing but is there not some way to dull some of the anxiety; to enable me to put death in a more secluded place at least until a confrontation is inevitable? Barnes talks about the unpredictability of death which adds a certain frisson to the subject. And, of course, it could happen to me next week, tomorrow, before finishing this sentence; there might be no time for further contemplation. So, I look more urgently to the literature for some convincing form of alleviation even as I kind of know my informers are right to be rational, cold-hearted and not very hopeful.

I have been alerted to an extract from Phillip Pullman’s trilogy ’His Dark Materials.’ The protagonist (Lyra, who is twelve years old) is being advised about the nature of death and our avoidance of it and also how we should take ownership of this important conclusion to our lives: ‘You must call up your own deaths. I have heard of people like you, who keep their deaths at bay. You don’t like them, and out of courtesy they stay out of sight. But they’re not far off. Whenever you turn your head, your deaths dodge behind you.’ But death when it comes turns out to be a more sympathetic experience than might be expected: ‘Your death taps you on the shoulder, or takes your hand, and says, come along o’me, it’s time …. your death comes to you kindly and says easy now, easy ….you come along o’me, and you go with them in a boat out across the lake into the mist.’

I cannot pretend that such a fantasy about dying and death obscures my understanding of what death is and of what we observe happens to people who die. But what if I try and work up the idea of a kindly personal death figure (who doesn’t appear to be carrying a scythe) and the serene image of a boat going out across a lake into the mist? It kind of expands the landscape of death and maybe I should lodge this imagery in my psyche, just in case it comes in useful.​​ 

1. Medieval painting of Death playing chess, Täby Church, Sweden.
2. ​Self-Portrait With Skulls, Luigi Russolo, 1909
3. Contemporary Grim Reaper playing chess with elderly woman, No definitive artist credit found.
4. Death As A Friend, Alfred Rethel, 1851