Writing

Why we need to talk about death

Photo by Saša Janković

By Saša Janković

I want to talk about death. I mean I really REALLY want to talk about death. But I don’t know how. Or where to start.

In a year and bit that has seen death at the top of the news agenda day after day, our ears have filled night after night after night with the tickertape tally of death after death after unstoppable death. As we battened down the hatches on our lonely arks of homeworking – or no-working – and kitchen table schooling, the bodies piled high on the shore of our collective inability to get on top of what was happening before the next wave broke over us. 

Steering our days from behind closed doors, we taught ourselves and our children how to navigate new landscapes of working and learning, trying to read familiar faces through unfamiliar digital periscopes. Not noticing, at first, if we were drinking too much and sleeping too little, we buoyed ourselves with whatever self-congratulatory scraps of progress we could conjure up about what we can accomplish when our backs are really up against the wall. 

Some of us got fitter, ate better, had the arrogance knocked out of us. And as our human-centred systems ground to a halt, Earth didn’t skip a beat. She continued to spin and whirr and hum and inhaled a long, deep breath of her own as we took our vehicles off her skin and out of her hair and the air around her cleared.

If we can take something positive from these tiny lives we have been forced to live over the past months, it could be that they have drawn our attention to what is important to us, what we actually need to survive, and what we really can do without. But as we emerge from the enforced hibernation of the pandemic with limbs that ache to be shaken out and eyes that have not had to stretch the long beam of objective focus for quite a while, these learnings are going to be tested. 

This is because, no matter how self-aware we consider ourselves, humans like the instant sugar-hit gratification of quick and easy comforts – and a lot of these come in the form of consumerism, whose sticky fingers are already beckoning to us.

Airline bosses want us back in the skies, shuttling off to shiny hotels and sandy beach bars or faraway bucket-list destinations because surely we deserve to ‘treat ourselves’ after all we’ve been through. High street retailers host what seem like permanent sales to tempt us back into our old-life routine of shopping as a leisure activity, but that’s OK because won’t we need something new to wear once we go back to work anyway? New cars. New shoes. Jewels and trinkets and burgers and steaks and parties and one-night-stands and put-it-on-credit because we are alive and free again and now we are going to live again, and live forever, and we’ve got forever to pay it all back. We blacked out our social media as a sign of allyship, grew our own veg, only drove the car a handful of times, patched our jeans and recycled all those wine bottles we’d emptied. We survived ‘It’, right, so we are all good.

Deep down we know those are not the things that make us happy, but our memories are short and the ruts in the paths that we walk are deep and easy to follow because they steer us without any effort on our part. This way is comforting, and comfortable, and we are oh-so-tired and yes, we’ve learned our lessons: don’t pile up cages of animals that don’t normally live together in food markets, wash your hands more often than you think you need to, make some self-sacrifices for the greater good.

And still we haven’t mentioned death. The thing I really want to talk about but don’t know how because I’m a white, middle class woman who grew up in a nice, safe town in a leafy part of the world with clean running water and free healthcare and good schools where they taught us geometry and French and how to make cauliflower cheese and score a tennis match and how not to get pregnant, but nothing about death and dying and how and when to talk about it.

So my suggestion is this: if we really want to educate ourselves and our children as if people and the planet matter, we need to start at the beginning by talking about the end. 

You wouldn’t know it from the adverts, but you can jet off to the most exotic destination and take a selfie in the hippest bar wearing the swankiest outfit and anchor yourself in place with a house and stuff and things and get a million likes on social media and YOU ARE STILL GOING TO DIE, EVENTUALLY. In fact, the more of us who go back to our old ways of mindless consumption of fast food and even faster fashion, racking up the miles and airmiles as we go, the sooner Gaia will throw up her hands and throw in the towel and call it quits, taking all of us with her. That’s the message that we really need to ‘buy’ into.

So we need to start this conversation early – at school. While the government says all schools “should” teach personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education – covering drug education, financial education, sex and relationship education (SRE) and the importance of physical activity and diet for a healthy lifestyle – it is still a non-statutory subject(1) and it doesn’t seem to contain any conversations about death. 

In recent times, many educators have expanded their SRE remit to include vital topics such as consent, domestic abuse, diversity, equality and climate change, but avoiding the topic of death is like closing our eyes and putting our fingers in our ears and singing ‘la la la, it’s not happening’ as loudly as we can while standing in the path of a runaway juggernaut – it’s not going to stop the inevitable end that is coming for all of us. 

Whatever our individual religious or spiritual or non-beliefs about what ‘comes next’, in order to treat ourselves, our fellow humans and our planet properly we need to have both feet firmly grounded in the knowledge that our time here, on this spinning rock, is finite. And we need to make peace with that, because if we can’t talk about dying then we can’t explore what we think and feel about death – our own, or anyone else’s. Because if we don’t know what death means to us, then how do we know what life means either?

References

  1. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/personal-social-health-and-economic-education-pshe/personal-social-health-and-economic-pshe-education

Saša Janković is an award-winning medical journalist, editor and content creator writing for consumer and B2B press, creative agencies, industry clients and Government bodies. As the author of a book on how to get a job – from CV writing and interviews to contract negotiations – she also runs a CV polishing, job application editing and interview coaching service.

Saša is a firm believer in the power of words, and how well-written messaging and clearly communicated intentions can be a positive force for change. In 2020 she created the Write It Out journalling course, which aims to give people the tools and inspiration to develop a regular writing practice and add to their mental health self-care tool kit.

Saša lives in a house in the corner of a cemetery which prompts musings about life and death on Instagram @WhatWouldTheNeighboursSay. For thoughts on the writing life, you can also follow her on Twitter and Insta @SasaWrites 

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