Tag Archives: death

How long should we live?

We need to be ok with the fact that humans die. It’s a key part of being alive and there is a point at which trying to delay death becomes cruel, painful and unjustifiable. 

I’m very much in favour of preventing disease, preventing accidents and enabling people to live peacefully and well. I’d like to see far more investment in both research and education to support health and wellbeing. 

I feel strongly that anyone who is alive should have the right to a decent amount of life in as good a state of health as possible. In reality, your quality of life and healthcare will most likely have everything to do with your economic wealth. So when we’re talking about interventions that ‘save’ lives we’re often talking about extending the lives of privileged people who already have better than average life expectancies. Unhoused people have far lower life expectancies than housed people in the same societies but this seldom comes up around conversations about saving lives.

I don’t have any definitive answers here, not least because I think what’s really needed is to ask questions. We need to each ask ourselves about the lives and deaths we want for ourselves and for other people. 

How long do we expect to live? For much of human history, life expectancy was about thirty.

What conditions are we prepared to live in? We may not know the answer to that until we get into difficulty, but we should keep asking anyway.

Why do we treat some lives as disposable, yet are willing to go to great lengths to keep other people alive for as long as possible?

In what circumstances would we consider death a kindness?

How do we feel about life before death? How do we consider or contribute to quality of life for those around us and those we impact on?


Staying Alive

CW suicide

I can’t remember when I first had the experience of wanting to die, but I was young. It wasn’t so much an urge to kill myself, more the desire to have never existed. By the time I was 11, I was trying to figure out how to justify my existence day to day. At that point I was fighting to work out how to live, but that’s changed over the years. 

If I could simply stop breathing by choice, then I would. That’s part of my everyday experience. It has to do with living with pain and always being tired and feeling so worn down most of the time that I have no idea how to keep going. There’s also too often nothing much I’m excited about and moving towards that makes me actively feel like I want to live. This is not the same as wanting to commit suicide.

I’ve never actually experienced it as wanting to kill myself. Sometimes what I have is an intense and overwhelming desire to not be in pain anymore – physical or emotional. Sometimes it is a thing that rises up within me and seems intent on killing me – and thus far I’ve managed to fight that, although what it brings up for me is violent, terrifying and close to overwhelming. I don’t know how to describe it except to say that it feels separate from me.

I’ve reached out for help many, many times. As it happens I’ve had years of asking people for things that would give me a better chance of not being in so much distress. What this has taught me is that help mostly isn’t available. On days when I’m struggling with self-harming impulses and the thing in my head that wants to kill me is menacing me, it’s hard to imagine who I could take that to who could actually help me. I’m not an easy person to comfort – this seems to be a brain chemistry issue. I’ve reached out for medical help, and it wasn’t there and I don’t have it in me to keep fighting – be that people or systems. I’ve been fighting myself for a long time. At this point I think I’ve worked out who would be both willing and able to step up in an emergency, but its taken a while.

Sometimes, the only thing I can do is to keep doing something. To put some kind of action between me and my death. To go one breath at a time in trying to figure out what there is to live for and how to keep going. I mostly don’t know how to keep going. But if I’m typing, I’m not doing anything else and there have been times when writing blog posts has got me through.

I did not write this blog today, it is not an urgent issue so no one needs to feel like they have to come and rescue me right now. Part of the point of writing is to try and explain so that other people are better equipped for their own experiences and the suffering of people in their own lives. Part of the point is to flag up that people won’t always tell you when the help they ask for is a matter of life and death for them. It’s not always easy to tell what might get someone through an otherwise impossible day and how much good you can do without knowing it.

And sometimes the answer is to write, because writing isn’t dying. Today (the day when I wrote this), not existing is an attractive idea – more so than it usually is. I can see no way forward, no way of doing anything good enough, no way of making my existence bearable. I’ve been here many times and I know things won’t get better but that I may learn how to make do with less and how to keep moving despite how much it all hurts.


Seasonal poetry

Falling

Carpet of gold laced red and green

Autumn in glorious death throes

Each leaf a perfect single self.

Head down, muscles locking stiffness

Barely walking and heart weary

I admire the lovely demise

The forms and colours of dying

The specificness of each leaf.

All the while I am winter bound

Dreaming snow drifts of the future

Of a world remade and pristine

Where you might lay down a body

Too wounded to walk any more

Imagine the feather softness

Where cold becomes the sweetest warmth

Pain becomes melting glad release.

To be wrapped in beauty at last

Held to mother nature’s bosom

In a longed for desperate embrace.

When she holds as snow, as river

As earth or grave or fire or flood

She never lets you go again.

Rain held my body, long and chill

The cold of it held me tightly

Somehow today I am alive

Pen in hand, limbs aching, heart sore.

Not a leaf to end in glory

This is the dying time of year

And it is hard to want to live.

(Before anyone worries too much about this, I’m still here, I survived the weekend, I am coming back along a hard road with notes. It seemed important to record what I could of the territory.)


A good death

She was old, her time had certainly come. She died at home, quietly and in her own time, in the company of people who loved her. It was a good death. We did well.

I don’t think we talk enough about good deaths. We’re quick to offer condolences when people die, but we don’t congratulate them on having done a good job for their families, and loved ones, and I think we should. I’ve started doing it.

That’s led me to thinking a lot about what constitutes a good death. First and foremost it is the freedom to die on your own terms. That often means getting to do so at home and with the people you love. Not always though – best not to assume. When we’re talking about death, we should talk about whether people got to die in a manner that they would have found acceptable. It’s a good thing to ask – that you hope they had a good death on their own terms.

When a person gets to die is obviously a big issue. When accident and illness takes someone who is too young, it can be hard to accept that as a good death. It may in fact be a bloody awful death and need identifying on those terms. Not all deaths are good. To honour the good deaths we must also acknowledge the terrible ones. To suffer greatly, to experience humiliation to be undignified and denied what you want at the end of your life is to have a really bad death. To go suddenly but to leave well has some redeeming features.

What we’ve done in our lives to that point, no matter how old we are, will frame our deaths. To live well is a significant contributor to having a good death. To have lived fully, to have loved and done good things with whatever time you had, to have been loved, to have had rich experiences – no matter when you go, with this kind of life, you can die well.

She was nineteen, which is old for a cat. Some cats like to go off and hide, but she didn’t, she was very clear about wanting us with her. As she started to fade in the morning she was still calling out to us for fuss and responding to being stroked and cuddled. We stayed with her, taking it in turns to sit with her on our laps. James sang her the many songs he has mangled to turn into cat praise songs. She faded gently, and was in no pain so far as we could tell, for most of that process. When death came, it was quick and she was on Tom’s lap.

It’s the best we could have done for her. Tiggy had a happy 2 years with us, and a good death. We will all miss her greatly, but there is nothing to regret in all of this.


Lessons from Old Cats

For a while now, I’ve been taking in old cats – one at a time. Old cats are not easily homed – they come with short life expectancies, likelihood of expensive vets bills, and distress. If your old cat has spent its life with one family or human, the loss of them will likely grieve them. An old cat who has been rescued will likely have been through some shit and may have issues. Old cats, much like old dogs are slow to learn new tricks.

There can be no messing about when taking in an old cat. You know they might only have a year or two with you. So you have to be willing to love them as wholeheartedly as you would a young cat who might be with you a decade or more. You have to love from a basis of knowing you will lose them and that the more you love them the more that will hurt. But, they need you, and they need to be cared for and they need it to be ok that they will shortly break your heart.

They teach patience and compassion. They teach it as their minds and bodies fail. They teach it with their incontinence, their deterioration, their fragility and vulnerability. They teach you to think about what your own body might be like as it ages, and they help you face up to that.

Old cats brings lessons in ruthless pragmatism. They are going to die, sooner rather than later. There is nowhere to hide from this. You will have to make decisions about when to go to the vet, and when to let go and have nature take its course. They cannot live forever. They cannot always be fixed. They teach a person how to examine their own selfish urges to hang on, and how to think better about suffering and quality of life.

They teach acceptance, and trust. They bring you their fragile bodies, and their purrs, and their need for care. The ones who have been mistreated may show you their fear and you get to work with that and maybe win them round and perhaps you can teach them that the world isn’t such a terrible place after all. And whatever life has done to this point, a few good years, or even just a few good days, are still well worth having.


A Good Death

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been killing people on The Hopeless Maine blog as part of the kickstarter we’re doing. People who backed early get obituaries, as though they had been residents of the imaginary island, now deceased. It’s been an exercise in asking what would make for a good death. Most of us won’t read our obituaries in real life, so it’s interesting thinking about what a person might want from a fictional obituary. This may not be quite the same as what you’d want in a real one, but it does raise interesting questions.

Without a doubt, everyone wants to be remembered fondly and have some sense that someone, at least, is sorry they are gone. Whatever form a death takes, the feeling of a life lived well, and fully is important. That bit at least, we may get some kind of control over, whereas the time of our departure is beyond our control.

There’s a definite charm in dying as you lived, or in a way that has a poetic quality to it. This may well be more true of fictional deaths. A comedy death is more appealing in an imaginary setting perhaps, than a real one. There are no doubt people as well as me though, who get a kick out of uncomfortable humour and might enjoy the prospect of our final moments leaving people unsure whether to laugh or cry. I have a fondness for the preposterous, and departing in a way that would have people shaking their heads and laughing has definite appeal.

Good deaths are quick, and perhaps unexpected. I’m not going to write any scenarios in which people die slowly unless I can make that both painless and funny. Long, slow, painful deaths are awful, and take a toll on anyone who has to live through watching that. No one wants to watch someone they love suffering. Most of us don’t even want to watch people we despise suffering in that kind of way.

 


Grief and religion

One of the things that religions have in common is that they offer answers to human suffering. It may be in the form of strategies to relieve that suffering by living in certain ways. It may be through stories of divine oversight, grand plans, or afterlife recompense. This is one of the ways in which I’ve always found organised religions problematic. Not least because so often, those consolations don’t turn out to be that helpful for people experiencing grief and trauma.

When you have to ask why your God wasn’t there for you and why terrible things were allowed to happen, you either undermine your faith or start having to believe that terrible things are somehow part of a grand plan for your own good. It’s a bigger issue for omnipotent Gods who are supposed to be benevolent.

We suffer in so far as we care. Love and grief are two sides of the same coin. Everything in our world is finite, and will end, or die and if we care about that, or about ourselves we are bound to be hurt by this. To care is to be vulnerable to loss.

In my late teens, I first encountered existentialist thinking, which responds to the grief of life and the apparent meaninglessness by owning it. We may have to make our own meaning. There may be no other meaning. It was the first approach I’d found that genuinely comforted me and it did so because it let me own what I was experiencing. This may be all we have. There may be no grand plan. Everyone dies. If you care, it hurts.

Rather than follow a path that has anything to offer by way of more conventional comfort, I’ve lived with this on my own terms. I see loss and grief as part of life. I see them as intrinsic parts of my caring and loving. I’ve not sought a path that would free me from pain, rather, I’ve tried to embrace it as part of what it means to be human. I find more comfort in the idea that there isn’t a plan, that terrible things happen for no real reason at all sometimes, and that we certainly do not get what we deserve. I think it’s kinder not to assume we get what we deserve.

When we try to protect ourselves from pain, we may close our hearts to what’s around us. We may delude ourselves. We may not do today the things we will no longer have chance to do tomorrow. When you live knowing that everything and everyone is going to die and you let that colour your world view, it becomes more necessary to live fully. It becomes more important to tell people you love them. It becomes more important to try and sort things out here and now, and get them right in the first place.

I’m never very sure what I believe when it comes to deity and afterlife. What I am sure is that it works better for me to live as though there is nothing else but this life and this body I have to experience it with. To love as much as I can and to accept what that means and to embrace grief as an aspect of love makes the most sense to me.


The joy of dead trees

One of the problems with humans is that we like to ‘manage’ trees, parks and woodland by taking the dead trees out. This is fair enough if they’re dead, upright and at risk of falling onto a path at no notice. Otherwise, it makes very little sense. Wherever possible we should leave dead trees where they are.

A dead tree is an amazing habitat. All kinds of insets will make homes beneath the bark. Birds will feed on those insects, and also use holes in the tree for nest sites. Small mammals, bats, slow worms and lizards can also find homes amidst the decaying wood. Mosses, fungus and lichens can all make their homes here, too.

It is all too easy to see death as untidy, or unpleasant. However, a dead tree remains a great source of beauty as it goes through the decay process. Out of its death, comes life.

In pine woods, it is usually the dead trees that let the light in. You may have miles of dense trees (usually a plantation) with nothing but old needles underneath, and then come to a place where there is light, intense green plant life, ferns, mosses, saplings – invariably because a tree has died here and let in a possibility.

The death of a tree is very much part of the life cycle of a tree. It is a good thing to witness. It gives us stories about longevity and life after death that are a lot more sustainable.

 

common_lizard-00142

Find out more about ancient woodland here – http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/about-us/ancient-woodland-restoration/ancient-woodland/what-is-ancient-woodland/


The afterlife of trees

Humans have a strange obsession with tidying up fallen trees. Fair enough if you need to move them off a footpath or out of a road, but a fallen tree is a gift that keeps on giving. Taking fallen wood for fuel or make something can also make sense, but taking it away because it’s deemed untidy is ridiculous.

First up there’s the should-be-obvious point that if you leave a tree to rot down it will slowly return nutrients to the soil, feeding everything else.

A fallen tree provides a home for fungi – sometimes many different kinds. It also provides homes for insects, and as the holes in it get bigger it may provide a refuge for small creatures as well. The insects homed in a dead tree in turn provide a food supply for birds and the aforementioned small creatures, who in turn provide food for predators. Things eating each other is the basis of how the natural world gets things done.

In parks, gardens and managed woodlands, I think the problem is that humans try to impose weird beauty standards on nature. Decay is part of nature. The urge to impose human values is a very human problem. Nature tends not to grow monocultures in straight lines. We train ourselves to tidy up all signs of death and decay and it is an unhealthy and destructive urge. Dead seed heads feed small birds through the winter months. Long, straggly grass provides insects with homes. Dead trees have an amazing afterlife that, even as decay is underway, is full of new life.

Out there in the real world, decay and growth go hand in hand. One thing dies and another thing rises. Beautiful fungi forms emerge from the rotting wood. Dead trees are a key part of the life of the forest. Humans too often treat decay as something to fight and try to control. It offends us. It reminds us that our faces won’t stay smooth and unblemished. It reminds us that we are mortal. We don’t like being reminded that we are mortal, and so we go to great lengths to hide mortality from ourselves. We worry about afterlives we can only imagine, while failing to recognise the beauty and power of the physical afterlife that turns our remains into something new.


Talking to children about death

Not so long back, a neighbour spelled out the word ‘dead’ to us in a conversation so that her small daughter would not understand what was being talked about. It’s normal not to talk to small children about death, and I remember being young enough that there were things so terrible no one would explain them to me. I remember how frightened I felt about the things I was not allowed to know, and how unreasonable and threatening the world seemed.

Normal people don’t take children to funerals. My son was four when his great grandmother died. I took him to see her at the funeral parlour, because I wanted him to understand what was going on. I took him to the funeral and to her burial. For quite a while thereafter, she was the great granny who went in a box in the ground, and he was ok with that. We talked a bit about how no one really knows what happens when you die, and that it’s ok not to know, and nothing to be afraid of.

That autumn featured a dead crow – hit by a car – which proceeded to decompose at the end of our road, on the pavement we walked down to get to school. He dealt with this by writing a song about it, and we talked about why it isn’t a good idea to get in the way of cars. He’s always been very, very sensible about traffic.

When a friend of ours died, too young, and I was asked to be the celebrant at her funeral, my son stepped up to help where other adults were unable to – unafraid by the size of the gathering for a start.

We’re able to talk about death. He knows my funeral preferences. (In order of preference, air burial, eaten by a vulture, naked in a foetal position and covered in ochre, shroud, cardboard coffin).

My philosophy has always been that if a child asks a question, then they need an answer. They need a good, solid sort of answer that won’t set them up for confusion later on. Whether it’s sex, death, infinity, terrorism, or anything else big or scary, they need something that makes sense in a language that does not overly distress them. By normal parenting standards, I’ve been an outrageous over-sharer. But I’ve got a teenage son who has known about menstruation for so long that it’s no big deal to him.

I’ve also got a teenage son who trusts me, because he’s not at the moment going through the process of establishing just how much I lied to him when he was growing up. I’ve got a teenager who can take my authority when I need to pull rank, because he knows I won’t bullshit him or fob him off with answers that are more about my comfort than his. It turns out that’s worth a great deal.