Fearing death isn’t trivial, in fact, it is probably the most rational fear of any happy mind.
If someone enjoys life, it is reasonable that they want more of it, or inversely, that they don’t wish for it to end. But death will happen to all of us one day, and that my friends, is the uncomfortable truth of life. There shouldn’t be anything blithe or taboo in stating this fact. But death remains the proverbial elephant in the room that we shunt into the corner, close our eyes and pretend isn’t there. Death is hidden away.
Our resistance to discussing death is natural and normal for the obvious reason that the subject is depressing. But our culture of silence runs deeper than that: we are ill-equipped to understand the nuances of death.
We simply don’t know how to broach the topic, how to support ourselves or others affected by bereavement. All of this can be remedied by starting the conversation, which is absolutely necessary in the current climate.
The fact is humans are really fragile. Think about it, falling off a single step at a certain angle can shatter a spine, a pea dropped from a certain height can crack a skull. At the heart of this somewhat sinister point is that life is ultimately a randomised series of good and bad events which are not totally within our control.
The most obvious example of an event we can’t control is, of course, death. Though no one can escape death, if all goes well, it won’t happen until a long way into life. To unravel our existential angst around death, it’s important to meditate upon our lives and the bits of it that we can control.
The past year has been punctuated by a succession of bad events. In our pandemic-dominated world, it’s impossible to register the sheer horrors of mass death, realising that behind every number is a person and a family. Our eyes have been forced open to death and to the fragility of the health systems that prevent it from happening.
Grieving has become an everyday process, the passing of loved ones more frequent and often more premature. Daily death tolls and the NHS’s imminent collapse are our formidable reality, or what the media tritely refer to as ‘the new normal’.
It’s an emotionally grey and upended world, a world of ‘just- get-on-with-it, just-keep-going’. The impression persists that death, while prevalent, still needs to be hidden away. This delusion can’t go on.
In previous lockdowns, it was easy to collude with the spirit of unrelenting optimism, typified by Joe Wicks, banana loaves, TikTok and long walks.
But our ability to distract ourselves has wavered heavily, and people are scared and tired. There hasn’t been a more apt time than now to overcome the conversation deficit around death.
The brain so desperately wants to make meaning of all this but will struggle to do so on its own. Talk to friends, talk to family, give yourself time to reflect, undistracted.
Fears about death are allayed when we talk about them and try to live well. To have few regrets and to give a lot of love: those are two things that we can always control.
Illustration: Violet Borkowska