Note from Anne, On Being Haunted by Death

December 18, 2014
a person walking alone over a bridge at night

Flickr user Daiske Barrett

“How often do you think about dying,” a friend asked me a few years ago. I remember answering something like, “Umm… twice a month? Once a week?” In other words, not very often.

For the past three months, I came to work every day and listened to people talk about death and dying. For hours and hours. It takes a lot of listening to produce an hour of radio: you research guests, do an interview, listen back to log it, listen again for the first edit, and then again and again as you polish and fine-tune. Multiply that across five hours of radio and dozens of interviews, and it adds up to a deep dive into a subject most of us would prefer not to think about. After a while, I started to feel haunted by death.

I remember one weekend afternoon, when I was driving home after spending the day alone in the office editing death interviews. The sun was setting, the streets and buildings and people were all tinged with gray, and I could still hear Caitlin Doughty’s voice in my head, her matter-of-fact tone as she described the odor of a rotting corpse, and the small changes in a human body after death. My hands on the steering wheel looked older to me, the skin over my veins stretched and thin. I watched younger people walking and biking in the early, ashen twilight, busy with their lives and pursuits, and thought, “We each have a silent, invisible companion – death – walking with us.”

There were other, smaller deaths I was coping with at the time. My kids left home that fall for the first time, heading to college and boarding school. My in-laws were coping with a cascade of minor health crises and, for the first time, looking a bit frail. My husband was traveling a lot and I often came home to an empty house. As days shortened and shadows lengthened, I lay in bed at night reading books about death and felt ever more acutely aware of the seasons of life and time’s relentless passage.

But one night, something changed. I was walking the dog near midnight. He was being poky, as usual. It was so dark that I could barely see him, but I could hear him snuffling and rustling through leaf piles. An interview I’d done earlier in the day was running through my head: Karen Reppen talking about hospice and the things people say when they’re dying, about how so many people seem to know when they’re about to go. I remember watching the lights in my neighbors’ houses winking off as people went to bed, and feeling suddenly gobsmacked by the sheer ordinariness of death.

For weeks, people had been telling me that “everyone dies.” The phrase came up in every death interview I did, and I didn’t like hearing it. It made me think of myself as a walking corpse, a temporarily flesh-covered skeleton. Under the stars that night, I finally heard the phrase the way people probably meant it: in a comforting way – as in, we’re all in this together.

"We’ve got it all wrong," I thought. "Death isn’t so terrifying, it’s just... normal. The ancestors whose genes swirl inside me, the billions of people who made this planet home… they all took a last breath and died. We don’t go alone into the darkness, because they showed us how."

Under the bare winter branches, pulling a recalcitrant dog toward home, I felt my life briefly settle down around me. My perennial anxieties, nervous tension and grasping quieted, and for a moment, death — that stranger in the dark — stepped closer and looked like an old and familiar friend.

I don’t know how many deaths you’ve grieved or what you may be preparing to face in your own life. But I hope this series also leaves you feeling a bit more comfortable – if not comforted – with considering and talking about death.

Comments

Thanks, Anne, and everyone who was a part of this series. I'm finding it very interesting and valuable in my own reach toward the daily recognition that you describe -- death as a familiar old friend. I have also referred a number of friends to the series -- both elders and others not so old. (After all, you don't have to be old to die, do you.)

Thank you for your insightful piece on death. It has helped me come to terms with what happens to us after our journey. Death was always abstract for me I've had friends pass and yes it was sad and there was a hole in my social life and every person that I knew who died added up. It wasn't until my mother passed that it really hit home hard. That hey that’s it there is nothing after this, but I enjoy the ideal that the atoms that make us return to the cosmos to start something new. The sadness of death can be summed up in the final scenes in blade runner, when Roy Batty the last nexus6 is telling Decker about the things he has seen and how no one will ever know he was here. We are as immortal as our facebook profiles until they delete us to make room for other new users

I love hearing your interviews every time, and seeing your writing here on the meaning of The Final Curtain, and the impact of what all those interviews had on you, and how you integrated them in a very 'holistic' way into your life in the end (and perhaps just being spurred by your 'poky' canine), was really excellent, and warming. Thx for writing it out. :-)

Anne, I want to thank you for the hours and hours you spent listening to the stories and experiences of so many people around the subject of death. Today I listened to Part 4. As Fate would have it, my mother, also named Anne, died yesterday at home. She was 90 years old and my siblings who were with her at the time of her passing, tell me it was very peaceful.
Also, as Fate would have it, I've just helped some friends start a Kickstarter project for a conference on Conscious Living and Conscious Dying to be held in October here in Colorado.
Irony is a strange beast, but your series has been so educational and allowed a sort of 'guided introspection' of my own. Your experience while walking your dog is a wonderful closing to your look at mortality and what the dying experience can be. I now see my own future 'crossing over' as an adventure; one that I will not shy away from. It will be embraced, when it is time, as that next natural step. Yes, millions of past humans have shown us the way, as we will lead the way for those that follow us. You have, indeed, made the entire experience more comfortable. Thank you.

Yes, this space is meant to comment on interviews about death but I felt inclined to take this opportunity to say that I'm 'addicted' to podcasts, most especially NPR related listening, and I find your podcast to be the absolute best, most informative, interesting, and wonderful of all that I enjoy daily. Many other podcasts are also great- I could name several, but yours is truly special. My only complaint is that I don't hear from you often enough! I download an episode as soon as a new one is available- and I'm not afraid to repeat! Keep up the great work all of you at To the Best, you are so appreciated!

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