“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.