It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens (Woody Allen).
I’m not a big Woody Allen fan so it annoys me when I have to attribute something clever to him, but fair’s fair.
I have spent a lot of time thinking about death in the last three days. A very dear friend, whom I have known for over 38 years, died on Friday morning from cancer of the oesophagus. She was my age (59) and put up a very tough fight in the last few months, but it was too late and it was her time to go. Her beloved aunt, who nursed her at home for the last few weeks, told me that Shona had died propped up in bed, with her glasses on and her tablet open in front of her, presumably watching something on Netflix. Her dog, Cayley, was lying next to her licking her hand. Shona and I had in fact spoken just the night before via whatsapp, and the last message I had from her was four kisses. For the first time, her exhaustion and acceptance were apparent in her voice.
I’m not trying to make this about me, but I have come to realise that that actually is what death is about. The person who has died has gone, they are no longer suffering or in a bitter struggle for survival, they are at peace. We all have to die one day. We all know this. It is the impact of Shona’s loss on my own life that I must endure, and find a way to accommodate.
A group of us celebrating Shona’s 53rd birthday at Forrie’s, Shona is the one in the light pink Chinese top:
I was brought up as a Catholic, I went to mass every Sunday and confession once a week. My father (who died at 46 from cancer of the pancreas) had the last rites at home, although he ended up dying in hospital. At 17, I did not question the concept that he had gone to be in heaven. I believed in heaven and all the other stuff until I was 18, to wake up one morning and realise that none of it made any sense to me any more.
Before anyone jumps down my throat, I’d like to make something clear – I am not criticising anyone who is religious (of whatever faith). My best friend is a practicing Catholic and she knows I am an atheist. I respect her beliefs and actions. I respect anyone else’s beliefs, as long as they don’t result in prosthelytising or causing harm to anyone else. I think the development of religion was a necessary evolutionary step for human beings. I truly wish I did still believe in the faith that my parents had, it would be comforting in so many ways. But I just can’t – I can’t force it, any more than I can force myself to be taller or shorter. I also do not say it lightly – I have read a great deal about religion, atheism, spirituality, human psychology, history, evolution, and as much science as my head can manage to absorb.
About seven years, I made Shona some fingerless mitts for her birthday. She was always so bright, smart, witty and sweet, and her life was difficult in many ways that I have never had to contend with. She was tougher than she looked, and at the same time more fragile than one would usually guess.
I would love to think of Shona “somewhere up there”, with my dad, my grandparents, Philip, and the many other people I have loved who have gone from my life. But in the end, for me, it all comes back to the impact on my own life and emotions. Shona’s death compounds my continued grief for my dad and for Philip, but it is all the same to them – they are no longer ill and in pain. I must live with my losses and find a way to give them space in amongst all the other things that make me human. I hope some of those things include empathy and consideration of others, but right now, it is just overwhelming selfish grief.