I think about death every day.
Funny thing about that is I’m happy and healthy (as far as I know). I don’t have ailing parents (yet). I do not work in the funeral industry. Nor do I harbour any particular fascination for graveyards, jar-preserved anatomical curiosities or skulls as decorative motif.
I have developed an interesting routine lately, though. Leaving work after it’s turned dark already, I do this thing: I flick off the ceiling lights in my office and stand there looking out the window for a minute. It has a nice effect: once the bulbs are off above me, the inky street-and-waterfront canvas of the city, dabbed with spots of streetlight, fills my view.
During the day, I have wept in that same office. And I don’t mean fill up with tears and run to a stall in the bathroom, dodging colleagues as I go. I mean a full-on crumpling, hot tears running at, say, 10:45 a.m. on a Tuesday as I stand in front of my computer or read at my desk. It doesn’t last long, but when it happens, it’s intense.
One of those moments was triggered by a story told on The Moth radio program by a chaplain who knew a five-year‐old who had been through a big loss. Her parents were apprehensive about taking her to a funeral parlour to say goodbye to her dead four-year-old cousin and close friend. I’ll spare you my lesser retelling except to say that I hope I have one shred of the magic that kid has: If I’m able to be as loving, not scared, playful, present, kind and true as that five-year‐old when, say, my mom dies, or my partner, or . . . I’ll know I’ve done some good work in this life.
I’ve also laughed out loud more than a few times in my office, especially while reading Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? It’s a graphic novel recounting Chast’s experience of caring for her aged and ailing parents before they died.
She gives an incredibly honest, hilarious, heartbreaking account of not just her coping with human decline and profound loss but navigating our troubled North American medical system and learning how to let go in a culture that doesn’t really ever encourage us to do so. As Jerry Lewis has been quoted as saying: “Funny has to be sad somewhere.”
Why swim around in such heavy material? Currently, it’s my day job. And, admittedly, it can be a tad surreal working on a documentary film and web project about death and dying. (When You Die is slated for release in 2017).
But mostly? This experience has been amazing.
Take, for example, what happened after I read Dr. Ira Byock’s The Four Things That Matter Most. Spoiler alert: It’s telling the people who matter to you that they matter to you before either you or they are not around to say or hear it anymore.
Palliative care physician Byock has done a lot of work in this area of human reckoning with our lives and with one another.
Second spoiler alert: Please forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.
Those are the words Byock has found most of us need to say out loud — especially when the clock is about to run out for us or for the person we need to say them to.
As I read the book, I couldn’t shake my memories and longing for a very good friend, someone I had fought with years ago and with whom I had tried to reconcile but never managed to.
I thought: One more try.
Not five minutes later — after seven years of silence — I got an email back.
“Please forgive me,” was my email heading.
As I wrote those words, I realized I had never uttered them to anyone before. I didn’t know how. I felt defenceless. Wide open. I hit SEND anyway.
Not five minutes later — after seven years of silence — I got an email back. And then, amazingly, the rest of those Byock-recommended statements tumbled out from both of us in no particular order in the emails, texts and phone calls that followed. Our lives are very different now, but to be back in one another’s orbit is a gift I didn’t think I’d get to have again.
Most recently, it’s Paul Kalanithi who’s been showing me how to live a good life. He’s the author of When Breath Becomes Air, a book the 37-year-old neurosurgeon penned during the months between his diagnosis with terminal lung cancer and the day he died last year.
I was sitting in my living room the other morning, unable to put that book down, pausing only to read a passage out loud to my partner. It was about Kalanithi’s relationship with his oncologist. Through his experience of receiving care from her, Kalanithi was moved to put this thought to paper: “The physician’s duty is not to stave off death or return patients to their old lives, but to take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have disintegrated and work until they can stand back up and face, and make sense of, their own existence.”
That oncologist kept reminding Kalanithi, as he grappled with being overwhelmed by the pain and fatigue of his illness: “You have to figure out what’s most important to you.”
It seems ludicrous to think that any of us would be stymied by that — ever. But I know I am — regularly. Because What’s Most Important is so often at odds with All the Other Things in Life. Namely, All the Stuff We Can’t Control.
My partner and I now play a game when we’re out. We call it “I See Dead People.” There’s only one rule to this game: to remember that every single person you encounter is going to die some day. (Cue the Flaming Lips’ track “Do You Realize?” to drive this point home.)
But here’s the thing: Now that I’ve been playing the game, it’s surprisingly difficult to remember to follow that one, single rule. I have to remind myself every time. (When I do, though, it’s remarkable how differently things go).
I also have to remind myself quite a lot throughout an average day exactly what’s most important to me — and then I usually have to exert some creativity to keep that important stuff at the forefront.
I still play with the lights at work at the end of the day. When night falls and I make my office dark, another interesting perceptual thing happens: As I stand in the liminal space between hall and office, backlit by the corridor’s fluorescents, I can stare out on the twinkling city beyond — but I’m also seeing a reflection of myself in that same window. I’ve got my coat on, bag in hand.
I flick off the light in the hallway behind me. Now all I see is the city scene.
I flick the light back on. There I am again.
Headed home now.
The When You Die staff is committed to bringing death back into our everyday conversations as an integral part of our human journey.