I was recently reading an article about the Australian writer Cory Taylor and her book, Dying: A Memoir. In it the writer of the article, Alice O’Keeffe asked what we should do if we don’t have the consolation of a religious belief about the after life. She wrote that:
“The rest of us need to know how to go about dying with some dignity and grace…”.
Now this sentence struck a real element of discord with me. Why do we have to aspire to die with dignity and grace? This reminded me of the women who are held up as marvellous examples because they went through childbirth without a murmur or breaking a sweat whilst the rest of us puffed and farted and screamed our way through it. Why does death have to be “dignified“? I feel that this pressure to be calm, unemotional and serene through major events is so sterile. What’s wrong with a bit of passion and expression when we are undergoing life’s big events? My worry is that the need to be serene may preclude a dying person’s opportunity to be happy as well as sad: to be laughing and crying.
Dylan Thomas wrote his great poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night to say that it’s OK to be angry – it’s OK to rage at the end of your life and express your desire to stay a little longer. Maybe having a bit of a rant will be cathartic and help you move towards accepting what is inevitable.
“Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.”
In 2013 a man received a message from his late wife who had died two years earlier. She had entrusted the letter to her best friend and had asked that it be read out to him if he found a new love. In it she told him that he had her blessing and she also spoke to his new fiancee thanking her for looking after her young children and wishing them both happiness together. In 2015 a young woman found out that she had terminal cancer shortly after giving birth so she made a short film which would be shown to her daughter when she was older. In it she talks about herself and her hopes for her daughter.
In the last century we have had lots of ways of speaking from beyond the grave. At one time this might have been by letter (if you could write) but in recent times this has multiplied into anything from digital legacies to texts as well as old fashioned Super 8 film. Our desire to hear from the dead might even mean that we keep phoning them so we can hear their recorded voice speaking on the answering machine. In this day and age its not surprising that there is even a website that will promise to send an email from beyond the grave on your behalf!
So if you could speak after you’ve gone, who would you speak to and what would you say? The obvious one for me would be to speak to my son. But when I think about it I’d hope that I have said almost everything I need to say to him in person. He knows how much I love him, how proud of him I am and how I want him to live his life entirely his own way. I’ve even told him that if I leave him money he should not fret about how he spends it – he can be wise or foolish with it and most especially not feel guilty about gaining any benefits financially by my dying.
Other than this I don’t have any profound or lasting words for the world I’d be leaving. I’d love to be able to say “make peace and be kind” but I’m not an influential person so who’d care? I don’t have any special insights into the world and I’m not a creative or literary person whose legacy will be in my art or writings; certainly much smarter and wittier people have said it better before me. But if I did want to say one thing to those I’d leave behind it would be:
“Thanks for everything. I’ve had the best possible life and I will miss you all.“