What we don’t talk about when we don’t talk about death

Mourning and moving furniture

Artillery Row

One evening in December 2020 I reached behind the toaster, swapped it briskly with the microwave in the wall socket, felt a soft explosion of partially squashed terrestrial gastropod mollusc and thought: well, you’ve heard of elf on a shelf, now get ready for … 

Recovering from the horror, I cleaned the wall and my hands quietly, because my family and I were existing in the weird otherworld of terminal illness — not that we called it that, or acknowledged out loud where we were. Phone appointments, Zopiclone, rearranged cushions, another episode of Ben Fogle’s New Lives in the Wild: it turned out that a lot of what they call end-of-life care was banal detail. Hospice support came to the house, wearing a plastic apron. “You can’t get anything wrong. There are no rules,” said the nurse to her patient. And then, to the rest of us, because we needed to hear the same thing a little differently: “you can’t get anything wrong. There are no rules.”

There was no consolation to be drawn from classic literature

There are no rules, but I’ve been in conversations where people say, “why, in our culture, do we not talk more about death?” as if we could make it less burdensome by bringing it out into the open. In December 2020 and January 2021, I sometimes thought these people had a point. It might have been useful to be less clueless about practicalities: for example, I never expected death to involve furniture removals to such an extent — one bookcase wiggled out into the stairwell, the shoe rack relegated to a distant corner, the sofa hauled round to the village hall. The hospital bed was brought in by the aptly named Bob the Bed. “Did you watch the inauguration yesterday?” said Bob the Bed, who was otherwise quite helpful and pleasant and didn’t realise that Joe Biden was a myth and America had never existed. Nothing existed beyond the circuit of fields around our village, all grey and brown in winter, with ice on every stem. 

So there might have been very little to gain from talking about it ahead of time. The great novelists, after all, had not provided any assistance. George Eliot was no help. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky knew nothing. There was no consolation to be drawn from classic literature, only the incidental conviction at three a.m. that John Steinbeck was surely a raging misogynist. There was no way to be prepared, no rules, after all, and no system. Just problem-solving, over and over, when death is the ultimate problem that can’t be fixed.

Sometimes people think the rule is: don’t talk about it. Sometimes they think the rule is: talk about it. Sometimes they think you should do what you feel comfortable with — an ambitious proposition, as if you might feel comfortable with anything really. Possibly you aren’t meant to talk about death, which is insoluble, but you are meant to talk about grief, which sounds like something we can hold in our hands, methodically examine, learn to handle better. 

I’m going to regret this later, or you are

I didn’t like the word “grief”. Giving it a name seemed too close to implying that I had the least idea what was going on. Grief, a sad but familiar old coat. It might equally well have been a coat or a fascinator for all I knew; I used the word “grief” only when shoving “grief embarrassing” or “grief tired” into Google to confirm that I wasn’t the only idiot out there. There were very smart people who wrote messages and said don’t worry, I’m not expecting a reply. I’ll call in a few days but you don’t have to pick up. We can go for a walk and not talk about anything. We went for a walk and wandered around for hours. 

Really the problem with talking about death is that, well, I could tell you everything, exhaustively. There are no rules, right? I could sacrifice all dignity and order. I could take your graciousness in listening entirely for granted. I could make this conversation last all day. I’m going to regret this later, or you are. Why don’t we talk about death? I’m constantly angry. Why don’t we talk about death? There are no rules, but you need a doctor’s signature for that. Why don’t we talk about death? Do you really think we should talk about how it feels to be a small pale slug, marmalised between the plug for the microwave and the kitchen wall? 

It should be obvious why in our culture we don’t talk about death. It should also be obvious why J. D. Salinger’s “Seymour: An Introduction” is all hopelessly long paragraphs, why the narrator is a recluse who won’t stop talking. If he can talk about his dead brother, he says, then let them all come, anyone, everyone. “The old red carpet is out.”

Tell me I’m allowed to ignore your phone call and I’m more likely to pick it up. I’m still bad at replying to messages. What I wonder about, though, is what you do if you need to move the sofa and there is no village hall. It’s strange that you don’t always see everyone’s furniture just sitting out on the pavement. Did we look like people who might have watched the inauguration yesterday? But then, why did I bother typing up the minutes of a meeting of the Parochial Church Council? I’m just relieved to have finished the instant coffee the carer left behind. Let us never speak of this again.

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