Saturday, 9 July 2016

Living with Death

Even as I stood staring up at Louise's body, numbed, bewildered, shocked and silently screaming in despair, I somehow found space in my brain to recognise the irony of the situation. In the course of her professional career Louise had seen, examined and dissected numerous dead bodies. Death was, to her, an unremarkable commonplace. While I returned home from work on an evening and talked over the dinner table of office politics, Louise might casually mention a death certificate she had signed or a patient with a terminal diagnosis as if it was no more important, and possibly less so, than my trivia. I came to understand that this normalisation of death and tragedy was not callous disregard for the suffering of fellow humans but a necessary coping mechanism common to all doctors. But now here was I encountering death close up for the very first time - and it was on a far more personal and horrific scale than anything Louise had ever witnessed herself. Now it would be me that needed to develop a similar coping mechanism.

The hardening process began almost immediately. When you live surrounded by evidence of death and loss, and have to cope daily with the consequences, even the most squeamish and sentimental of us quickly learn to come to some form of practical accommodation with situations that we would have previously considered to be beyond endurance. Nothing that I might ever achieve in my life will be braver than the moment that I stood in a candlelit undertakers room and summoned the courage to kiss the cold, hard and unresponsive lips of Louise's waxy half-likeness. Other, that is, than the moment seconds later when I decided that I could not possibly say goodbye with such a tentative, nervous and hurried gesture and returned to the room to give my beautiful wife the tender farewell kiss she deserved. 

Louise, who was gently amused by my superstitious nervousness of ghosts and spirits, would be surprised by my new robustness and my willingness to engage with the concept of death. Even when well she was always prepared to contemplate death, to face the prospect of her own mortality, and spoke of her desire to ultimately evade aged decrepitude through assisted dying. But I clung only to the concept of life, unable and unwilling to think beyond it. It was no coincidence that Louise was the one who pressed for us to make our wills. I preferred to ignore the subject. Now, however, death and its meaning is never far from my thoughts. I constantly attempt to wrestle with the vast, incomprehensible unknowns of the afterlife, and the even more vast and incomprehensible concept of nothingness, the end of existence. 

To my surprise I find myself able to live with death all around me. I make my dinner in the kitchen without so much as a second glance at the large and austere crematorium issue plastic jar containing the remnants of Louise's ashes, kept, I have now decided, to be one day scattered with my own. I pass and re-pass the spot where she died dozens of times every day and remember the sight every single time, but am never disabled by it. I go to sleep with the stool on which Louise stood once more next to my bed, piled high with the days discarded clothes, and rarely make the connection. I have even become accustomed to the void next to me in the bed. My mind has anaesthetised itself. 

Yet while I manage to ignore evidence of Louise's death, I simultaneously draw comfort from holding on to evidence of her existence, however poignant it may be to others. Her pink woolly hat, still where she left it by the front door when she returned home for the last time, which now serves as my proxy for her; kissed every time I enter and leave the house. The notes and reminders in her handwriting still on the fridge door. The walking boots in the porch. To others their presence may say that Louise is gone. To me they say that she was here. 

I find it difficult to remember that those who have not been exposed to such close, personal and premature loss, or who do not live with the daily evidence of it, can find much of this difficult. I never cease to be surprised when friends recoil the first time that they enter the house and see where Louise died, or are self evidently reluctant to visit at all. I forget that my normality is not, after all, normal. Only recently I found myself slightly distanced from the shocked and upset reaction in my office to bad news about the health of a colleague and concern for their family. This is a consequence of a self protective, somewhat delusional outlook on a world in which the majority of people on my contacts list have also been widowed young. There are people whose partners are still alive beyond the age of 40? Really? Weird. 

I also forget that many people do not share my new language of death. I have never yet found a gentle way to tell people of my circumstances. I don't really want to. There is no point in the words being disconnected from the hideous nature of the experience. I therefore avoid the usual empty euphemisms that camouflage the shocking and baffling reality of death for the sake of the listeners sensitivities. My wife hasn't 'passed away', nor is she 'no longer with us'. She is dead. She died by suicide. I need to say this. I need to understand it. If it is difficult for people to hear then that is nothing to what I have had to deal with. 

Even when the subject is lighter, I find that people can be discomforted by my desire - my need - to talk about Louise. Not the person who died but the one who lived. Too often, when I bring her into the conversation on the most innocent of topics or recount the most gentle of anecdotes there is an awkward silence, a failure to understand that I want to remember. I become frustrated and hurt......and then I recall that until widowhood I would have reacted in exactly the same awkward way, afraid to talk about somebody who had died, uncertain of the response. 

One other unexpected consequence of this experience is that it has bred in me a new dark sense of humour, an ability, again perhaps a need, to laugh at the absurdity sometimes inherent in a tragedy that has so rudely and violently intruded on my life. Sitting in a pub with a dozen or so others widowed by suicide I suddenly became aware of the silence at the next door table as the occupants listened to each of us in turn describe the specific method of hanging our partners had chosen (had we been in the US it would have been the calibre of gun used, or in Hong Kong the height of the building from which they had jumped - suicide takes different cultural forms across the world). 

It was a deeply profound and overwhelmingly sad moment, twelve stories of extreme suffering and torment.....and yet it was all I could do not to laugh out loud at the thought of what that poor couple trying to enjoy a quiet Saturday lunchtime drink must have been making of it all -and what they would tell their friends when they got home; "You'll never believe what happened to us down the pub today. Twelve of them....."

Brought up in a society where, for the most part, its possible to be shielded from the impact of death, I would never have believed that I would be capable of living so normally, sometimes even so casually, in the shadow of it.  This certainly doesn't mean that I no longer care about the loss of Louise, or about her suffering, or that I no longer feel her absence, just as her professional resilience didn't mean that she lacked compassion for her patients.  Nothing could be further from the truth. I ache for Louise every day.

But I have had no option other than to re-calibrate my sense of the tolerable, to normalise the idea of death, that great yawning, terrifying chasm of the unknown, and to absorb the reality of it into my daily life. If I had not done so it would have overwhelmed me. Sometimes, in order to live we need to tame death.


  1. Thank you for this. So much of it resonates with me and you gave written it so honestly and tenderly.

  2. Thank you, too. Your writing has helped, comforted and inspired me. My partner did not die from suicide but from cancer in 2014.