Coping: Awake all night, thinking about death
Losing someone you love makes you realise the fragility of your own existence – and the importance of making a will
I am on the train to Limerick again. As it lumbers out of Heuston station I am reminded of a girl who lived in my building during my first year at university. She was a ponderous hippy type. One morning I ran into her on Grafton Street, and she told me without prompting that she had been awake all night thinking about death.
I thought she was melodramatic and twittish, reading too much Keats and wearing a fedora. She was 18 at the time. Even I, a philosophy student in the midst of studying the various theories of how we think about death, thought she should lighten up. What a stupid thing to say.
That said, it is 10 years later and I have been up all night thinking about death. Don’t worry, there is not a fedora in sight. I haven’t sat on this train since December, when I went back that final time to go through my mother’s things; to keep those mementos that could fit in my small apartment. Her Kitchenaid mixer, gifted by my brother, which was her pride and joy, takes up half my kitchen. It is pistachio green and named Sarophia – she said it deserved a ridiculously pompous middle-class name because it’s so extravagant. She loved it. The photographs, I kept. Her glasses. Those sorts of things.
The rest, my brother and I gave to charity. What couldn’t be re-homed, we had to throw away with a coldness in our hearts that spread through our bodies.
The process of dismantling my mother’s life, and my childhood, was exhausting. When it was done, I sat for three hours on the floor of the unfurnished apartment she had never got the chance to live in. Then I took the train back to my own little home in Dublin.
Today I am thinking about death again. There has been a lot of death. My own mother. Her mother two weeks later. I got to 27 without losing anyone I really needed, and always suspected that was probably a bad thing – you should be eased into the finality of death before a calamitous loss. In the eight months since my mother’s diagnosis with pancreatic cancer, and the three since her death, it has been hard to think about much else.
For the first few weeks after someone you love dies, you lose all investment in the negative happenings of the world. A squabble with another person doesn’t matter. Former fears about whether your new boss likes you, or where you will be in a year, fall away. You realise that your life is a tenuous thread, fine and ephemeral as spiders’ silk, and any rough breeze or careless action could snap it and send it wafting away on the air into nothingness.
Return of the world
This can be freeing, in a way, because the worst that can happen in any given situation does not frighten you any more. In the ensuing weeks, the world leaks back in under your porous skin.
Although the grief is still enough to keep you awake at night, pondering with the baffled and genuine innocence of a small child how a person in their wholeness can simply cease to be, you also worry again about the life you have to take part in. A sharply worded email passes your lowered defences and slices into your self-esteem like a knife into spring lamb. You become grounded in the world again, although your mind will drift back to the finality of death.
This is all a very long way of saying that I’m going to Limerick to sign my will. I was profoundly shocked when my mother’s solicitor – a good family friend – advised it. If I were unfortunate enough to be squished by a bus or to plummet to the ground at speed in a flaming fuselage tomorrow, I had to decide who in the world I want to take care of (provided there is anything there to leave them). I am unmarried, so unless I expressly mention my partner, he will be ignored. My mother is gone, and I have just my brother.
Philosophy examines what death is in great detail, but the tradition doesn’t really examine how to cope with it in a way that helps the riot of feeling to settle. That will take a while. In the meantime, I suppose I will make a will.