The artwork pictured, “The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of a Someone Living”, perplexes me. I went to the same school as Damien Hirst, the artist, though some years later. The art and science studios were dotted with strange, sideshow like exhibits, creatures in jars – two axolotls in a tank, (which I swear were completely motionless until one day, in the middle of a biology exam, one swam to the surface, peered over the edge, and then dipped back to resume its stasis). I wonder if those jars influenced Hirst’s proclivity for things in formaldehyde.
But back to the shark. I’m not a student of art. I am quite easy to please though, quite prepared to listen to the intentions of an artist, open myself to how a piece makes me feel, over and above what it looks like. I do kind of like this piece. But I don’t like its name. Or should I say, I don’t get its name. For me, Death is not an impossibility. It is life that seems impossible, improbable. For me, the shark is the inevitability of death, in the mind of the living. Like a surfer on the waves of shark infested waters, we know it is out there somewhere, and can never quite shake the fear that it is just beneath us.
My husband told me this morning he had been awake all night, thinking about death. This is unusual. It is usually me who stares blindly at the ceiling, feeling the terror of loss, the sad pointlessness of existence. He lies dreaming he is a superhero and saving us from alien invasion. Death is my poison. I can conquer almost any of my other negative thoughts or worries, but death, well. It’s inevitable, isn’t it. Perhaps this is why I was so obsessed with vampires as a child. I didn’t fear them, I wanted to be one. To have conquered death, found immortality. When going for CBT, they talked about how they would help stop irrational fears. Fearing death, though, isn’t irrational. It will happen. At the very best, we hope it will happen when we are ancient and sleeping. But we know it could strike at any time. And it is not just our own death we worry about, but that of our loved ones. As we get older the odds shorten, we know one day we will lose someone we can really not bear the thought of losing. Or is the alternative even worse? That we will be the one taken, and our loved ones are left alone to mourn, to deal with the loss and its impact? It is, I find, unbearable at times. My therapist was almost stumped when I tried to explain my fears. My sadness. Why, if we are doomed to lose everything we love, do we bother living at all? Isn’t it a cruel joke on the part of the universe? Of God, if you believe in one? I sometimes long for death not because I hate life, but because I love it so much, but cannot shake the dread of death enough to live it.
So how can we conquer death? How can we see the shadow of the shark beneath us but enjoy our swim regardless? I can’t say I have the answer cracked for me completely. And I am not alone. Death is a great taboo. So many ways in which we accentuate this bogeyman by not speaking of it. Suicide, miscarriage, both far more prevalent than you would imagine, but we don’t speak of them generally. For if we cannot talk freely of “natural” expected death, we certainly don’t speak of these unkind ends, of possibilities snuffed, of lives lived in pain.
Dying Matters is part of a movement to try and make death a more normal part of life. So that fewer of us face it alone, or surrounded by families unprepared to cope with the emotions it raises, or with our affairs not in order as we would wish. Have we shared what we want to happen, when the time comes? Have we written a will, or letters to make sure that the people we love are left with our words of comfort? The language of wills is so much about money and things, but our lives are more than that. I find the concept of a soul midwife very moving, in a way.
I was interested in this story from Korea- a form of Death Therapy which puts people through a kind of false funeral, in an attempt to reduce suicide rates and help people re engage with life. Almost born again but not necessarily in a religious context, you would get to see who cares enough to come, think about who and what you would miss, what your regrets are – and then be able to get up and try and do what you can to appreciate it all that little bit more.
I think for me, those times when I feel easier with death are when I am sure I am doing everything I can to live life. That those I love are in no doubt of it, and I spend time with them enjoying eachother, not just moaning about things. That I am pushing myself. I have so many regrets, some I can never change. But I want to try to be better at life. And also, just I case the inevitable comes before I want it to, make sure I have everything in order, that people know what they mean to me, and what I would want after I’m gone.
I think it is a good, if scary, way to take stock. What would you wish had been different, wish you had said, done – if you died tomorrow? (And had any consciousness of your regret). What can you do when you don’t die tomorrow to prevent that regret from needing to happen later on?