Even with all the magical technology we take for granted, there is one thing that our ancestors lived with and knew well that we are much less familiar with today: death.
I have reached the mid-point of my fifth decade, living and travelling in a world of some 7 billion humans, yet having only ever seen one dead person. That seems wrong: why does our society have such a fear of death and dying?
In many ways it’s a greater taboo than sex: we educate our young about sex so that–we hope–they will understand it and be prepared to make informed choices. But death touches all our lives too: why do we not prepare them to deal with that as well?
Like many people my age I have lost members of my family. No grandparents remain alive, nor do my parents. But their deaths occurred in hospitals or hospices, behind closed doors. Not among their family members. And when it came time to bury or cremate them there was only a wooden box in loco corporis.
People talk about saying goodbye, but it’s very hard to see the one you’ve lost through the coffin walls. I don’t think this avoidance makes it easier or less painful. Rather, I believe that hiding the body from sight only feeds our fear of death. Why hide it away unless it’s too terrible to look upon?
The dead person I saw was my step-son. Because of delays with a Coroner’s inquest it was weeks after his death, and his body bore the marks of autopsy: the coarse stitches closing the Y-shaped incision just visible at the top of his chest beneath the sheet. His eyes closed but deeply sunken as the tissues beneath had deteriorated.
It was not a terrifying sight, but a sad one. What I saw remains with me but doesn’t haunt me. Because it’s something we so rarely witness in the modern age, it was a fascinating, unique experience that nothing in my life before that had really prepared me for.
It helped me. It was a rare glimpse into what happens after we die. One of life’s certainties is that it comes to an end, and yet we avert our gaze, silence the words, pretend that ignoring it might make it go away.
What happens when we won’t talk about death? We refuse to hear or see those who seek it.
My own death comes to mind fairly often: I have made suicide attempts in the past and the thoughts–but not the urges so much–cross my mind regularly. One big problem with the denial surrounding death is that it’s very difficult to talk about suicide and suicidal ideation without people reacting with horror and distaste, refusing to engage.
A lot of people when confronted with someone suicidal have no idea how to respond, and they panic. It’s all, “You mustn’t do that!”, “Stop right now!”, “Don’t be silly!” They try to take the means away from you: hide the knives, flush away the pills. They might insist that suicide is wrong or even sinful. They might utter meaningless platitudes about things getting better.
They might dismiss your pain and distress, gaslight you by saying that you’re imagining it or that what you feel isn’t as intense as you think. They try to tell you that you have things to live for. None of it reaches you through the pain.
They won’t confront the central fact that when you are in pain, you want a way out. A way to stop it. That’s the very real attraction of suicide: no more pain. And no consequences for you: you’re not around for the fall-out.
Because there is fall-out. Most of us have people in our lives. They might be loved ones or family, they might be friends we interact with in person or online. It might just be a carer, nurse or doctor we see now and again who knows our name and face.
The biggest effects of a death are on the living, the ones left behind. They are the ones who have to deal with the pain of loss. And for me that is a reason not to die. I might not always have felt I had something to live for, but that slim reason not to die is enough for me not to kill myself.
I’ve been lucky and things in my life improved. I no longer feel that pain. But for some life doesn’t get better, and the pain doesn’t go away. Not without help.
Don’t turn away because you can’t face the thought of death. Being there when somebody is suicidal means confronting death, looking at it head on. You can’t ignore it, pretend it’s not there, not real. Don’t fear it: death is always there around us. We simply choose not to acknowledge it most of the time. Until we have no choice.
If you care about saving lives, make sure that help and support exists. It might be acceptance, it might be standing and fighting against prejudice and abuse. It might be making sure shelters and safe spaces exist. It might be making sure people have a decent life.
We need to treat our fellow humans with respect, dignity, and provide for their needs. There is no excuse for anybody going without food, shelter, or medical care.
We need to stop fearing and running from death. Death is not the enemy. Death is simply the end of life. The enemy is whatever makes life seem unbearable, and in most cases that is down to our fellow humans and their prejudices.
People who are not accepted for who they are–whether it’s because they’re neurodivergent, transgender, or something else–are far more likely to contemplate and attempt suicide. Being hated, feared and persecuted hurts. Acceptance helps to counter that pain.
Acceptance saves lives.