This morning I spent a few minutes viewing a really candid, thoughtful, challenging video by a guy called Philip Gould. He made the video as he approached his own death in a few weeks, and described how his life had changed when he found he had terminal cancer of the oesophagus because his final days were spent in living rather than dying.
I read about Mr Gould’s video in a newspaper article and kept it because, as I’m in my crone years, the concept of death looms somewhat closer on the horizon. It’s ironic when you think about it: we know we’re going to die but we have absolutely no idea when. And the older I get, the more I am truly grateful that I’ve got through to 64 with much of me intact. Yes, I have a few health challenges and to my mortification I’m getting a bit deaf (the vicissitudes of old age aren’t supposed to apply in my case, of course!) but I see a lot of people far worse off so I’m pretty happy I’ve got as far as I have.
But of course, I can’t ignore the fact that I’ve lived the greater part of my life now. I’d really, really like to start each day by saying that I’ll treat it as the last day of my life and I’ll live it to the highest degree. But the truth is that we don’t know whether each day will be the last, so we do tend to shove the whole idea of death under a convenient carpet and proceed through life as normal. At least, in his video, Mr Gould has shared his experiences and, hopefully, opened up a discussion about the inevitable progress towards our last breath.
I rather think we do this because death is such a mystery. We don’t see dead bodies much. We don’t have people dying in homes as much as they used to. Death is sanitised, the dead are given make-up and prepped so they look pretty-please when people come to view the body of their loved one in a casket. If that’s what they do. I have never viewed any dead person in a casket as I preferred to remember them as they were alive. I’ve washed my dead mother’s body, with the palliative care nurse to who turned out so compassionately on a truly brutal, wild, storm-riven night to take us through the post-death procedures. So I know what a dead body looks like. And one day, it’ll be me.
I don’t really know that we can consider death until we know it’s coming, to be very honest. Unless of course we pop our clogs through a sudden heart attack or accident and we have no forewarning. But when we do, things change. You are a person marked out from others because you know for certain that your life is coming to an end and they don’t. I know when my own mother was diagnosed with lung cancer, I really didn’t know what to say to her at first, but then she asked me for a hug and it broke the awkward moment. I think the reason for this is that, in our society, we don’t talk much about death. Everything’s geared to living longer, to extending our life span, and I rather think sometimes the medical profession takes it as a personal insult when people insist, most inconveniently, in turning up their toes.
Hopefully, people as brave as Philip Gould will speak out as he has done to show people that life doesn’t actually end when you know you’re going to die. It becomes brighter, lighter, with more clarity. You have the opportunity to make your peace with people, with your life, to express your love to family and friends, to set out your wishes for your Death Day Party (thanks to Harry Potter for this). Most of all, in thinking of death, remember this: no-one ever said on their death bed that they wish they’d spent more time at the office. Sort out your priorities now because, as I said earlier in this piece, you don’t know when you’re going to die. It’s not being morbid. It’s being realistic. Knowing you’re going to die sometime gives you the great opportunity to appreciate your life right now.