Death is waiting for everyone. Each one of us will some day experience dying, whether after aging, through sickness, or suddenly. There is an inescapable inevitability to death and many choose to live their lives ignoring the end as much as they can, as though it will somehow prolong life if they succeed.
I recently finished reading Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal after it was recommended to me by my grandmother-in-law. In it, this accomplished doctor writes passionately and very personally about human mortality. In particular, he focuses on the process of aging, which is a very contemporary issue as those that died of old age in centuries past were far fewer in number. How we care for an aging person and how we care for the dying are related, and yet they are not quite the same.
I was impressed by Gawande’s clearsightedness and ability to express succinctly the need for personal autonomy and purpose in those that are dying. He points to two major factors that have lead to a decline in care for the dying. One, is that doctors see themselves as healers of bodies and thus are frequently unwilling to accept the aging process; they are not often enough trained in how to present their patients with appropriate council, thus resulting in needless, painful, and often harmful procedures. The second is related: when doctors are not candid, then patients continue to have false hopes about returning to ‘normal’ and continue to push back the thoughts of death and decline.
“Being mortal is about the struggle to cope with the constraints of our biology, with the limits set by genes and cells and flesh and bone. Medical science has given us remarkable power to push against these limits, and the potential value of this power was a central reason I became a doctor. But again and again, I have seen the damage we in medicine do when we fail to acknowledge that such power is finite and always will be. We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being.” ~Atul Gawande~
Not infrequently, my students ask me why a character had to die. A running joke in my English 11 class is that it doesn’t count as American Literature until someone has died. The follow-up question is why we can’t read something with a happy ending. Granted, we do read those stories as well, but they’re not quite as frequent. In part, stories with needlessly sweet endings don’t well reflect humanity and thus are often narratives of wish-fulfillment. One of the values of literature lies in its ability to reflect ubiquitous human struggles and grappling with mortality is one of the most uniting concepts we face. Our entertainment industry hasn’t always done a great job of providing stories that get out of the false dichotomy of happy vs sad endings. Yes, death is sad, but it need not be only sad; it can also be meaningful. Death is often followed by grief, but that grief can be accompanied by joyful reflection. Sometimes, death is the most fitting ending to a story, as it’s inevitability makes it both fitting and provides a level of resolution unmatched by other endings.
Each year, my AP Lit students read King Lear. It is undoubtedly a tragedy, full of blind foolishness and impotent wisdom. But the tragedy is not in the deaths, but in the blindness of the characters. In Act 5, when the stage is littered with bodies—as is common in Shakespeare’s tragedies—the fittingness to the narrative is paramount. Lear’s final illuminating insights are punctuated by the death of his three daughters, untimely brought to their demise in part by his pride, blindness, and inflexibility. These are the consequences of his actions and while he has aged, they never will. Earlier in the play, when a blind Gloucester seeks to kiss his hand, Lear warns him that it “smells of mortality.” Here in his madness and very old age, a sovereign king unused to weakness or being gainsaid has begun to grasp the finitude of his being. Thus, when he finally dies, it is not a moment just for sadness, but also for relief. The Earl of Kent says “The wonder is, he has endured so long: he but usurp’d his life.” It is the most fitting ending for a prideful king, too lately brought to humility. It is a warning, a call to see the world as it is, and a call to kindness and true loyalty. Without the deaths, those warnings ring hollow.
One of my favorite texts to teach each year is Margaret Edson’s Wit. It is a rather short play—with a brilliant film adaptation starring the amazing Emma Thompson—about a poetry professor dying of Ovarian cancer. Vivian Bearing is a determined, powerful, and driven woman who has spent her life tackling tough tasks and hoping her prodigious knowledge would see her through. And now, in dying, she realizes that it’s not enough. “Now is the time for simplicity. Now is the time for, dare I say it, kindness. I thought being extremely smart would take care of it. But I see that I have been found out.” The audience watches as she slowly embraces the need for kindness; a central irony in the play is Bearing’s specialty: the Holy Sonnets of metaphysical poet John Donne, who frequently grapples with death. Simply understanding death as a concept is not the same as experiencing it, and Bearing finds that she is utterly exposed to a mortality she had only grappled with in the abstract.
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more, Death, thou shalt die. ~John Donne~
Death should not be only about fear and sadness. It is also about joy, fulfillment, accomplishment, and kind nurturing. When we only ignore the inevitability of death, we find ourselves wholly unprepared when it strikes a loved one, or finally makes its appearance before us. Recognizing death can help us to lead better lives. And, depending on our metaphysical beliefs, can be viewed as a comfortable door to a hereafter.
Bearing come to this conclusion as well. When she dies in the final scene (inevitably, as she has already told us from the beginning), the audience sees that death, like the comma is but a simple breath. As one of Bearing’s professors says to her in a flashback, “Nothing but a breath, a comma separates life from life everlasting…Very simple, really. With the original punctuation restored Death is no longer something to act out on a stage with exclamation marks. It is a comma. A pause…In this way, the uncompromising way one learns something from the poem, wouldn’t you say? Life, death, soul, God, past, present. Not insuperable barriers. Not semi-colons. Just a comma.”
By grappling with the reality of death, we can come to view it not as something to be feared. As Gandalf tells Pippin, “No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtains of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it…white shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.”
And that is a comforting thought.