If you’re anything like me, you like certainty. Whether it’s the question: “So is this a relationship?” that we ask when we’ve been seeing someone for a while, or the warranties we demand from manufacturers, many of us have a need to know for sure what kind of outcomes we can expect in any given situation. And yet there are no outcomes that are truly guaranteed in the course of human life – except death.
Despite being the only truly universal experience, there is no universal understanding of what death means, nor do we all arrive at this inevitable outcome in the same way. Life expectancy is a social as well as a biological fact. The numbers are most often presented along gendered lines; in Nigeria, for example, men are expected to live for an average of 54.7 years while women outlive them by about a year. This simple narrative, however, has been complicated by various studies showing how, for instance, heterosexual marriage impacts on the estimated lifespans of cisgender men and women.
Can you die of a broken heart?
Seven years ago, my mother died of a broken heart. According to the doctors, her body should have succumbed to the cancer months before it did. But she kept defying the prognosis, fighting through immense physical pain for months beyond what had been determined her terminal date. Eventually, it was a heartbreak connected to my father that seemed to be the final straw. I have no way of knowing whether she would have survived the illness otherwise, but her emotional pain upon finally admitting to herself that her life partner had chosen not to be by her side during the most difficult time of her life was unmistakable. Less than a week after this realisation, she succumbed.
I think about death and dying a lot
In a talk delivered at the TED Summit this year, cardiologist and author Sandeep Jauhar talked about the indelible impact of the emotions on the physical health of the heart. “The heart may not originate our feelings, but it is highly responsive to them. Fear and grief, for example, can cause profound cardiac injury,” he revealed. Emotional pain might not be the most immediate thing that comes to mind when we think of why some people die; I don’t imagine that any coroner anywhere has ever listed heartbreak as a cause of death. Yet it does kill, directly and indirectly. After all, suicide, which is inextricably linked to emotional pain, is one of the leading causes of death among people aged 10 - 44 globally.
I think about death and dying a lot. The people who love me often accuse me of being oddly morbid because of how often and easily I reach for the comforting promise of death. My psychiatrist confirmed years ago that I have low-level suicidal ideation; that explanation helped me understand why I am always thinking about no longer existing. This is the case even when I’m not having a depressive episode, and even though I never have and probably never will attempt suicide. As with anything else, the reality of suicide and suicidality is much less simple than the prevailing narrative.
I’m inviting you to join me as I think through some of the meanings and layers of death
For instance, suicide rates are not evenly distributed across social demographics; factors like race and sexual orientation also have an impact. Some of the populations most vulnerable to suicide are also at high risk of being killed before their estimated natural lifespan is up – for many such people, the risk of being killed and the desire to kill themselves are inextricably linked. In many cultures, suicide is erased as a cause of death; on top of their grief, surviving family members feel shame. Some of us believe that there are ways to die that are acceptable and ways that are not.
The meaning of death
This month, I’m inviting you to join me as I think through some of the meanings and layers of death, the prospect of it, our ideas about it, how it touches different kinds of people, and what it means for our lives. Why, for instance, are women so often beatified as endlessly gracious and nurturing in their obituaries? If death is the ultimate freedom, why doesn’t it free people from the rigid social norms that bound them in life? How do societies arrive at the point where the concept of a ‘death threat’ is, rather than strange and horrifying, quite commonplace? Why is homicide and the possibility of it – whether at the hands of the private actors or the state – a tool used to regulate human behaviour? Why have we not outgrown the impulse to weaponise death through war?
A couple of days ago, I asked members to share books and thoughts on death and dying with me. I’m not sure what I expected, but the response was quick and wide-ranging. There were contributions about communicating with the deceased, a recommendation of a book about a clairvoyant nine-year-old in the Victorian era, and even a comment about the implications of leaving material possessions behind after we cease to exist.
In all the variety of the contributions, there is one inescapable truth: despite its many faces, death binds us all. This month, I would like us to investigate it together.