In life, our contemplation of mortality doesn’t come gradually, it hits us quickly, in moments of painful, frightening and sobering clarity. The first time I considered mortality was when I realised that my parents were mortal. I was suddenly old enough to realise that they were not superhuman — the lens though which children often see their parents — but flesh and blood, like me. I realised that they too were flawed and bore the bruises, beauty and scars of five decades of life. Realising that your cherished mother and father are susceptible to the perils of age, death and accident is terrifying, but also a hallmark of personal maturity.
For me, the next moment of aching sobriety came when my grandfather died. He was ill with dementia and had been in gentle decline for a year or so. He then sharply declined over the space of a few months. The beginning of this decline was when my mother began preparing us for his death. Softly and diplomatically, she explained that, sometimes, death is better than life, especially when one is suffering and in pain. I remember the day she took a photo of my brother and I standing beside the hospital bed that had been set up in the room he shared with my grandmother. To my grandmother, this severe and imposing bed, made of metal and wires, must have been a cruel and unbearable intruder in the place she associated with love and companionship.
Of course, at the time I did not realise that this photo would be the last captured memory of my grandfather and I, and looking at it haunts me a little. It makes me feel bitter pangs of regret that I didn’t say or do more. However, I wasn’t to know — I had not yet witnessed the slow march that is elderly death. The battle of attrition that the tired body fights against hastily administered antibiotics and needles and tubes. It’s a type of passing that is heart rending, but tinged with relief. A relief that can only be arrived at with the most selfless of compassion.
My grandfather died soon after that picture was taken, and I experienced profound and agonising grief. I grew up seeing him almost every weekend. He was the epitome of the idealised grandparent — a friendly surrogate I turned to when my own parents dared to enforce rules upon my existence. He would give me chocolate and £5 for an ‘ice cream’ (a tradition that endured for many years after I stopped going to the sea front for a Mr Whippy).
I felt like a piece of me was missing and that the chasm my grandfather’s absence tore would never close. I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t speak through the tears. It didn’t make sense that someone could simply cease to exist because their body ceased to function. It was at this point that my nervous fear of death evolved. Death was no longer a theoretical notion I could use to muster tears; it became a word inextricable with the visceral pain of bereavement.
Confronting mortality is entirely different when it involves young people. When the elderly die, we find solace in the longevity of the lives they lived. As if death is inevitable, it should be at the end of the human lifespan. If death is premature, it seems unjust, cruel and unconscionable — undeserved.
Yesterday, I was told that a friend from school had passed away. As with the news of my grandfather’s death, I felt that the air had been suddenly knocked out of my lungs. I was on the tube at rush hour — a maelstrom of aggression and facelessness — when I received the message, and I couldn’t concentrate. My skull felt like it was vibrating and I felt nauseous. I stopped and stood against the wall, processing what I had just read. Later, I sat on the train home feeling numb, sad and angry.
When a young person dies, their life is often described as ‘cut short’ — like it was a piece of music, confusingly and inexplicably stopped mid play. When a young life is lost, we feel blunted anger and deep resentment of our inability to control the world around us. There is no cosmic justification for it: a young death is one of life’s greatest and most bitter tragedies.
The death of a friend is the final lesson in not only realising our own mortality, but accepting it. Every last harrowing, brutal and heartbreaking piece of it. It is to understand that life is fragile and nothing is guaranteed. The heady days of adolescence, where life is nothing but a beautiful, never-ending white canvas on which to paint our life — are gone. I envy my youthful innocence.
I wish I could end this post positively. I probably could — human beings are particularly adept at finding light in the darkness — but I do not have the energy for platitudes or cliches. I suppose that life, in its twilight hours, is just somewhat bleak.