I’ve always had a very unhealthy obsession with death, mainly my own.
I’ve imagined my own death countless times, in countless ways.
I’ve pictured myself passing quietly in a sterile white hospital room, alone, at a very old age, in the dark.
I’ve seen myself collapse in the street, clutching my chest, suddenly and without warning.
I’ve thought about all manner of violent death too, from a horrible car crash, to being brutally beaten senseless by a gang of teenage thugs.
I’ve thought about this a lot, too much, to the point of it being easily labelled a decades’ old obsession.
Its not really death that I fear, its the process of dying and my morbid curiosity at how I will go, whenever that time comes.
Will it be painful?
Will I suffer?
Will I linger?
Will it take long?
Is it going to happen soon?
The roots of my fear of death were planted by my father. He was an older dad, I was the child of a second marriage who came late in his life. He talked about dying all the time and how he just wanted to live long enough to see me and my brother right in the world.
As a child, hearing this mantra of his frequently, I worried about his death a lot. I was close with my father when I was a child, his talk of death scared me and dug deep into my sub-conscious, where it remains to this day.
As it turned out, he lived a pretty long life, but had an unpleasantly long and drawn out death. From his diagnosis to his passing, it took about a year, with his health declining steadily in between. The last couple of months were particularly bad, with his decline ever more steep and his hopes dashed with each treatment option failing. His final days were spent heavily medicated, but he was at home, in his own bed when he drew his last breath.
As deaths go, I’d give it a 6, he loses points for the duration of suffering, but gains some for being able to choose to be at home. Also, he scores well on the life to death ratio, he lived to be 84 and was sick for only a year.
You can’t really do a scorecard for death, each one is unique.
There’s an old joke about a guy who, when asked how he’d like to die, said “when I’m 100 years old I’d like to be shot by a jealous husband”. That sounds like an OK way to go, as long as you’re a sprightly 100.
My mother’s death, unlike my father’s, was relatively quick, happening over about 48 hour period, from becoming ill to slipping quietly away.
Where my mother loses out is in the quality of life stakes, she had a massive stroke about 7 years before, which left her severely impaired.
She couldn’t walk, had a lot of trouble talking too, and her coordination was particularly poor. For the 7 years she survived after the stroke, she was dependent upon help for absolutely everything, like dressing, washing, eating and going to the toilet. Its no way for anyone to live, or rather exist.
When my mother had the stroke and was being treated in the hospital, my father was given a choice of whether or not to put her on life support.
He had been told it was a very bad stroke and her recovery would be problematic and never complete. He was also aware my mother had a living will, which pretty much said, if she was ever in this position, not to take drastic measures to keep her alive if the prognosis for recovery was grim.
My father ignored my mother’s wishes and said yes to the life support. He couldn’t bare to think of life without my her nor could he imagine her not making a full recovery. Nature would have killed my mother off then and there, peacefully, in her sleep, but instead my father chose to use every miracle machine known to modern medicine to sustain my mother’s life.
His mantra to all hospital staff became this: “She walked into this hospital on her own and she’s damn well going to walk back out”.
How wrong he was.
My father could have spared my mother seven years of a horrible existence, but he was selfish. He paid for this decision himself as his life got much harder when my mother was finally allowed to go home after several months in the hospital and a rehab facility.
My mother could only get around in a wheelchair and had several medical appointments a week that my father had to transport her to, unaided. He was in his 80s.
He refused all assistance at first, and not until he was overwhelmed, did he relent and hire some home help.
My father’s own death obsession kicked into overdrive and his new catchphrase became this: “What would happen to my wife if something happened to me?” This thought ran through his head constantly, it kept him up at night, he mentioned it every time he spoke to me. His fear of his own death now had a tangible focus, my mother’s fate.
What you think about can become real, as it wasn’t too long after this that they found a large, malignant and inoperable tumour in his bladder. Thus began his one year decline into death.
The “what to do about my mother” question became intertwined with the “beating this cancer” goal. “If I can just beat this cancer,” thought my father. “then I can continue to care for my wife.” It took him a few months to realise he couldn’t and the part time home help turned into a full time, live in carer for both of them.
When my father died, my mother continued to live in their house, with the live in carer. As it turned out, she would have had enough money to continue living this way, which was what I wanted for her, but her fear helped her decide to move into a care home. It was a good one, but expensive, more expensive than staying in her home, but it was my mother’s choice.
My mother spent the last five plus years of her life in that care home, before slipping into a coma and dying in a hospital bed, alone and unconscious. She should have died many years before, her life was no richer for those last, post-stroke years of hardship and suffering.
We all have to face death in all its varied forms and permutations. Death and dying come in many assorted flavours.
I lost four friends and many more colleagues, who all died while doing what we do, covering the news. I’ve been a journalist for over 20 years and when I was younger and more foolish, put myself in harm’s way too.
I’ve spent time in war zones and other dangerous places and the people I work with still do, every day, to tell you about people and places many people don’t give a shit about. Hey ho.
My four friends who all perished while working abroad, had quick, yet violent deaths. I’m not going get into any great detail here, Three of them were chased by armed men or rebels before being gunned down, one was killed by a stray, unexpected mortar shell. Each death effected me personally and professionally in quite profound ways.
All four of them were relatively young, some left behind partners and children. Each one was a decent, thoughtful and respected colleague and journalist.
One of these deaths was particularly hard on me because I was on duty when the news broke. I was working on a news desk, the central point of contact for everyone in my organisation. A lot of the telephone calls I received were from distraught people all over the world, waking up to the news of the death of a close friend. Many were in tears, many wanted me to tell them that the news got it wrong.
I wish I could have.
When death comes to the young and good, its particularly hard on those left behind, trying to make sense of out it, trying to understand it.
I’ll tell you something right now, there is no sense in any senseless death, there is no understanding. Shit happens, you just deal with it as best you can.
After that spate of deaths, my industry tried to improve on safety. More hostile environment training was brought in, safety advisors in dangerous places are deployed regularly now, but journalists still continue to be killed in the line of duty.
Losing friends makes you think about your own mortality, not that I needed any help.
There are two other friends I lost, both of their deaths remarkably similar.
They were both about the same age, both had similar interests and lifestyles. One was a musician, the other a journalist.
Both of my friends were 50 years old when they died, both had massive heart attacks. One was found in his flat, sitting in his favourite chair, the other was at home with his partner and fell over dead as he got up from the sofa. Both died fairly instantly and may not have had much time to work out what was happening.
Both used viagra and cocaine regularly and drank heavily too. You don’t need to be a doctor to work out that’s a bad combination.
As I get older, my death obsession seems to have more things to fuel it.
People my age (I’m pushing 50) die from all sorts of things, natural and otherwise. I think about my health more often. I don’t actually do much about it, but I think about it…does that count for anything?
I get my cholesterol and glucose checked regularly, along with my blood pressure. All are good, especially my cholesterol, which was 3.1 at my most recent test. I don’t look like I should have low cholesterol, but I do. Go figure.
None of that means I’m immune from whatever’s lurking out there, waiting to pounce on me. I don’t drink at all, but I do smoke, cigarettes and weed. I don’t exercise, I don’t watch my diet and I work only nights. Not exactly the regime you’d pay a thousand quid a day for at a health farm.
If you would pay a grand a day to live my lifestyle, get in touch, I’d be happy to sort you out, as long as you are happy always being high and masturbating several times a day, but not in public, because that’s just gross.
Will it be a heart attack that gets me? My father had one of those.
How about a stroke? My mother’s got that covered.
Cancer? It got most of my aunts and uncles on my mother’s side.
Car accident? I think about it every time I get behind the wheel. Will this be my last journey? Is there a drunk driver or overtired lorry driver out there with with me in his sights?
How about some freak accident, like a plummeting jet engine a’la Donny Darko? A stray bullet from some silly gang related shooting on my north London ghetto street? That could happen too.
Terrorism, viral pandemic, earthquake, tornado, take your pick, the news is full of so many lethal things.
There are so many ways I could die and not knowing how its going to turn out for me is a genuine obsession.
But would I really want to know how I’m going to die?
Wouldn’t it be the ultimate spoiler?
If there was a box I could click online that would reveal the details of my death, would I click it?
Would I really want to know the big three facts about my inevitable death; when? where? how?
Hell, yes! I would definitely click that box. And then I am sure I would regret it.
What would I do if I did knew the details of my death?
I’d try to cheat it, if I could. If I knew a bus was going to hit me on the high street next Friday, I’d damn make sure I was someplace else.
But what if I couldn’t cheat it, some horrible disease or medical catastrophe that couldn’t be avoided. What would I do with that knowledge, that my own body was a ticking time bomb, waiting to go off on a certain date?
Would I get my affairs in order, whatever that means?
Would I make a bucket list and try to cram whatever time I had left on doing things I suddenly felt were important?
Or would I just sit quietly, awaiting destiny, safe with the knowledge that my fate was well and truly sealed?
Who knows? I’ll never find out.
There is no real way to know when you’re going to die. Some people do find out the “how” from their doctors, along with a rough timescale, but I think that’s about as close as it gets. In that situation, I’d have no choice but to know.
Whether or not knowing would be helpful, well, who’s to say?
Whatever does get me, is out there somewhere right now, in the world or inside my body. Whether its today, tomorrow, next week, next year or next century is anybody’s guess. Who knows what miracles science might provide in the next decades?
There are two things I’ve always thought would happen to help people cheat death.
One is my view that ageing is simply a genetic disorder that eventually will be corrected with gene therapy. I think they are close to this discovery, isolating what it is in our DNA that makes our bodies age and then figuring out how to manipulate it and switch it off. It may sound like sci-fi, but its not and it will have all sorts of ethical and practical implications for the future of our planet.
Perhaps only the super rich will benefit from this discovery, maybe it will be available to anyone and everyone. Maybe it will be mandatory. Maybe it will be kept a secret.
While not delivering real immortality, it certainly would be a massive step in that direction, as long as you’re not hit by that bus on the high street.
The second scientific innovation that I think will eventually come, will be the ability to import (ingest? upload? scan? pick a verb) the entire contents of a human brain into a computer. Once you can do that, you could effectively recreate a person’s consciousness and construct a virtual world for them to exist inside. As long as you had a sustainable power source, this theoretically could deliver immortality for all.
Imagine being able to continue your existence in a perfect digital world, freed of the constraints of your flesh. For all intensive purposes, this digital world would be as real as our world and your sense of self, your identity, who you are, would be the same too. You would be reunited with your friends, your relatives, your loved ones, to spend eternity together in the most wonderful place imaginable.
That sounds a lot like heaven in the traditional sense, with one key difference. The heaven of our ancestors was an imaginary idea, this heaven I propose would be built by man and could one day really exist.
Do I think I’ll see these innovations in my lifetime? That’s the trillion dollar question.
I think the genetic discovery is not that far off, but its use in practise much further. Its unlikely in my socio-economic class that I will have access to it, if it is in my time.
The digital afterlife is harder to predict, as guessing at the future capabilities of computer equipment and the rate of change is slightly more complex than Moore’s Law would have you believe. Advances in quantum computing are making the news and once the real breakthrough happens, we very well may end up with more affordable computer power than anyone can currently imagine.
The singularity, anyone?
Once the contents of a human brain can be uploaded into a computer of unimaginable power, a multiverse of possibilities awaits. If I can live long enough to see that happen, I will be very lucky indeed.
I don’t hold out much hope.
I’ve always thought these amazing innovations would come the day after I die.
So it goes, as Vonnegut used to say.
That leaves me with a death obsession that won’t be resolved until its my time to shake off this mortal coil.
At least I have a pastime. They say having a hobby adds years to your life.