How to talk about death

English Dance of Death. You gotta laugh.

English Dance of Death. You gotta laugh.

Me and death

“I can’t wait to die!” I was about seven when I horrified my mother with this thrilling idea. “Because it’ll be such a great adventure! I can’t wait to see what happens!”

“I can’t wait” didn’t mean that I really was in a hurry to die. I wasn’t that sort of kid. On the contrary, my personality was summed up for all time by a family carer who knew me very well: 

“I can’t believe it was Rachel who became a writer. She was just a happy, normal little girl who used to blow her nose on the sheets.”  

For this morbid childhood fascination, you could blame the Anglican church or my career choices. One of my ambitions was to be an explorer in deepest Africa and I saw death as the ultimate uncharted territory.

Death of an aunt

Death had touched our family already, which was perhaps another reason for Celia’s horror at my casual regard for death. Our four grandparents were very much alive, but Celia’s sister Lesley died of tuberculosis in her thirties. Her story was heartbreaking: she was young and bright and dramatically beautiful with a dashing RAF officer husband and a baby girl as cute as Sailor Girl. 

Aunty Lesley's tragedy fascinated me at an impressionable age, and I would visualise my family and fans weeping around my deathbed (or rather my death chaise longue) saying how beautiful and clever and above all how saintly I had been and oh the loss to the world. 

In my child’s mind, not a jot of awareness about my mother’s grief. I just didn’t get it, not at all, not a bit. I’m sorry about that, but then again—I was just a kid.

Death of Katherine Mansfield

When I discovered that Katherine Mansfield had died of tuberculosis, the romantic appeal of death was intensified. Yes, death had a glamour—but I was constitutionally ill-suited to the pale and melancholy look I aspired to. I would suck in my cheeks and gaze into the distance and do my best to loll and droop—but within seconds I would revert to smiling, healthy, and (terrible thought) normal again. 

Real death versus literary death

Round two with death happened when I was 14. Two ex-classmates, Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker, committed a murder that sent a massive wave of salacious excitement through the country and affected me in ways I still haven’t quite sorted out. This event shattered the cognitive dissonance that had enabled me to read Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh murder stories for entertainment. A literary murder was neat and tidy and thinkable. A real murder was unthinkable, and it spread guilt, pain, and panic in its wake.

Getting serious about death

In my poetry and other writing, death is a frequent protagonist or bystander. But hey, let’s not attach too much significance to this: I’m a poet, and death is one of our standard topics. At one point, it even seemed de rigueur for woman poets to die young for the sake of credibility.

However, I have a confession.  I did waste quite a few years planning my own suicide in meticulous detail. I was deftly managing the project, and the go-dead date was getting close. Luckily I snapped out of the mind-set that had made this plan seem so wise, so thoughtful, so ingenious, so altruistic. I got myself to a counsellor who told me exactly what to do instead. I understand this syndrome is not uncommon, and it kind of served a purpose at the time.

Death demands a light touch

Look at those stories, so frivolously told! I am amazed at our ability to joke about death, to brush it aside. I’m impressed: it must be a survival mechanism. 

In my heart I do know that death is not funny, not glamorous, not literary, not trivial, not clever or kind to others. I also know it is always overly personal when it comes our way.

Still. I’m glad I waited.