Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Art of Living and Dying

In the Tibetan philosophy, Sylvia Plath sense of the word, we're all dying.
Fight Club

Death is stalking every one of us from the moment we're born. It's all around us, whether we notice it there or not. The first time we're touched by death, truly affected by it, something changes in us forever- we suffer a loss of innocence, we gain an awareness of the fragility of life. And writers, I find, are often made by that experience. After their world has been changed, born writers are often the ones who turn and look death in the eye- confront it. Expose it. Try to make sense of it. Use their writing to try to understand what it means not only to die, but first, to live.

Rachel talked about something quite similar only a couple of weeks ago. Kristen talked about death in her family with gut-wrenching openness last year. And last year I looked at using writing to explore my own mortality, too.

Not all writers are writing about death. But there are those, like me, whose stories are inextricably woven through with it. Death is not the point of my story, but everything in it turns on the passing of people who are loved and missed. Such is the way of things in a time of war.

A small fact: You are going to die.
Does this worry you?

Marcus Zusak,
The Book Thief

Before modern antibiotics and modern medicine, death was a much more familiar face than it is today. At one point, toothache was one of the most fatal illnesses you could contract. Childbirth, a winter cold, epilepsy- situations that are now largely treatable were entirely unpredictable before the 20th century rolled around with all its medical innovations. That familiarity with death led to different ways of thinking about it, and different ways of mourning. Archaeological studies of gravestones reveal patterns of ritual behaviour that people tended to follow en masse through time, when death was a daily, shared experience in smaller communities. Spiritualism, the effort to contact those now beyond the veil, has risen and fallen in popularity at different times over the last couple of centuries.

Today, death is in many instances more predictable. Many people get to see the writing on the wall well in advance. Death can be delayed, pushed back by medicine. But it can never be defeated entirely.

So, we'll never stop trying to understand it. What is it like to die? What happens afterwards? Who's going to miss us when we're gone? For those left behind, how will we survive? How will we live with the ever-increasing awareness that we, too, are walking the same path as those we've farewelled?

And that means we'll never stop writing about it. We'll never stop killing characters we love, and devastating those who love them. We'll never stop pushing the emotions of our readers and ourselves. We'll never stop asking questions and attempting to answer them. We'll never stop exploring what's great about life, what it all means, why it has to come to a close.

From the hour you're born you begin to die. But between birth and death there's life.

Simone de Beauvoir, All Men Are Mortal

Even though my story is not about death, death motivates me to write it. I've been lucky in my life, and I've only lost a few precious loved ones so far- the death of my much-loved grandfather when I was 11 years old was the first of those, and his passing rocked my world and changed my perspective on life. Ever since then I've been trying to make sense of death, trying to comprehend the reality that we will all one day die- but before then, must live and live well. And in writing about war, I'm making headway. I'm making peace. But death, when it comes for those we love, is never easy.

A dearly loved friend of mine died on the weekend. She was just 26 years of age, and she was absolutely one of a kind. For five years she had been fighting tooth and nail against Hodgkins Lymphoma, and for most of that time, she and all of us believed she could beat it. She was stubborn, fierce, and extraordinarily determined, as was her whole family. If anyone could beat the damned cancer, it should have been her. She did clinical trial after clinical trial over the years, in between conventional treatments and bone marrow transplants, and there were times where she was mostly better. In the end, her form of the disease was resistant to all treatment, and she couldn't fight any more.

We humans are born with this assumption and an almost sense of entitlement to grow old. Isn’t is just lucky and amazing that we were born at all?

Anne van Riel
(1984- 2011)

A couple of months ago Anne made the decision to accept that she was going to die. Her gift to so many of us was to talk openly about this on her CaringBridge website. Her perspectives on living and dying, also shared in a magazine article this year (go read it), are a blunt and honest reminder to all of us.

Shit happens. Get on with it. Don't make excuses about waiting to live because you might die one day; you WILL die one day, and you don't even know how much time you have. So make the most of it right now, before it's too late. Don't go to your grave regretting a single moment you could have spent being happier, kinder. More patient, less self-critical. Chasing the dreams that make you who you are instead of doing the things you think you should. Don't live in fear of what you could lose- live in celebration of what you have. Every minute you have on this earth is a blessing.

I will not forget my beautiful friend Anne, and I will not forget her lessons. I will keep searching and thinking, creating and exploring, and I won't stop trying to understand life and death through my writing. But through her, I now understand so much more than I ever did before, and it's not the art of dying that she has illuminated above all else- it's the art of living.

Be grateful when you wake up tomorrow morning. The world is an amazing place, and we're all blessed to have the chance to live in it.

So, make the most of what you've got. And writers? Go write something. Today. No more excuses. You're the ones making sense of all this for everyone else.

This life that we call our own
Is neither strong nor free;
A flame in the wind of death,
It trembles ceaselessly.

And this all we can do
To use our little light
Before, in the piercing wind,
It flickers into night:

To yield the heat of the flame,
To grudge not, but to give
Whatever we have of strength,
That one more flame may live.

Fire, by Dorothea MacKellar


  1. So true that we are going to die. It's how we live that matters. Peace to you, my friend.

  2. I'm so sorry about your friend. She sounds remarkable, and the article conveys her voice so strongly. It's such a hard truly make the most of the time we have.

    This has been a shit year.

  3. Remembering to live well is so very important, yet hard to do when you get caught up in the daily grind. If there's a chance we might only be here for a short time, better make it the best time ...

    A touching tribute to your friend, Claire. Hugs to you.

  4. This is a beautiful article Claire, and truth well told. I read your friend's interview and I loved the way she talked about how she wanted to tell people to get over themselves for stressing about inconsequential crap. Well said I thought. As they say, if not now, when? Off to keep writing...

  5. Thanks, all.

    Precie- I've missed you a whole lot this last year or so. Sorry to hear you're having a shit year, but I do hope things are on the up for you now.