Content warning: suicide
Nobody I have been close to has ever died. I’m now 33 and might reasonably have expected this not to be the case by now. But I did not know any of my grandparents well enough to grieve them in a profound way when they died. (I’m determined to write about this without resorting to the euphemisms with which we smear the reality of death – ‘lost’, ‘passed away’, and so on – but am aware that never having ‘lost’ someone myself may well make this easier for me than it might be for others.) I’ve been intermittently worrying about this for years, specifically about my ability (or otherwise) to cope when, inevitably, a friend or family member dies. For if I’m honest, the deaths that have affected me most in life have been those of animals, not people – namely my childhood dogs, the German Shorthaired Pointers, brother and sister, that we called Jess and Jack. Jack, having been hit by a car, lived much of his life on borrowed time, and Jess ultimately longer until she started to have fits and had to be ‘put to sleep’ – another euphemism – by a home-visiting vet. I was in the room when it happened but couldn’t watch, cried buckets anyway. I still regularly dream about Jess and Jack, half a lifetime ago though it was.
I have been to two funerals in my life that I can recall: that of a childhood friend who went away for treatment for a rare bone disorder from which it seemed for a time he would recover but did not; and that of a friend – a former girlfriend’s friend in the beginning – who killed himself (not ‘took his own life’, not ‘committed suicide’). I was not what you would call close to either when they died but I nevertheless remember my heart breaking each time: the first at the sight of that tiny white coffin, so wrong in its dimensions, bearing the boy’s undersized body; the second because, during the funeral service, my friend’s father observed, rightly, that his son would have – should have – made a great father, an impossible thing to hear.
The mother of one of my best friends died suddenly last month, the victim of an accident so freakish a report in the local newspaper had it that the chances of dying in such a way were slimmer than being fatally struck by lightning. Not long afterwards, two dear friends lost – I wrote that before I could stop myself – their beloved dog. I don’t mean to conflate these two deaths but they came hard on each other’s heels, and have left me thinking about death, and what it leaves behind. (Just before I began this post, another friend texted to say her grandfather ‘might be dying’. Even in death, it seems, every bus comes at once.) Edgar Allen Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum contains the line ‘even in the grave, all is not lost’. Poe, as his writings make amply clear, was not a happy man, and it may be that he had something entirely supernatural in mind when he wrote these words, but I detect in them a note of redemption, of the way lives are continued beyond the corporeal by memories and ideas. I’m suspicious of all ideas of immortality, that anything we know of can compensate for the destruction of the physical body. But there is, I think, some measure of comfort to be found in the idea that life is multivalent, that it stretches over many canvasses even as some pictures burn bright, and others fade away.