Sunday 17 December 2017

Girl, Uninterrupted: Don't dwell on death - just get busy living

Drew Barrymore and Toni Colette in Miss You Already
Drew Barrymore and Toni Colette in Miss You Already

There's a film coming out tomorrow that's likely to shake most people to the core; indeed at the press screening of the movie, some people left visibly rattled. But it's not a disaster movie or an overblown epic.

 Instead, Miss You Already is about the quietest and most horrific disaster of them all: death.

I gather I'm not spoiling the movie too much for people - indeed, the title says it all - when I say that the film is about a female friendship blown asunder by a terminal illness.

The character, played by Toni Collette, dances obligingly and grimly to her breast cancer's tune: losing her hair, feeling wretched, keeping a family together stoically.

Yet while she obeys the demands of her malevolent slave driver, there is, eventually, a scene in which she is told there's no going back. It's a mesmerising scene, by turns horrific and agonising.

But the horrible irony is that, whether it happens several months or even a few seconds before we die, we'll all experience that moment. The moment where there is absolutely, positively no turning back and death is definitely on its way.

Think about how we, in Western culture, view death. We see it as the most awful, unspeakable tragedy to befall anyone. When the news broke on my Facebook page that Jackie Collins died last weekend, I let out a shocked wail.

But the fact is, the woman was 77 and had a spectacularly varied, accomplished and fun life. She was active, vital and making plans for her life up until the end.

She will be missed, certainly, and no doubt her family and friends are bereft. But it intrigued me that my first reflex reaction was to feel shock and horror at such a tragedy.

Last week, an image of Ohio mother Eva Holland and her two smiling children caught my eye online. The three were snapped smiling under the most unusual circumstances; next to the open casket of their deceased father/husband Mike.

Eva had said that she shared the photo online to highlight the reality of addiction (Mike had died of a heroin overdose).

Eva was commended for her candidacy; others thought it too ghoulish for words. Me, I didn't know what to think. But there was no escaping that cold, hard truth.

In many cases, of course, it's hard to look on death as the natural run of things.

There are genuine cases of tragedy that deserve every ounce of our shock and horror; suicide, murder, a young person leaving too soon, or a toddler drowning on their way to an ostensibly better life from Syria.

There is no way to fashion these into something 'normal' or even explicable. But still, how different might the world be if we weren't so afraid of death?

If we thought of it as an adventure about to begin? If we remembered every once in a while that it will come to us all, and that it's an inevitable as night following day?

Those who are stoic in the face of oncoming death are lauded as brave and heroic, and rightly so. I just wish we had that kind of pragmatism right throughout our lives, and that it was culturally ingrained in us to not be so afraid of the mystery of death.

When you think about it, why be afraid of something that's definitely going to happen?

Personally, I hate to think about death. It's scary and makes my head hurt, like trying to understand the concept of eternity, or how big the universe is, or even whether there is indeed a god knocking about.

Instead of sweating the big stuff, I busy myself with distractions: Netflix, texting guys, paying bills, finding the perfect pair of red T-bar shoes (the struggle is real).

I joke about how, with my salty humour and taste for the bawdy, I will be the scourge of the nursing home when I get there. But the most wondrous and most awful thing about life itself is that I might just never make it that far.

Some people have it worse than I. A friend in her 50s - accomplished, intelligent, worldly - told me that she wakes around four nights a week with night terrors that were entirely to do with her freaking out about her own mortality.

Sounds like a perfectly good waste of a night's sleep to me.

Recently, I heard of the advent of 'death doulas'. Just as conventional doulas help people usher in new life in a holistic way, death doulas offer support to those who need to face up to dying.

Maybe we should enlist the services of death doulas all the way through life, so we can make the most of our time in life. Something to get it out of the way and get on with the business of living.

For now, I have no answers. The mystery remains large; the answers remain at large. Maybe all we can do in the face of inevitable death is to honour life as best we can.

Honour our physical and mental health, and curate our lives so that looking back, we are mainly proud of them.

Maybe it's a question of feeding our minds and our souls, and not worrying too much about cellulite or love handles.

As someone once told me, go with the option in life that gives you the best story for the pub. It may not make death any less scary, but as a design for life goes, you could do worse.


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