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D Is For Death

Writing our mortality

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

I saw my first dead body when I was two years old. I hold no fixed memory of that day in 1970, only snapshots developed over time from my mother’s recollections. We had recently moved to Devon, into a detached interwar house on the edge of Teignmouth with a view over Labrador Bay. Our neighbours on one side were two elderly ladies who shared a house, Mrs Gracie and Miss Bowles. The day in question began as usual, but soon after my father had left for work, dropping my two brothers at school, there was a desperate knock at the door. Mrs Gracie.

‘Please can you come?’ she urged my mother. ‘I think Miss Bowles is dead.’

‘Of course.’ My mother is calm in a tricky situation. ‘But I’ll have to bring Sophie.’

I was attached to her hip, eyes wide. (No way I was missing out.) So, we trooped next door to the accompaniment of Mrs Gracie chanting: I-think-Miss-Bowles-is-dead. Once inside their hall, we looked ahead, up the stairs. And there she lay, Miss Bowles, as if climbing a mountain. Only quite, quite still. As they had yet to be introduced, my mother did not like to touch Miss Bowles, but she realised that the old lady was indeed dead.

A moment of silence.

I pointed at Miss Bowles.

‘Don’t point,’ my mother said. ‘It’s rude.’

More silence. Just the tick from the sunburst clock on the wall.

Then, after ringing 999, we waited with Mrs Gracie until help arrived. Finally, it was all over.

Except that it wasn’t. On our way back next door, I took up my own chant: Poor-Miss-Bowles-is-dead. This carried on and off for days – Poor-Miss-Bowles-is-dead – until, with time, poor Miss Bowles was no longer my own memory but my mother’s hand-me-down one, still vivid fifty years on. I had no inkling then of what had become of Miss Bowles. I didn’t know what ‘dead’ was. Or grief. Or anything much outside my small world: cat, guinea pigs, stick insects, garden, swing, brothers, Andy Pandy. But I grasped something of the gravity of the situation; although I had only just met her, I knew that I would never see Miss Bowles again.

This was perhaps the beginning of my interest in death, but by no means the only contributory event. I can pinpoint a more definite, explicit engagement to 1972, a couple of years after the demise of Miss Bowles, when my parents bought a newsagent’s and, after returning the stick insects to the boys’ school, we moved to Torquay. The cat came with us, downgrading from garden to urban backyard. As for the guinea pigs, they were dead. All that remained of them was left behind — a row of lollypop-stick crosses in an herbaceous border.

Living above a sweet shop (this was so much more than a newsagent’s) made up for the lack of outside space. And anyway, my brothers and I had a new playground — a nearby churchyard which we nicknamed the Boneyard. Having no grasp of graveyard etiquette, we played hide-and-seek amongst the tombs, sat around eating Spangles, listening to Slade et al on a transistor radio. Perhaps it was here, hopping over the bones of the dead, that I made the connection between Miss Bowles and the guinea pigs. That one day you are here, the next…not.

This disappearing act has been the backdrop to my life. A sleight of hand, some misdirection and ta-dah! Loved ones vanish into thin air. During my turn on this earth, I have gathered an impressive cast of deaths, including my father’s when I was ten. He really was there one day, gone the next. Pouf! I learned young that death is only one step ahead.

And death has recently tried to trip me up. During the first lockdown, while a clever virus was weaving its magic all over the world, I was diagnosed with cancer. Early but aggressive and difficult to treat, my prognosis to survive beyond five years a ‘moderate’ 70%. I am doing my best to challenge these odds, but death might have other ideas.

Over the last year, I have pondered how we live with death-anxiety. My conclusion: Address it. Deal with it. After all, everyone dies so why resist the very idea of death? The simple facts are these: we don’t want to lose the people we love because living without them is hard, all day, every day, hard. And nor do we want to leave our loved ones behind because how can they possibly live without us? Pushing such thoughts aside simply fuels the fear and adds to the anxiety. We need to counteract this with the knowledge that these questions of death are actually questions of life.

Therefore, to live a full life, one without death-anxiety, we must face up to death. We must rationalise it. There are already enough gut-wrenching thoughts to wrestle with – the climate, the cost of living, war – so let’s take death off the worry-list. Change our thinking. When a loved one is not where they are supposed to be at the time agreed, we must not assume they were involved in a fatal accident. Maybe they decided to buy a soya flat white or bumped into a chatty neighbour. And, as for yourself? What can you do to ease your own death-anxiety? You can dig deep into faith — light a candle, join a church, go on pilgrimage. You can bump up the endorphins — buy a bike, complete a marathon, backpack across southeast Asia. You can talk — go to therapy, volunteer, attend a death café. Or you can write.

That is the path I am taking. At a time of mass grief and personal trauma, I am writing a book about death and dying to contribute something death-positive to the growing conversation. To help prepare us for our own death and for the death of others. To discuss the options for funerals, memorials, legacies. To explore the effects of celebrity death on our mourning. To consider war, murder, suicide, assisted death, children, pets. To examine our physical body and what happens to it at the point of death and post-mortem, including its place in the afterlife, in myths and legends.

I have researched different areas of death and dying but have yet to find a comprehensive book that covers all aspects from anatomy to zombies. I want to fill this gap with an accessible read that both challenges and comforts whilst being informative and entertaining using an A-to-Z structure and the power of stories that focus on the human element — stories of those I’ve read about, stories from those I know, and stories from my own life, starting with the death of poor Miss Bowles.

During my stint as RLF writing fellow, I have learned as much from my students as they from me. Having taught for much of my life, this was to be expected. However, what came as a surprise was how this experience would entice me from novel-writing to nonfiction, how it would gift me new avenues to explore, especially as I’d been failing to write since my diagnosis. This project is not only important and timely, picking at the taboo that shrouds death, but it is also part of my own personal story, my biggest and most exciting creative venture yet.

But more anxiety. Am I up to it? After all, I am not a death expert. I am not an undertaker, an archaeologist, a surgeon, or an end-of-life doula. However, I am a writer whose five-decades-and-a-bit on this earth has included a litany of loss, not least a lime-sized aggressive bastard-of-a tumour in my right breast which will potentially cut a life short.

So, while it is a daunting task, I must crack on. Someone must do this thing, so why not me? While my agent remains to be persuaded, I have been applying for residencies and begging for grants to give me time to complete this literary act. And while I continue to read and continue to write, the clock keeps ticking. The further along I go, the further the end point appears. Can I do this?

As with any creative endeavour, I don’t know for sure, but I have no choice other than to believe that I can. So, I will continue. Continue putting words on the page. Words I want people to read. Sad words. Hopeful words. Ones that speak the truth of what it is to be human. And every day I will remind myself that, amongst all this uncertainty, there is one surety: We should strive to live well, to do our best work, to use our talent for good, because tomorrow, or next year, or in five decades time, the curtains will close on our time here on this earth and we will all follow in the footsteps of poor Miss Bowles. (Pouf!) If we are lucky, we will leave loved ones behind — people such as poor Mrs Gracie who, like Chekhov’s gun, appeared at the start of this piece. As writers, our legacy is for all the Mrs Gracies of this world. Our words live on for those left behind, so let them be our best efforts.

Sophie Duffy writes novels about family relationships. She also writes romantic fiction as Lizzie Lovell. Hailing from the West Country, she is now an honorary northerner living on the Wirral.

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