“…just as we know our walking to be only a constantly prevented falling, so is the life of our body only a constantly prevented dying, an ever deferred death.” Schopenhauer
I first read these words two years after I had qualified as a doctor. On reading them I felt a jolt: a reawakening of a feeling that I had buried. A feeling that I ran and hid from as I spent my days, and many nights, beside people on the brink of death. Schopenhauer’s words forced me to confront the fact that I felt threatened, fearful, temporary. I felt mortal.
Those of us who work in hospitals are witnesses to ‘a constantly prevented dying’. We react in different ways, and we rarely talk about it, but I have recognised more than once after a cardiac arrest call that has ended in death, a fleeting flash in the eyes of a colleague that screams “that could be us, we all die!’
Schopenhauer himself died in 1860, apparently of respiratory failure, and his words now seem oddly prescient. Whilst some of us still die as we did in the past – quickly and suddenly – more of us die slowly. We are given notice. We spend years, decades even, living with chronic disease. Organs fail, faculties fade, we continue to live. Caitlin Doughty, a mortician, wrote in a recent essay “Medicine has given us the ‘opportunity’ — if you want to call it that — to sit at our own wakes.”
On reading Schopenhauer’s words again recently, quoted in David Shield’s book ‘The thing about life is that one day you’ll be dead,’ I found that they did not evoke the same fear that they had before. I have spent a lot of time over the last few years reading about and thinking about death. Death as an idea, death as a process, death as a philosophical question, death as a release, death as a tragedy, death as a transition, death as a chasm, death as a right, death as a fact. I have thought about my own death. And I have talked about it. I am mortal. And this is OK.
One of the places I have talked about death is at Death Cafes. At these events, over tea and cake, I have had some of the most interesting and life-affirming conversations I can remember. I have met wonderful people, who share a vision of a world in which we make better use of the time we spend sitting at our own wakes. What this means for each of us is different. But it starts with a conversation.
I am co-hosting two Death Cafes in the next few months, both of which are in beautiful locations, with truly wonderful people. The first is during Dying Matters Awareness Week, on Sunday 15th May at Asylum, an artist led organisation based in Caroline Gardens Chapel in Peckham. It starts at 13.30pm and is open to everyone, including families and children. There will be activities for children and space to run around. No-one should be excluded from conversations that are relevant to us all. The second is during Creativity and Wellbeing Week (run by the London Arts in Health Forum, for whom I’m a trustee), on Wednesday 15th June at The Menier Gallery in Southwark from 18.45.
You can find more information on both these events, my co-hosts, and the venues on Eventbrite, where you can also book your tickets (free but with requests for donations to the generously-donated venues).
“The present…is constantly becoming the past; the future is quite uncertain and always short.” Schopenhauer
I hope you will consider spending some of your uncertain and short future with us for these events.