Writers and the Fear of Death

Everyone is afraid, sometime during their life, of Death, the final frontier, the Great Divide, the place no one returns from.

Writers, being fearful creatures, include Death among their many fears. I know I do.

It is the price of sentience, to know what comes, and to remember.

It is an expensive price – but a fair one.

Because of its universal importance, Death gets dealt with by writers.

A lot.

Writers and writing about Death

In fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and memoir. In blogging and journaling and newspapers.

The fear of death comes up many times during life. I remember thinking, when I held my first child, newborn babe, that I had condemned him to die, without ever asking him (you’re not particularly rational during those times). I cried. It seemed okay that I might die some day – after all, I am not innocent – but not my child. My children. Anyone I loved.

Oddly enough, I do not remember thinking about that at all when we decided we were old enough to have children. We made what seemed like a quite rational decision then, too: stop avoiding it, have some kids.

And not that long later we had one – amazing ourselves and both sets of our parents, as we were in the ‘getting a bit old there to have children, aren’t you?’ range, set in our ways and our careers.

Life really starts then – I don’t know any new parents who haven’t been overwhelmed by the sheer dimensions of the task they have now assumed responsibility for.

We don’t pay attention until too late

Maybe there is an evolutionary switch, somewhere deep in our brains, that makes us forget about death when we need to procreate – after all, a sentient species that decided not to inflict death on any more of its citizens would stop with that generation.

In any case, we’ll have to think about it – parents, children, pets, and, of course, ourselves – as it happens, when it happens.

As a writer, I must be able to write that a character dies. Or I’m going to be stuck writing fluff. I have a family, and many of them have gone on before me over the wall or through St. Peter’s gate. I have experience – of other people’s deaths. Not so much in person – this is the 21st century, and even in the 20th, much of the actual process happens with few people, and many of them medical types, in attendance. Not so long ago, but we wouldn’t have Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death if this were common knowledge in our households and villages still.

I know I fear it – not so much, being a believing type, in the final eventuality – but in the process. I have lived now for many years with a lot of pain – I deal with it. I do not want it to get worse. I have physical mobility problems right now – I cope with them by yoga, a lot of stretching, and exercises done almost every day – with the additional constraint that some of the muscles don’t work right now (we’re trying to change that), and that I have CFS (ME/CFS), which basically means aerobic exercise is out. I fear what will happen to things I’m barely keeping at bay if I am bedridden, for example.

We all fear the loss of independence – having other people help us with the euphemistically-labeled ‘Activities of Daily Living’ isn’t something most of us actually look forward to, no matter how it might be appealing to be very rich and have people wait on us hand and foot. Mostly because we know it is never going to be as efficient and timely as if we were able to take care of such things for ourselves when we needed to. Plus any attendant indignity, of course, in matters we have dealt with since we were two.

All of this musing isn’t meant to be gloomy – Death is the universal leveler, and God knows we need one. Just matter-of-fact stuff.

But I would like to point out that I no longer fear the actual process nearly as much.

I’m not sure I believe in ghosts, but I definitely believe in spirits, so I’m not passing judgment.

One Foot in Heaven, a memoir by hospice nurse Heidi Telpner

I would like to recommend a marvelous little memoir, One Foot in Heaven, by hospice nurse Heidi Telpner. I like her other online writing, so I followed her to her day job with some trepidation, and was entertained and edified and heartened by her book. I stole the picture from Amazon, and the link is here. I hope neither Amazon nor Heidi will mind the pilferage. I didn’t check where else it might be available – sorry, Heidi.

One Foot in Heaven, Heidi Telpner, R. N., Amazon

This is my review at Amazon (I don’t write many, so that alone is significant):

“A light hand with the heavy subject of Death and Dying, March 27, 2014

I’m glad I overcame my fear of the subject to read this memoir of a journey through the last steps on Earth of a group of people who had one thing in common: a gentle and caring nurse for themselves and their families. Nurse Telpner demystifies – by sharing stories of those who have gone before – the process by which hospice helps people through the final gate.

I want someone like her there when I die – to protect from unnecessary intrusions, medical or familial, and make it possible to die with some dignity left. It is too bad that modern paperwork, computers, and staffing problems have made it less likely to receive the degree of service – and the amount of time – she was able to give her patients. At the end it should be people, not machines, who surround us.

The contrasts – rich and poor families, caring and uncaring families, easy and difficult clients – showed which personal characteristics of the dying and their families affected the outcome the most. She faced her own failings – and those of the system.

That her personal beliefs exist is important – writing about your own life and your own experiences takes courage. It is also evident she never let them interfere with her care for people whose beliefs might be different.

One additional bonus was the forthright way she discussed the consequences of unnecessary interventions demanded by the families. It made it clear to me why most doctors and nurses don’t want to die in a hospital.

I will recommend this book to all my friends when the subject comes up, suggest it when the subject is obviously being ignored when it shouldn’t be.”

I know there is a special running starting tomorrow – it will be free. I paid a ridiculously low price for mine, given the wonderful increase in peace of mind. I hope many people will avail themselves of this wise little book.

Satinah Ahmad is being executed by Saudia Arabia

I don’t know the facts of the case, beyond that it is unfortunately too common: Ms. Ahmad, a woman in a serving position, was convicted of killing her employer in Saudi Arabia.

I trust Amnesty International – and support them. Please follow the link and let the world know your opinion.



2 thoughts on “Writers and the Fear of Death

  1. juliabarrett

    Thanks for the mention, sweetie, and the wonderful review. Death is a difficult subject. Hard to discuss, hard to face, but yes, it is the great equalizer. You’re right – if we thought about it all the time we’d never reproduce. So I also believe in not thinking about it all the time. There is nothing we can do about it anyway.
    I agree about a loss of independence. I fear that far more than death.
    I know about the situation in Saudi Arabia. Women have no rights there. Especially foreign workers.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I did nothing to earn many of the rights I have by being born a white (mostly) American woman.

      The least I can do is state my belief that whatever level of privilege is available, should be available for all. ‘If you want peace, work for justice.’



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