It honestly makes me sad that posts tagged “death” and such are almost always about suicide, self-harm, and depression, not just because these are all very serious subjects that need greater understanding and support but because death is so much more than all those things that are punctuated with horror gifs. It’s more than the transformation described in the Tarot, more than the biological cycle of putrefaction and decomposition. It’s a constant fear in the back of most of our minds, but while you shouldn’t obsess over it and forget to live, you can’t ignore it, either, and pretending otherwise just seems to worsen the anxiety and terror. Even I get existential crises every so often, and it’s a struggle I’ve been waging since I was the little kid with too many nightmares. Facing death, dancing and arguing and laughing with death, can be one of the most powerful things you do.
Now, I don’t mean to romanticize death. It’s gross, juicy, often bloody, and literally and metaphorically shitty. It smells. It leaves a mess that makes you wish you were cleaning up a drunk’s vomit instead. Morticians have to take care of filthy details that most people aren’t aware of and don’t know that they’re grateful for it. It’s terrifying and people go screaming into the darkness with anger, fear, or some unholy combination. When people say they want to die with dignity, I just hope that they have a pretty loose definition of ‘dignity.’
A person’s fear of the end would, I believe, make them particularly well-suited for beginning death work rather than alienate them from it. With that anxiety comes a profound understanding of the magnitude of death’s presence, hovering over us like that one person who always reads over our shoulder no matter how many times you try to elbow them away, of the terror of one day returning to a state of nonexistence that somehow seems so much worse than the yawning stretch of time before our births in which we were just as nonexistent. Death work requires facing that fear, actively working with it and incorporating it into one’s life in an odd sort of dichotomy that doesn’t seem like it should work but in reality is the greatest balance in a mortal’s life. Acknowledging the reality of our inevitable death makes it easier to live our lives; you can’t deal with a problem before you realize there’s a problem in the first place, after all, the “problem” here being the existential anxiety that shadows our footsteps. If I don’t find love before a certain age, then I’ll be too old and end up dying alone, cries our heart, desperate not to get attached with strings but doing so all the same. I may have achieved something I’ve worked hard for, but in the end what does it really matter? demand our hands, callused and white-knuckling a beer bottle. What should be some of our most shining moments or defining lessons become weighed down with the stones in Virginia Woolf’s pockets.
But rather than being a source of angst and depression, engaging in death work, even shadow work, can ultimately lead to the greatest self-empowerment of all: choosing the meaning of our own lives. Whether you’re an atheist who fully believes in materialism or a polytheist who worships gods with all their divine power, there is no greater power than being able to say, “I am, and this is why.”
The oft-feared Morrígan revels in the slaughter, sure, but she also grieves it, and it’s a way of maintaining a brutal practicality about the darkest aspects of mortality – the violence, the gore, the desperation, heroism and cowardice both – without sacrificing or demeaning the heartbreak and emotionality of it. Death doesn’t really happen to you (presumably it’s rather difficult to be upset about being dead when you’re, you know, dead) so much as the people who are left behind. It’s no accident that the folkloric banshee has roots going back to Badb herself, or that the myths are rife with warriors bringing back the heads of their enemies and honoring them, or that ancestor veneration is such an integral part of the practices of many Irish polytheists. Perhaps we can take comfort in knowing that we continue to act as social agents in death, even if we aren’t aware of it, and that every person regardless of identity or status will necessarily take tea with Death, sooner or later.
My favorite portrayal of death comes from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. I haven’t read it since middle school, but from what I vaguely remember and which always stuck with me, one of the worlds that the main characters explore is one in which a person’s death is born with them, is their closest friend and confidante throughout their life, and simply leads them away hand-in-hand when it’s time to die.