In this personal essay, Suzannah Ball meditates on what death means for those left behind, the experience of intergenerational grief and the effect of small but continuous losses on our lives.
Things happen in winter, and you can’t blame the cold. Instead, it is some wild coincidence or the way of the world that both of my grandparents died during winter, as did the grandparents of my friends. It’s odd because I love Christmas and find it to be a very happy time, and when I was younger a snow day meant a free day. But now, when New Year’s comes around, I am lower to the ground, more aware, like a sheet has been pulled off me. Sometimes a new year does lead to a new you, because some slice of you was taken away a few weeks before.
I am scared of death. I am scared of what it might do to me, who it might make me become, or unbecome. Death is not exciting, but the unconscious state that comes with it is significant. The dead, the permanently unconscious, would not consider themselves unfortunate, and so perhaps neither should we. They consider themselves nothing, and we should not try to imbue feeling into those that are free of it; are free of pain, are free of everything. When imagining death there is a mistaken lack of separation between oneself and non-existence. This mistake is surrounded by a deluded and unnecessary belief of harm, and only when alive do we confuse this lack of everything with a negative feeling. Death does not equate to suffering, it should only be regarded as non-existence.
While Lucretius believes that we should not fear death, that this fear is a trivial phobia, it is naïve to suggest that there is not validity in fear of the unknown. I do not believe that life after death is the same as life before birth, which we are supposedly ‘unscared’ by. I am not convinced that my life experience shouldn’t have any impact on my attitude toward non-existence after death. The knowledge of my mortality causes anxiety, and my present dread of the inevitability of death is the real fear here. I think of my mother and the life she has lived and is living. I think about what she thought about me, how she wanted me and what she might want me to be, to become. After death I surely become nothing, and I cannot rest in that.
I’ve seen a picture of my mum pregnant with me. She’s in Cornwall, next to the harbour, near our holiday cottage. Every year we visit for a week and take in the sea air, go on walks and eat mussels with chips. I feel as though we belong there, and I don’t consider us tourists. I’ve been there every year, since before I was born if you are to include that picture, though the house in which we stay varies, and we only ever go in the off season, during April or October, when its warm enough to sit outside but not warm enough to venture nearer the sea. That’s not our style anyway.
My mum looks peaceful in this picture. I can’t conjure other images of her with such a rounded belly; this is all I have in my mind. I only have good memories of visiting Mousehole, our village. We’d all bundle into the car together, me, my parents and my brother, and listen to loud music during the eight-hour journey. Before the trip, my dad would usually have a panic about how to fit all the luggage in the car, regardless of the fact that we manage to do it every single year. I think he enjoys it.
My brother hasn’t come with us for the past couple of years. I miss him, but we’re all growing up and even I don’t travel down with my parents anymore. I live in London and take the train from Paddington to Penzance. Together, my parents pick me up from the station, with my dad in the driver’s seat, and we wind down the narrow roads between seaside towns. With the window ajar, I take in the not yet putrid smell of fish at the port in Newlyn and think back to when my dad took us on what he called a short cut and the car nearly got stuck down a one-way passage. When we emerged from the narrow road, we met a stretch of old, hidden and rather beautiful cottages that otherwise we would never have seen. When I visit with my own children, without him, I worry that I will be too cautious to embark upon such a mystery tour.
Cornwall is calming and I feel very much myself there. If you’re an Epicurean, then a fulfilling life is one led without distress, and thus overcoming psychological turmoil is essential. If Epicurus is to be believed, then there is no sense in worrying about death, as there is no sense-experience in non-existence, no harm from which to hide. No hiding. This knowledge should be enough to make me feel fulfilled everywhere, but there is no distress in Cornwall, no need to believe that death is so empty. That must be what my mother felt in that captured moment. Maybe she considered us to be one, and that was fulfilment enough. I should think of death as I think of Cornwall.
I think of my great uncle, my beloved grandfather’s older brother, and my main memory is that he was tall. It is amazing how you can reduce someone to their tallness. He lived until he was quite old, but I’ve taken his vast personhood and warped it into a thing of height. He was more than that, but when I speak or remember him, I think of his ability to throw a ball over a tall white tent. It was at my grandparent’s wedding anniversary, and the tent rose high in a field surrounded by deer who grazed in grass that tickled my tiny ankles. I’ve never seen anyone throw so far. My great uncle must have been at least seventy in my memory, and that’s how he will forever be to me. In my mind he is not dead, but tall.
My parents, who are older than I am but younger than my great uncle was, seem to be more aware of life than ever before. They are aware of the cruelty of it, and I fear them slipping away, but instead they are more themselves than ever. Kinder and more in tune with me. Maybe, after a while, the idea of death becomes us. Death has not diluted my great uncle, only heightened him. I should thank it.
Resting in non-existence seems easier for those that are already there – less so for the living. Life before birth and life after death aren’t symmetrical; there’s too much mess in between, too much grief. Through death, grief filters thinner to the next generation. Although looking through old family albums makes me feel heartache, I don’t know who I’m missing; it’s more of a longing for what and who I didn’t get to know. I miss my sister and I can’t separate the memories, if I even have any, from what people have told me about her and our relationship. I know she loved me, and I love her, but I can’t be sure whether this is grief or a sadness for the potential of what I could have had. Soon, when my pictures are in those albums, whatever I feel will be gone too, and the grief will trickle down.
We are all more aware of death these days and there is less tangible hope around, other than what we can muster from inside ourselves – and that is becoming increasingly difficult. The seasons are drifting into one another with little variety and there is no longer heavy snow for us to collectively mark the passing of time. We pretend we are each somehow separate; that our grief is singular, is ours alone, or that grief itself will not touch us. Death is presented as an object which can be dealt with, compartmentalised, rather than an inevitable cloak which covers us all at one point or another. Snow has stopped reminding us that we are in it together. Silver blizzards no longer suspend our country all at once, bringing us to the brink.
I remember snow days when I was younger. I would wait by the radio until the name of my high school was called. I remember quickly texting lots of people – more than I was friends with – and letting them know we didn’t have to go in; that the boiler was broken and the roads were too icy for cars to drive to the old Victorian building which housed our classes. It looked brilliant in the snow, the huge fields one massive white blanket. And the fact that we were never there on the days the snow was thickest must have meant the field was left untouched. I wonder what happened to the adders that buried themselves at the back of the grass.
In my pictures we all look so happy, me and my friends walking arm in arm with hats pulled over our ears. Even though we were cold and had most likely walked across the whole of Norwich looking for a hill steep enough to sled down. With said sled biting our heels as we walked, we had smiles stretched onto our wide-eyed faces. I can’t remember the last time I experienced that. I haven’t spoken to many of those friends in a while.
At University, when it snowed it was inconvenient as I couldn’t drive my car. It was deep then, and in March, so I didn’t expect it. On the day that it first fell I was sitting in the library, alone in a seat that looked over the vast castle courtyard. When the weather began to change everyone rushed around me to look out the huge windows. The fact that they wanted to get a closer look at the snow was irritating, and it didn’t occur to me that some people hadn’t seen it before. I wish I wasn’t so bitter and had instead basked in the togetherness.
Later that week, when partially drunk, I did snow angels in the courtyard. There were barely any flecks on the ground that had actually settled, but it was fun and freeing. The space was mostly empty, and the ground was smooth as it had only recently been redone. After I’d gotten up, laughing, me and my friends were approached by a woman with a golden retriever who had been watching us from afar. She told us that our happiness made her happy. It was fleeting but warm. This doesn’t happen anymore.
I wonder whether this moment was some signal that future winters will start to improve life again, rather than take it away. The weather is only just getting warmer, but I find myself missing the cold already. This January, while I couldn’t capture what I felt during my childhood, the colder it got, the closer I got. I don’t want to prolong this life; I just want to enjoy it more fully. Lucretius might be right, and I shouldn’t spend so much time fearing life after death, but there is a distinct sense of inhumanity in ignoring the fact that we will all die, as making the most of the life we have drives us to live.
I haven’t experienced real snow since that first day at University. Now there seems to only be rainfall from the sky, and I don’t like getting wet until it’s warm.
Lucretius, On the Nature of Things (London: J. M. Dents & Sons ltd., 1943).
Inward, B and Gerson, L. P. (eds), Hellenistic Philosophy. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997).
Warren, J, Facing Death (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
About Suzannah Ball
Suzannah Ball is a Literary Assistant at a leading talent agency. Previously, Suzannah worked as a receptionist for Aitken Alexander Associates and in her spare time has written theatre reviews for the online magazine A Younger Theatre. She graduated from Royal Holloway, University of London in 2018 after studying English and Philosophy and during her time there she worked as an Arts Editor for the university newspaper, The Founder. She currently lives in London. Follow Suzannah on Twitter @BallSuzannah
Feature image ‘snow’ by John on Flicker.