Death: A Conversational Taboo / by Deborah Clague

People don't like talking about death. I've also come to the conclusion that people don't like talking to people who've just experienced a death. I haven't ascertained whether this is from the blunt, discomfiting realization that our mortal coil is constantly on the cusp of being retracted or if it's simply the fear of becoming depressed by-proxy. Despite being a universal truth, it is something that we avoid discussing as a society instead focusing on more upbeat topics such as how those Roughriders are doing or speculating on the features of the latest iPhone.

DESPITE BEING A UNIVERSAL TRUTH, DEATH IS SOMETHING THAT WE AVOID DISCUSSING AS A SOCIETY. 


I'd never written an obituary before but was aware of the significance of it. It is our bio to the world. Everything we've accomplished in character and essence over a lifetime distilled into a few brief paragraphs. To aid with crafting my father's, I started reading those in my local newspaper. I noted the common structure: predeceased by, survived by, life story imparted with brevity and then concluded with a call for donations to whatever charity most resonated with the deceased. As I skimmed them, one obituary stood out. It was for a colleague. 

I had never met them but I was taken aback. In a quirk of circumstance, here was the name of my regional employer echoing through the column inches of the Winnipeg Free Press even though I now lived in a different city in a different province. What were the odds?

My first reaction was to run and tell my dad of this strange coincidence.


Death is ugly. I had no prior experience dealing with the physical and emotional torment of it other than a beloved dog being euthanized in 2005. I wasn't present in that moment though; I didn't witness their last breath or feel the weight of the room shift as a soul departed. Because death is such a taboo subject, my actualized knowledge was slight and I thus entered with false expectations under the promise by doctors that my father would be kept "comfortable" during his final moments. Comfortable was akin to peaceful in my mind. My father's passing was not. Not until the very end, anyway. He appeared to struggle for four-and-a-half days after his massive stroke to death. 

It was four-and-a-half days of watching someone decline by the hour.

104 hours of witnessing someone heartbreakingly struggle with confusion, loss of coordination and an inability to communicate in any form. 

6,240 minutes of observing the spark in someone's eyes fade further and further away. Of body getting weaker. Of temperature getting colder. 

374,400 seconds of begging someone to let go. "Please, just go". 

During all of this, one of the doctors took me aside to talk about the stages of death, something I had never heard of before. It was an enlightening conversation. It made me realize that I was the only one who had to deal with being uncomfortable. What I had been watching wasn't necessarily struggle for my father but rather a natural pattern that everyone goes through before dying. I'm not sure why no one previously mentioned this to our family considering the diagnosis was terminal. I feel it's something everyone should be educated about as it would lessen the trauma of losing a loved one. Especially one spending time in a palliative care environment. 

Death is traumatizing enough for those left in its wake: I lost 15lbs in two weeks from stress alone and one month on, I still regularly get but three hours of sleep a night. My restless mind continuously seeks distraction from the mire of reality; most of the time this involves artistic pursuits…other times, it involves wine. An endless supply of which is provided by a close friend on their own highway to hell. She's one of the few willing to talk with me, at depth and discomfort, about this subject. 


The day before the funeral on July 14, I took my mother to IKEA. She had never been previously. I wondered if she would like it as much as dad did. During our spring road trip through Europe, my father would always be keeping an eye open to stay overnight in a city with one even programming the GPS in our rental vehicle to locate them. He liked the cheap-eats in the cafeteria. When he was initially discharged from the hospital on June 25, I thought of bringing him to the location in Winnipeg. But first, I needed to find out the accessibility options and specifically if they had wheelchairs available for rent. 

We never got to do this. 

Despite this, as my mother and I rode the escalator to begin the confusing trek through display rooms filled with Stockholm chairs and Billy bookcases, I noticed a row of wheelchairs down below available for use by patrons of the retail behemoth.

My first reaction was to run home and tell my dad.