How to Talk About Death

Dear blind people, this is a cartoon called How to Talk About Death. In the cartoon, there are two guys just standing around, not saying a word, for an awkwardly long time.

Death is one of the few things we have in common with every other person on the planet. You’d think with death being such a universal experience, people would talk about it frequently. But instead, talking about death is usually just awkward.

Why is that? I suppose because our only experience of death is in coping with someone else’s death. We’re always reacting to it. It’s never a positive experience. Unless of course you happen to be a crazy-ass psycho killer on a murderous rampage, in which case, lucky you! But for most people, it’s a negative experience.

Until I was about 30 years old, I never really talked with other people about death. I’d never had much occasion to talk about it. That all changed abruptly a few years ago when my best friend Dave killed himself.

I met Dave in college. We became friends there, and remained close until his death. It might be fun, and a little bit awe-inducing, to try and count the number of hours we spent together, but I’ll save that exercise for another time.

One night I received a call from Dave’s older sister, Claire. She told me that Dave had taken his own life in his apartment. His body had been discovered by his housekeeper. Claire seemed calm considering the situation. She asked me to spread the word to Dave’s college friends.

For the rest of that night, and the next morning, I called friends one by one to tell them the news. Many of them passed the news on to other people. As I was going through these conversations, I tried to keep the even-keeled tone that Claire had used. Some people I talked to were very upset, but for the most part, they were calm too.

These initial conversations, and the ones we had over the ensuing weeks and months, were painful. There were so many unanswered questions about Dave’s death. Dave had left suicide notes, including one to me and Jordan, but it didn’t tell us much. In his note, Dave apologized for killing himself and revealed what I would come to see later as severe depression. He gave me some last-minute advice about a board game we had been creating together. He wasn’t sure who would find his body, but he realized it might be Jordan and me. “If so, sorry,” he wrote, “especially if I shit my pants. That won’t smell too good.”

My attempts to comprehend what had happened began bumping up against the reality that, no matter what we thought or said about the situation, we would we never see Dave again. Life would continue to go on for the rest of us. I was alive. Friends were getting married. Millions of New Yorkers were riding the subway and walking the streets as if nothing had happened. Maybe trying to make sense of someone else’s death is always going to be like that — a slippery sort of fish.

On the other hand, Dave’s death did cause me to think about my own life, and the lives of others. I realized that, one day, I’m going to die and so is everyone else. You might be inclined to say those are morbid thoughts, but I don’t think so. I’ve found it’s actually quite clarifying, because it causes me to think about how I want to live the rest of my life. It also makes me consider more deeply how I want to treat other people in this time that I — and they — have left.

Perhaps most people have this realization much earlier in life. For me, it didn’t happen until my early 30s. Of course, I always knew logically I was going to die at some point, but I never really considered what I should do about that. It took Dave’s death to really kick-start a conversation with myself about death.

If I know I’m going to die, but I don’t know when, then what should I do with myself? For me, the answer is to enjoy the present while still keeping in mind that life is long. To have fun now while also taking care of myself over the long term.

What should you do with yourself? Everyone will have a different answer to that question, but I think it’s worthwhile asking. I wish I hadn’t waited so long to start asking the question of myself. Perhaps I should have thought more about death earlier in life. Maybe if people were generally more comfortable talking about death, I would have been quicker to face it.¹

So in the future, I won’t let myself feel uncomfortable if the subject of death comes up. Feel free to bring it up with me. I promise I won’t flinch.

¹ After Dave’s death, some of his friends and family created the Dave Nee Foundation. I served on the board of the foundation for several years. One of the goals of the foundation is to reduce the stigma associated with discussing depression or suicide, especially among lawyers (Dave was in law school when he died). Studies have shown that law students are particularly susceptible to depression. I never went to law school myself, but through conversations with Dave’s classmates and other research, we found that law students are, if anything, less apt to talk about depression or suicide than the general public, despite being more likely to suffer from it. There seem to be a few reasons for this, including the fact that law school is difficult and there’s generally a culture of “toughing it out”. This results in a negative cycle where students suffer from depression but feel uncomfortable talking about it with friends or seeking counseling. For students with serious, clinical depression, this puts them at greater risk of committing suicide.

8 Responses to “How to Talk About Death”

  1. rsl
    February 23, 2012 at 12:11 am #

    PB, One of my students gave a Senior Speech (sort of a chapel talk or culminating address to the community) about the death of her father. Or, rather, she spoke about how it was okay to talk about dads in front of her. She was aware that her father was dead, and though she was sad about it, she wasn’t angry at other kids for having fathers who were alive. Nor, she said, did she resent those friends’ fathers for being alive. She was really funny throughout the speech. I’d post it, but I don’t have her permission to do so, but I thought that her words might resonate with you. RSL

    • Pierre Bastien
      February 23, 2012 at 2:29 am #

      Hey man thanks for stopping by. Sounds like a memorable speech.

  2. Herman Grobler
    November 21, 2011 at 5:10 am #

    Pierre, thanks for this openhearted talk about such an important aspect of life. As pastor I can assure you that many pastors fall in the same category. They also struggle with the aspect of faith and the idea that having trouble with anything, especially depression reveal a lack of true relationship with Jesus. We really should also talk to our loved ones concerning what to do with our bodies after we departed.
    I agree that facing the reality of one’s own death has a huge impact on facing the reality of our living life!

    • Pierre Bastien
      November 21, 2011 at 2:44 pm #

      Hi Herman, thanks for your comment. The pastor at Dave’s service actually brought up, briefly and respectfully, how depression and suicide are viewed within Christianity (negatively, I gathered). I don’t know much about this honestly, but it seems clear that humans have struggled for thousands of years to come to grips with the nature of suicide. As you point out, even many pastors must struggle directly with depression. I wonder if we’re any closer to understanding it all now than we were during Jesus’s lifetime.

  3. Tyson
    October 7, 2011 at 3:30 pm #

    I really enjoyed reading this Pierre! Your friend’s Dave’s comedic apology (for how you might find him) is so incredibly profound. While I have never read a suicide note, and hope I never have to, I would never have imagined a statement like this. The joke’s humor and care (for you) in the midst of such despair speaks legions about both who he was and your friendship. This note along with what you wrote had quite an effect on me.

    • Pierre Bastien
      October 7, 2011 at 6:32 pm #

      Hey Tyson thanks for stopping by. Dave was damn funny. When I got to that part of the note, I burst out laughing, right there in the coroner’s office.

  4. Kate
    September 24, 2011 at 3:04 am #

    Thank you for the thoughtful comments, Pierre. These are hard topics to think, talk and write about. I wish I could remember every day, to live that day to the fullest.

    • Pierre Bastien
      September 24, 2011 at 6:42 pm #

      Thanks for the comment Kate. I hope I can remember that too. It’s funny, you’d think it’d be an easy thing to remember, but it seems not.