Peter Brindley: Coming to terms with death and what we leave behind

I was in a car crash recently; fortunately only my pride and pocket book were injured. If I’m honest, my major response was mainly one of annoyance. I did not have time for this interruption in my predictable manicured first-world life. Regardless, my vehicle was expeditiously and unemotionally laid to rest. As someone who prides himself on being a “problem-solver”, I quickly found a “steal of a deal”, and was once again moving onward and upward. I then found out the story behind my new vehicle. It confirmed my suspicions: I am a spoilt s**t, and in need of self-reflection. Perhaps you can relate.

My new car had apparently previously belonged to another professional. I do not know this person, but was informed that he or she had received a terminal diagnosis. Accordingly, and quite understandably, his or her family disposed of this possession. Melodrama aside, this Intensive Care specialist had to once again accept that my fortune—in both senses of the word—was because of another’s tragedy. What I had not expected was how this single death would affect me.

The dealership had not reprogrammed the car’s GPS, and, initially, I was re-routed towards the former owner’s house. This felt slightly creepy, but was solved by clicking a few buttons. It did however leave a queasy feeling: was I also partially erasing a life? They had also failed to delete the music hard-drive. This is something that, weeks later, I still have not done. Instead, I find myself, through that music, wondering who he or she was. Moreover, was this the soundtrack to his or her life, and was this the music he or she turned to after receiving tragic news.

I adore music and fervently believe in its power, especially when words no longer suffice. Much to my shame, I cannot play a note. However, I have obsessively collected songs and symphonies as I have (ungracefully) aged, and as life has delivered me much good and occasional bad. Music does so much to help me to rest, to smile, to cry, and to bounce back. I do not just select music; I curate it. This was the case when courting my wife, for our wedding, and during my children’s births. I have also, like many of you, I suspect, even dictated a soundtrack for my funeral. The selection on my new vehicle’s hard drive suggests that music was equally special for its previous owner.

Nick Hornby, the author of High Fidelity, wrote that by scanning somebody’s music collection you get to know that person’s unvarnished self. In the BBC series Desert Island Discs, famous people gradually reveal the story of their life via favourite pieces of music. Music can be a metaphor for who we were, what we love, and how we wish to be remembered. We save scores of photos, but surely sounds are just as meaningful. In his marvellous book, Sum, David Eagleman suggests three sequential deaths: the first when the body ceases to function, the second when placed in the grave, and the third when the person is no longer mentioned. Regardless, I have not yet brought myself to erase what I imagine to be cherished memories and aspirations. I have the power to preserve them, even if just during my daily commute.  

As an intensive care doctor I have witnessed an awful lot of in-hospital death. However, I find myself thinking more about what happens after. Each family that survives faces a further struggle: when is it right or necessary to move on. When my mother died my father found it impossible to sell the house. He was also slow to erase her voice from the telephone answering machine, and slower still to empty her closet. The same emotions are at work when we save lockets, pass on watches, display ashes on the hearth, or, in my case, ask to be buried beneath a tree. It is also part of why many bereaving families pursue organ donation. Part of the human condition is that we want to simply live on, and do not wish to believe in death’s finality. For those remaining we need to believe that life and death is special. However, 150,000 people die every day, and each person is forgotten sooner or later. Eventually I will erase this music, just not yet.

The other reason for not having erased this music yet is that—truth be told—this collection is more sophisticated than mine and largely unfamiliar. I am being educated and challenged and thrilled and soothed daily. Whoever this person was they are still a great teacher, and I am, for the first time in a while, an eager student. Beyond mere music, perhaps the biggest lesson is that you never know whom you will reach. This can include those that you never even met.

Peter Brindley, professor in the Department of Critical Care Medicine, Department of Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine, and the Dosseter Ethics Centre, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. Twitter: @docpgb

Competing interests: None declared