Blog by Avril Tynan
We are in the midst of a pandemic for which we are woefully unprepared. Our priorities now, quite rightly, are to minimize the losses—both personal and ultimately economic. Our anticipative strategies for prevention have become plans for mitigation and—hopefully, one day—recovery. We are growing accustomed, in a terrifying—and, for most generations, unprecedented—manner, to the rising international tolls: infection rates, death rates, hospitalisation rates, and recovery rates. Yet, as we count our losses on both a personal and a collective level, this narrative of numbers risks eclipsing narratives of experience. At a time when the pandemic shows only transitory glimmers of subsiding the question of narrative may not seem the most urgent, but for a world that must one day again function with some degree of economic, social, and cultural unanimity, it must be asked: how will we tell the stories of the Covid-19 dead?
In the contemporary age we have become accustomed to ideas of living well and dying well. Dying well means in a way that is prepared for, accepted, and comfortable, the finale of a long and happy life. In the West many people, when given the option, choose to die at home surrounded by their loved ones. Dying badly, on the other hand, means violently, unexpectedly, or alone. In Japan, the term kodokushi explicitly refers to the phenomenon of elderly people dying alone so that their bodies remain undiscovered for long periods of time. In other words, dying well means that one’s death is acknowledged, witnessed—at least indirectly—and shared; dying badly means dying unnoticed or in isolation, like a human Schrödinger’s cat who is both alive and dead—or neither alive nor dead—until a body is discovered.
Yet, is this not what we are now facing in the time of the current pandemic? Death is a peculiar life event—a paradoxical one at that—but a necessary one no less. As Ludwig Wittgenstein notoriously stated in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921/1981): “death is not an event in life. We do not live to experience death” (6.4311). In his solipsistic metaphysics, the inability to experience one’s own death makes possible the totalizing existence of the transcendental subject. Death, then, should not concern us, since it lies beyond our frame of experience. Yet death is everywhere: the deaths of others punctuate our lives in surprising and not infrequent ways. When a loved one dies, we acknowledge and accept that event as a part of our own life, as a moment in time and an experience that marks us in some way. In cases of a ‘good’ death, we live to experience the period leading to death, the moment of death itself, and the ensuing cultural commemorative practices. The death is shared and often leads to further acts of sharing—the sharing of stories, of memories, and of grief.
The Coronavirus crisis has now deprived us of our accepted practices for accommodating and coming to terms with death. People fear not only that they, or a loved one, will succumb to the illness, but that if the condition of a loved one were to deteriorate they will—by necessity—be prevented from having any immediate contact. Deaths are taking place not only in extraordinary numbers, but in isolation. In London, on 30 March, 13-year-old Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab died alone and was buried on 3 April without any immediate family present after they too were forced into isolation. This is not death as we know it today, these are the deaths of wars, or of historic plagues.
For now, perhaps it is more important to focus on numbers. But one day these numbers must be personalized again, given faces and names, and given back their lives. That is when the question of storytelling must become a priority. To understand death, we must be able to accommodate it in some way, to attribute meaning and experience to the death in order to substantiate the framework of that person’s life. But how are we to make sense of these deaths when they take place in isolation, in a void unshared and unexperienced by others? What happens when there is no one present to live through that death? How, then, will be tell the stories of the Covid-19 dead? And who will tell them? Will the burden fall on those who were there at the time—the already overburdened healthcare professionals whose days are overwhelmed with attempting to keep these persons alive, let alone attribute meaning to the extraordinary onslaught of death? Will these deaths simply become numbers within national and international tallies, destined for the history books? Or will we have to invent meaningful scripts for events we never lived through?
Avril Tynan is a postdoctoral researcher in comparative literature at the Turku Institute for Advanced Studies in Finland. Her work examines the roles of narrative and ethics in the representation of ageing, illness and death