by Jennie Jarvis
One of the sad truths about being human is that we will, without doubt, have to deal with death at some point in our life. Even if we are the most anti-social person in the world and stay isolated from every other person on the planet, we will still have to face our own demise. For some people, dealing with death equates moments of ultimate sorrow. For others, it’s a chance for reflection on priorities and goals. As a writer, my experience with death has always been about something else.
Twice in my life, I’ve had the horrible experience of watching someone I love pass away. The first was my father. He died of cancer in 2011, and I was beside him during those last few days. In the end, he went from painfully struggling for breath and then fell into a coma before he died. I woke up in the middle of the night to feel his last pulse beneath my fingertips before he passed away. I then had the unenviable job of waking up my mother (who was snoring beside his bed), my sister (who slept on a blow up mattress in the next room with her husband, dog and son) and my aunt and uncle (lying in the guest room), in order to tell them all that he was gone.
The next heart-wrenching death I experienced was very different, but still painful. Last year, my beloved dog Arnold, who I owned for over ten years, developed a rare form of bladder cancer contracted by less than 5% of dogs in the world. The cancer acted quickly, and I had to watch my best friend fade before my eyes. Ultimately, I made the most difficult decision of my life and had him put to sleep before the pain got too bad for him. This was the week before Valentine’s Day of this year. While it’s true that he was “just a dog,” Arnold saw me through some of the most trying and difficult times of my adult life, and losing him made me feel like I had lost what was left of a more innocent life.
In both cases, but especially after my father’s death, I had no idea how to deal with the sudden gaping hole left in my heart. How do you find solace when something that has been so constant – whether it be a father or a longtime faithful companion – is suddenly gone? I had no friggin’ clue!
Today, however, I know how to handle death – I write about it.
One of the benefits of being a writer is that I’ve always been able to express myself through words on a page. Whether I was going through a teenage angst-ridden breakup or experiencing a life-altering stay in a hospital, I’ve always felt a strong inclination to grab a pen when I wasn’t sure what else to do. The sight of the ink slowly seeping from the tip as I glided it across the page acted as a meditative device through which I could suddenly understand my place in the world once again. Perhaps it had something to do with control – just because I couldn’t control the things in my life that were going wrong, I could still control the words on the page – but I think it had more to do with processing what had happened.
When my father passed away, it was expected. We knew he had cancer for months, and so a lot of the grieving process took place before he died. But I still had an outpouring of emotions I didn’t know what to do with. I was in denial about his being gone, and I was angry that I felt like I had to deal with that tragedy on my own. My sister had her husband, and my aunt and uncle took care of my mother, but I had no one to turn to for comfort except my dog (Arnold). I felt responsible for taking care of everything because everyone else was busy mourning. I coordinated the funeral arrangements and invited the guests to his service. I even picked out the urn. I was glad to feel useful, but I just wanted to fall apart in someone’s arms, like everyone else was doing. But I felt like I wasn’t allowed (a self-inflicted punishment). I carried that anger with me for a long time until, finally, I took it out on the page.
In my novel Out of the Ashes (currently in submission), a major character dies in a horrific and sudden fashion. As my protagonist reacted to the death, I felt my own built up anger and frustration leaking out of me. Her pain was my pain, and her loss was my loss. I won’t get into too many details because the book isn’t available for study, but what I can say is, after I wrote that scene, a weight lifted from me. I didn’t feel abandoned in the wake of my father’s death anymore. I felt human and raw, but not alone.
Three years later, when I was faced with the loss of my dog, I didn’t delay the way I had in the past. Within two days of Arnold’s passing (basically, as soon as I could force myself out of bed), I sat down at my laptop and forced myself to write about his death. While the events of having him put to sleep were still fresh in my mind, I wrote about the cold floor of the vet’s office, the feel of my dog’s skin on my cheek, the words of solace my now-husband gave me between tears. While it didn’t make up for the loss of my best friend, I had a living, breathing work of non-fiction that helped me to find some semblance of release in those grief-filled days.
This short story was raw and emotional, and I knew I could never take it to my writing group. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust them. Anyone who follows me knows how much I rave about each member of that group. But even the most constructive of criticisms would be too difficult for me to take on that particular story. It was too close to me, and I gave myself the gift of letting it be imperfect. The important thing is that it was written – my little tribute to Arnold.
Months later, I got word that “Waking,” my story of Arnold’s loss, was accepted for publication. It’s being released as part of an anthology later this month. Sometimes raw, even unedited raw, can find a home.
I’ve always believed that one of the biggest challenges of being human is trying to learn how we best cope with the world around us. Each of us have our unique process that must be discovered. For me, when life hands me lemons… or death… I reach for a pen and paper. I have to write about it.
How do you cope?