Death is common in fiction, just as it is common in life. It is the highest of stakes, even though ever character, just like you and everyone you know, will end up dead eventually. Different people react to death, or even the possibility of death, in different ways. Fear is the most common emotion associated with it, but it isn’t one that everyone experiences.
Until my child was born, I never feared for my own death. I did, however, fear the deaths of others. There’s an elderly British man in his eighties who I was fairly close with about eight years ago. We met while I was spending a year abroad, and often had philosophical discussions. Over time, we’d fallen out of touch. Yet whenever I feel the desire to call him and find out what he’s up to, I hesitate. I’m scared I’ll find out that he’s not around anymore, and as long as I don’t call, as long as I don’t know his status, I can tell myself that he’s probably still alive.
Because death is a universal experience, it is bound to come up in your writing at some point. When it does, try to remember that not everyone has the same reaction, and not everyone faces death the same way.
I remember my grandmother, a holocaust survivor, telling me that after the murder of her family, she no longer wanted to live. She was jealous of people that didn’t wake up in the morning. When she finally did pass away, I think she viewed it as a relief. Death was something she welcomed. My father realized this, and yes, he mourned her loss, but at the same time he found a sense of peace, knowing that her suffering on this world was finally over.
There’s a book, A Brush With Death : An Artist in the Death Camps, by Morris Wyszogrod (or Moshe, as he was called by his friends). The book recounts the author’s experiences in the Holocaust, and actually bears a few similarities to Yossel, something I pointed out to author Joe Kubert when I had the opportunity to meet him, a year before his death. Of course, Moshe Wyszogrod isn’t around anymore either. Few survivors are. But what makes his book unique isn’t just that it is an account of death and horror, recorded as experienced by someone who faced it day in and day out for years, but rather because of a few paragraphs written here and there, throughout the book. The author mentions a friend of his, who he met in the Warsaw Ghetto, entered into the concentration camps with, and eventually was separated from as the war went on, only to be reunited in America with years later: Mayer Lachman. My grandfather didn’t talk much about his experience in the Holocaust (or talk much at all, for that matter), so a decent amount of what I know about his experiences come from that book. There were of course some things left out, such as his wife and daughter, who never made it. My uncle once asked him what he did when he found out his wife and daughter were killed. He shrugged and said, “I went back to work.” Because mourning would mean death for him as well. Instead her persevered, and lived long enough to see his great-great-grandchild. Not long ago he was watching some great-grandchildren run around in his son’s backyard. “They didn’t win,” he said with a smile.
Mayer Lachman passed away exactly one year ago, at the age of one hundred and five. A sick child who doctors didn’t think would live beyond his first year had lived through two world wars. The anniversary of a loved one’s passing is a time to reflect on life, and celebrate their legacy. I suppose that’s why I’m writing this.