Our Relationship with Death

by Elizabeth Engstrom

By the time we’ve reached middle age, we are no strangers to death. We have all lost pets, loved ones, family members, sometimes parents, spouses, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, even close friends.

Death, as we have come to understand, is a part of life, and our own looms closer every day.

But it hasn’t always been so.


Teenagers tend to fancy themselves not only invincible but somehow ageless. They can never see themselves as fifty or sixty years old. It is only after years pass and we get a few gray hairs that we start looking forward to the day when we will be making hard decisions about the death of very close loved ones, and of course, ourselves.

So while there are milestones in everyone’s life, how often do we consider our aging process and our relationship to death—not only others’ deaths, but our own?

And what does this have to do with writing?

This has everything to do with writing, because it speaks to motivation of the characters.

I have long touted the book Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs for help with designing fictional characters. This big, fat book (available at all used bookstores) talks about a Taurus woman’s relationship with a Pisces mother or a Virgo father or a Capricorn spouse. There is gold to be mined here when it comes to human-to-human relationships.

love signs

But how do your characters relate to death?

How does your main character see him/herself when it comes to their own demise? The death of a child, a spouse, a parent? These are not necessarily things you need to put into your story or book, but as that character’s creator, you must know.

Most of us (women, in particular) have what I call Plan B, at least a sketchy plan of what we would do if our spouse should drop dead today. These are the thoughts that we harbor privately in the sleepless wee hours, and we alter them as time goes on. Along with these thoughts, we also mull over quietly how we would like to have our own deaths proceed, were we given the power to control them.

We all know people who say, with a cavalier wave, that when their health goes south, they’ll pull the chain. Take the black capsule. Go for a long nap in a snowbank. My father was one of those, yet he clung to life at the end. There are those who claim to have a bedrock relationship with their religion, yet they go crazy with grief when someone dies unexpectedly. Others think it will never happen to them, and are astonished when their 95-year-old father dies.

Some people just plain can’t get past grief. Others cruise through it so effortlessly (it appears) that other people find it suspicious. Others fear death to the extent that it stunts their experience of life.

And, of course, this relationship that we have with death changes every year we grow older, lose more friends, have more pains, spend more time and money at the doctors’ offices.

What is your main character’s relationship with death? How does that influence his/her actions?

Is it different from your relationship with death? How does your relationship with death influence your actions?

These are questions worth answering, as death is an integral part of life.

2 thoughts on “Our Relationship with Death

  1. Im always fascinated by how people talk about death (or not) and what level of fear, curiosity or denial exists. Relationship with death definitely colors how ones lives. Thanks Liz!

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