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.

My New Pal

By Cynthia Ray

Recently, my friend and long-time love was hospitalized with a serious illness. Saying that he had a “brush with death” doesn’t come close to the visceral and gut-kicking experience. This is what it was like: Death grabbed me by the shoulder, spun me around and slapped me, leaving a throbbing bruise on my cheek, then pulled my face close to his and said, “You think you can ignore me? You think you can live your life as if I didn’t exist? I’m tired of being the invisible guest in everyone’s life. Wake up, sister! I’m your salvation.”

That got my attention. I sat next to my love, held his warm, living hand, and looked into his  eyes. Everything that was not important melted away; and most things seemed trivial and insignificant in that moment. The love we have always had for each other lit up the room.

Later, I wondered why we can’t connect like that all the time, not just with each other, but with family and friends, with strangers, with the grocery clerk at Fred Meyers.  When all we have is each other, why do we separate ourselves?

The experience forced me to reconsider everything in my life. What doesn’t matter anymore? What makes me feel connected and whole? What puts me to sleep? It is easy to become complacent and distracted; busy making grocery lists, doing laundry and balancing checkbooks while life goes on around us unnoticed and unfelt.  The sense of urgency and immediacy that I felt sitting on that hospital bed can fade away if I let it.

I don’t want to fall back into sleepy forgetfulness. After experiencing true, deep connection, nothing else will satisfy. Death is my new pal. He hangs around with me all the time; he says he doesn’t have that many friends, and it’s refreshing to have someone invite him in on a regular basis. The more I hang out with him, the more alive I feel.

This is more a blog about living than writing. However, there is a connection between writing and staying awake for me and I intend to continue to dig deeper into that in the coming months.


When Real Life Interferes

By Elizabeth Engstrom

Writing fiction takes up an enormous amount of cranial space. It requires quiet, solitude (or your version of those things), and quite a bit of time just staring into space. Or mindlessly playing solitaire. Whatever, you need your version of quiet time to let your mind freewheel.

Carving out that time to write in a dedicated, ongoing, consistent manner is more difficult than any non-writer can imagine. There is always the phone, the ding of email, the person coming into the office saying, “I’m not disturbing you, I’m only…” All of which are distractions so off-putting it’s truly a wonder we get any pages written at all. And when we do, we have a right to be satisfied, even if they suck.

But then there is the other interference, and that consists of life events that vaporize our concentration.

A good friend confided in me not long ago that he was “blocked” for the first time ever in his writing, and what few sentences he wrote were hard fought and turned out to be crap. He was truly mystified. With a little discussion, it turned out that he had not one, not two, but three major events happening in other areas of his life that were of maximum stress.

You know that list of stressors? Here they are:

  • Death of a family member
  • Terminal illness (one’s own or a family member)
  • Physical incapacitation, chronic pain, or chronic illness
  • Drug or alcohol abuse (self, family member, partner)
  • Divorce
  • Marriage
  • Loss of job or job change
  • Moving house
  • Primary relationship problems
  • Severe financial problems

There are more, of course, but these are the big dogs. Most, if not all of these happen to all of us at one time or another, because that is the stuff of life. That is the human experience. We should welcome these events, even when they stress us out, because that’s how we learn about ourselves—how we react in stressful situations. Need I mention that it is all grist for the mill? We need new experiences to feed our fiction machine.

However, when we work so hard to carve out the time to write (and we can’t give that up, no matter what), and one or more of these situations takes up all of our cranial space to the point where we’re either “blocked” or all we come up with is hard-fought crap, then it is time to reevaluate our priorities.

Sometimes we just need to sit down and deal with what is in front of us. Sometimes writing is not and should not be the number one priority. We have bigger issues to deal with. As writers, though, our fiction-writing minds are busy focusing on future scenarios and how what it is that we’re bothered by is likely to turn out. It almost never turns out the way we imagine, but we can’t help ourselves. Plotting is what we do.

We’d rather feel guilty about not writing.

We’d rather deny the stress, as if confessing to it makes us less of a person, less of a writer, when in fact it not only makes us more of a person, it makes us more of a writer.

And then there’s comparing ourselves with others. We all know that so-and-so pumped out four books last year despite a divorce, the death of a child, and moving to Europe. Well, maybe, and maybe not. Nothing is exactly as it appears. Besides, that person’s career is not your career and not your life. Certainly not a life you would trade yours for, not really.

So if you find yourself “blocked” (I put that word in quotation marks because I don’t believe in writer’s block—but that’s a blog post for another day), or all you can write is hard-won crap, take a look at your life and see if you have one or two or three of these major stressors. If you do, use your solitude and writing time to puzzle out not the plot of your new book, but the way to peace and serenity with the situation that life has handed to you.

The job of a writer is to articulate the human condition. To do that, you must experience it.

Embrace it, live it, journal about it, and when it passes, as it always does, you will write about it, and your life and your work will be all the richer.