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When death turns beige: Stories are the remedies for despair

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Karin Schimke is a writer and editor. She is a winner of the prestigious Ingrid Jonker Prize.

We must reclaim our individual sorrow in a world blunted by an overwhelming number of deaths.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

How do we die? How do we generally die? Covid-19 seems to have killed death’s variety. A bird that once had a feather of every possible colour and shade has faded to beige.

With the first death-from-Covid you hear about, your shock is bright and sharp; by the fifth, your panic is orange and hot. By the 10th, you type, “I’m so sorry to hear about your loss”, and you despair at the repetition and uselessness of those words.

After the 10th, when you are typing through tears because a friend you love has lost the gift of a partner her life took too long to deliver, and the spellchecker won’t assimilate “condolences” from the c’s and n’s and d’s and o’s and l’s you’ve offered it, you want to hurl your phone far, out of reach, beyond the perimeter where you want the unbearable to go back to residing.

At some point, the information that “they died”, whoever “they” are, becomes a vague, colourless “Oh”.

Sometimes you forget who died, or who lost someone. Or whether it was this year or last; this wave, or the last one.

One day you might see a body on the road with a silver space blanket covering it, a buckled motorcycle nearby, and you’ll remember that there are other ways to die.

You keep some of the deaths close to float one or two of the names of thousands so that they don’t sink away into pandemic obscurity. You’re hoping you can help a person you care about keep the death they’ve had to endure particular. Theirs. With its own variety, its own unique pains and difficulties. With its own absurdities, unexpected moments of levity. Its own sinkholes, administrative nightmares, banal conversations. Its singular griefs. Its specific losses.

You do this because some part of you wants death to cease to be so general. You want to restore it to its proper proportion in life. An event. A rip in the fabric of someone’s life.

“I would get out of the car at every shopping centre,” writes Dela Gwala in an essay in Our Ghosts Were Once People, “and want to ask the stranger walking by with their trolley: ‘Why are you still shopping? Someone I love has died’.”

Sometimes what is shocking is not that a person has died, but that the world carries on as though they didn’t.

Death in life

In South Africa, of every 100,000 babies born, 536 of the mothers who serve as their portals into life die.

Women die in the act of producing life, but not only then. They often get stabbed or shot or thrashed to death. If they survive giving birth, dating, marriage and random killings while going about their own business, women often live longer than men. We don’t know enough about how men die.

How do we die?

People kill themselves. Around 23 in South Africa every day. Those are the ones who succeed. Many more try and fail to die that way. Their deaths had a name for a short time, and then their deaths became unknowable again.

People kill each other. South Africans are notorious killers-of-others. Of every 100,000 of us alive right now, 36 are probably going to get murdered.

We die of unnatural causes – violence, accidents and injuries – and natural causes, such as heart attacks, or flu, or diabetes. Malaria claims many. Tuberculosis claims many more. HIV. Cancers.

We drink ourselves to death.

Often we can protect ourselves from risk – condoms, vaccines, seatbelts – but we don’t.

There are so many ways to die, you think, but then you read in a science magazine that, if you put aside the mechanism of death, there are really only four things that cause “total and irreversible loss of brain stem function: oxygen starvation, high temperature, chemical toxin and physical damage”.

How many of us die?

Before 2019, about 1,500 of us died every day. That’s an average over a year.

Some months have higher death rates than others. The beginning, middle and the end of the calendar year are busier for death than other months. Autumn and spring are safer than winter and much safer than summer.

In 2021, we measure death differently. We use what we established in the past as a baseline of expected deaths within a certain period of time for which we have statistics, and then we compare it with deaths in the present.

For instance, according to one colourful graph, we can generally expect the first week of January to deliver 10,099 of our dear fellow South Africans to death. Last year’s January did more or less as it was expected to, with 10,451 South Africans dying – only about 3% more than had been anticipated by history.

In the first week of January in 2021 though, 23,477 South Africans lost brain stem function: 132% more than history says indicated was likely for that week of the year.

We call these “excess deaths” and infer that these extra ones belong under the heading “Covid-19”. We are not sure. But we’re going with that for now. The number could be much greater because recording death and keeping records is not an uncomplicated thing. Nor is it apolitical.

Consider the graphs long enough and your eyes glaze over. The numbers either start doing your head in, or you stop doing the numbers.

Death turns beige.

What do we need?

Our Ghosts Were Once People is, in title and in content, a most necessary antidote. It rejects the pandemic as the undifferentiated tinnitus it has become in all our ears. This collection of essays is an act of creation that summons life more vividly than you can imagine the topic of death ever could.

It’s like a song begun by one and picked up by many – a grief-hymn, a choral lament billowing into the dying-by-carbon air of our dying-by-humans planet.

It provides release. It reclaims death for our individual sorrow.

“The promise literature holds out to us is that we’re never alone,” says Bongani Kona, the editor, in the book’s introduction. “Reading,” he says, partially quoting from a Raymond Carver short story he briefly retells, “is a small, good thing in a time like this.”

And truly: it is.

A book that starts a conversation with the word “death” doesn’t seem likely to be headed anywhere but into a pit and, though there are many moments you’ll feel yourself swallowing hard against sadness, every essay feels like a light shining on a real person with a real and specific loss. In its pages, you become a witness, soothing your own bewilderment at how featureless death feels like it has become.

You are reminded that death is sometimes very quick, and sometimes slow, and sometimes so slow you cannot peg its beginning and cannot see its end – “the vast planetary die-off that is mostly happening outside language”, as Hedley Twidle puts it in his essay, The Great Dying.

You’re reminded that death is mostly uncanny for those us who don’t know it all that well – those of us who are unlike the writers Khadija Patel, Sudirman Adi Makmur and Madeleine Fullard, for instance, who offer us keyholes into what it is like to be familiar with the practicalities of death – but that even familiarity doesn’t make death less strange, or easier to apprehend.

You are reminded that literature – and art and music – are the remedies for despair.

You read Our Ghosts Were Once People, in which every story about death is a story about life, and you feel colour returning to the bird. DM168

Our Ghosts Were Once People, edited by Bongani Kona and published by Jonathan Ball, is available now at bookshops around South Africa. Karin Schimke has an essay in the book.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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