Death on the Page

Written by Cassidy Bull
Art by Steve A Johnson

I write about what it’s like to exist every day. That’s the purpose of an author. To explore the human condition, picking it apart until every ounce of our experience has been put into words on a page. 

I write about divorce. Mine wasn’t messy, just a relief. I write about growing up on a farm. Ill-prepped for city life. I write about writing. It’s easier to write about the struggle of writing than to actually overcome the struggle and write. 

I write about existence. It comforts people to see themselves in others’ words. The words themselves are rarely comforting, but to see our experience spelled out is the ultimate consolation—a validation of our experiences, no matter how disturbing those experiences may be. 

But what about what it’s like to not exist? To write about death is to truly wade into the unknown. 

When my mother died, all I craved were words that captured my feelings. I just wanted to be less alone. To know that someone somewhere had gone through the same thing and come out the other side.

It was impossible to find something that emulated the gaping cavity in my chest. The way my lungs felt pierced and drained of air. The way my heart had been carved out. The way my ribs seemed to crack under my own emotional pressure. 

Everything I read was disappointing. Some books came close, scraping the surface of my grief, but never diving fully into the state of my psyche. I wanted every nook and cranny of my lamenting spirit displayed and available to the world. Available to me. I wanted to see myself imagined by someone else. I wanted assurance that my anguish was appropriate. 

 When I couldn’t find anything to comfort me, I decided to write the words myself. But they wouldn’t come. For weeks, the blank page stared back into me as I stared into it. Whenever I thought some semblance of an idea was taking shape in my mind—the inability to fall asleep at night, the tongue like lead in the mouth when a friend asks how you’re doing, the paralysis in the kitchen after realizing Christmas dinner would never be the same again—my fingers would try to form it into language as a potter would with clay. But my hands could not mold the vision. 

I remember slamming my laptop closed and letting the sobs shake me until I passed out on my desk from exhaustion. 

Why was this up to me? Why has no one bottled this emptiness and turned it into familiar vocabulary? But if I could not type out my grief, I couldn’t expect others to type out theirs. Perhaps we are doomed to suffer alone. 

Since I was incapable of writing about grief, I figured I would write about death. But what is it like to die? Only the dead know.

I have seen death written as dark and nothing. The darkness closes in. And then there is nothing. But we do not know if it gets dark. And we do not know if there is nothing. 

I wonder what my mother saw as she died. Was there a light? Or did the light go out? Dylan Thomas urges us to rage against the dying of the light. Do not go gently. But what if life was not gentle? Life pummeled my mother. Widowed her on my first birthday, destroyed her home with a hurricane, and demanded a grueling battle with incurable cancer. Life is uniquely brutal to everyone. Perhaps our own personalized suffering is the only thing we all truly have in common. 

What if death is gentle? The grim reaper might hold out a bony hand and guide us slowly through the threshold toward our inevitable nonexistence. I imagine death was relieving to my mom. Like a breath of fresh air. I witnessed her last literal breath. A small sigh, as if shedding the burdens the world forced her to endure. 

I find peace in eternal nothingness. Like sleeping, but without the nightmares. 

How do I write about nothing? How do I describe the absence of everything? 

If the aftermath of death is not nothing, the writing process grows exponentially more complicated. I do not know how to imagine the afterlife, let alone describe it. Did my mother’s soul find my father’s? Are they holding hands and floating through space, exploring the cosmos? 

If a god exists and has blessed them with an eternal utopia, perhaps they finally got to take that road trip across the country my mother told me they always wanted to. She spoke with such longing in her voice for what could never be. I hope it can be now. 

If there is a god, what’s the point of living? What’s the point of all this suffering? Life requires torment. Demands pain. Why does existence not just begin in the afterwards? 

I can’t write about grief. I can’t write about dying. I can’t write about death. I am incapable, unqualified, and unimaginative. 

The words I long to write remain unwritten. My hands hover over the keyboard, twitching with frustrated energy that has nowhere to go because twenty-six characters and a handful of punctuation is nowhere near enough.

Maybe there are no words. Maybe that’s why they don’t exist yet. And why I cannot create them. The lack of words describes the hollowness, and any attempt to fill the page with lettered description would present a lackluster account of death and dying. Perhaps the blank page is more indicative of grief than any attempts at words could ever be.