By Gbenga Kajopaye

I lost my mum when I was ten, barely four months from being eleven. I can still hear the spine-chilling, visceral scream when my dad found her body just outside the bathroom. It was a rude awakening for my brother and I as we both scampered out of bed, still half asleep. Later that day and days after, my dad, my brother and I sat in the sitting room as sympathizers filed in and out of our house. But I didn’t know how that hour of dawn would change the rest of my life forever. 

I remember how afraid I was to go anywhere near the bathroom and subsequently avoided it altogether. Being so young, I couldn’t even pinpoint what exactly I was afraid of. But it was so hard for me to distinguish between the images of my mum lying cold on the floor from the bathroom itself. I was so afraid that I was willing to go days without bathing even when I had to attend school. Whenever my brother decided to force me to take a bath, I’d rather do that in our backyard, not for once bothering about being seen. I ended up with some large ringworm sketched on the side of my head like a map. Then I became an easy prey for bullies in school and in my neighbourhood. I became deeply insecure about my entire being with such severity that my academic grades took an unparalleled nosedive. And on top of all that, I had to battle that well-festered infection throughout the latter part of my childhood.     

But growing up later, I began to realise that I wasn’t alone in my fear. In fact, I came to understand that I was only a tiny part of a wider spectrum of that fear of death. In the course of many conversations, I found out that people, like me, have an unprecedented distaste for death. I see them shudder whenever they walk past a coffin-maker’s shop or they make the sign of the cross when they come across a grave yard. People often name three digit numbers as their ages before they could allow themselves to die. As mortal beings, we loathe the idea of death, and anytime it strikes within our social sphere, it stings. 

I remember when as a teenager, I listened to a lot of Michael Jackson and imitated some of his dance routines. People, especially those much older than I was, gave me weird looks and unceremoniously asked me, ‘Why do you listen to a dead man’s music?’ as if it had occurred to them that I might end up dead soon enough if I don’t quit listening to a dead man’s music. I didn’t get to see myself as normal until I randomly met people who shared my passion for a dead man’s music. But each time, I was shocked. Most people possess that self-distancing inclination towards the concept of death.

There’s a popular saying that goes, ‘People fear what they do not understand.’ If I were to compile a categorical list of things people fear the most, death would be top on that list. According to studies by Amerispeak and WebMD, it was found that 57% of Americans were grieving the loss of someone or pet they loved. However, the discovery of this study was published way before the COVID 19 pandemic. This should put into perspective why we all fear death, and why death is the common super-villain of all humanity. Some people say villains and/or bullies are misunderstood individuals, but some of these villains get stopped eventually, willingly or otherwise. So the obvious questions are; if death is a super-villain, why can’t it be stopped or why can’t it be understood?

Years later in 2019, I was accosted with the news of one of my friends’ death which was as shocking as a punch in the nose. He wasn’t just a friend; he was my mate in University from my fresher days. We majored in the same course; we were housemates in my third year and roommates in my final year. When the full realization that someone who I shared a room with for a year had died, a new torrent of sadness submerged me completely, that for weeks, I could barely think of anything else. But gradually, without being fully conscious of it, something shifted in me from what seems like sadness to fear. 

I am no trained psychologist, but it seemed like I had too much time to think constantly about death that it started to look like I was the next. He was my roommate, he died, and perhaps I was the next in line. So instead of grieving a terrible loss, I was mad with fear for my own demise. I was haunted.  And as messed up as it might sound, it was this surreal fear that pulled me out of the immersive, turbulent crashing waves of grief and incurable sadness that threatened to halt my life. 

I’m still mad with fear and I still think I’m next in line. It has helped me think about my own death from time to time; sometimes, I’m old, sometimes I’m middle-aged, and sometimes I’m young. But those intervallic, totally weird thoughts have pushed me to not only live my life to the fullest and be unapologetic about life or who I was, but also to be kinder, to be sensitive to the ‘other guy’ and more importantly, to fall in love. This change didn’t just happen overnight, neither was it as easy as it sounds, but the renewed and re-imagined thoughts of my demise helped me put life into perspective in ways uncommon to most human beings. 

Now, against steep odds, I have written three books, I have fallen in love and made love, I have undertaken a professional course, I have quit my less-than-minimum-wage job, I have semi-moved out of my parent’s house, I wrote this essay and managed the courage to make it public. These were the things I didn’t see myself doing years ago for fear of the various underlying risks. But the fear of not doing those things before dying overwhelmed my primary fears and pushed me to a pedestal I never thought was attainable. Of course my life isn’t perfect. In fact, I’m quite aiming for imperfection. The more imperfect life is, the more colourful it becomes. However, the most important thing is that I feel alive and unyoked.      

So I don’t think death is a super-villain that can/will be stopped, neither can it be understood in its entirety, much as life cannot be wholly comprehended. I believe death is something that will happen to everyone at some point, like happiness, learning, love, loneliness, bereavement and so on which happens to people as they live their lives. No one is exempted, no one is spared. People will still grieve whenever they lose someone they love, even till the end of time, I know I will. But what really matters is what we do with our grief and our fears. Would I build my life around my grief or would I let it free me from all anchors weighing me down from life before my death?

I’m not an expert on death or grief or life, but I’m a reformed believer that death is not a tragedy or something that happens to someone unlucky. Just like life and human beings, death can be many things while being a single entity. Death can be the balance for life, a binary opposition or a twin. Death can be a spinning wheel that ensures continuity; ending a cycle and starting another one. Death can be a weapon in the hands of despots and villains, or the ultimate weapon that stops despots and villains. Death can be freedom from this world and a stepping stone to whatever is in or beyond the grave. Death can be the unsung hero of many generations.  

So instead of spending most of our time fearing death, or resenting death or wishing death upon ourselves, we should do what we have always wanted to do, go where we have always wanted to go and say what we have always wanted to say. Before death’s mating call echo out to our lives, read a book, plant a tree, play football, fall in love, fall out of love, send a text, ‘try’ to meet your favourite celebrity and/or role model, get married, get divorced, have a child, remarry, kill your alcoholism, start a business, cook a recipe, book a therapist, start a charity, stop bad habits, compliment people, go to court, murder your abusive tendencies, take risks, workout, make, change or cancel plans, be rude, be polite, quit your job, go on a date, cancel your date, just live and continue to live until death becomes a retirement plan, a long sweet rest. Live until death becomes a crown, a winning prize. After all, with death, life is more worthy. 

Start living, start dying.        

3 thoughts on “Death: The Unsung Hero

  1. Excellent.
    What a detailed survey on the impacts of death. Death is nothing to be feared; live your best before it beckons you. Live every moment with zest for life and leave without regrets when the final call rings.
    All the best for future endeavours.


  2. Pingback: Aesthetic Dreams

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