Death is a common occurrence: it happens every day, every person will have to deal with the death of someone they know and, at some point, death will happen to every person on earth. In Zulus, Sue Kabnis asks Alice Achitophel to report any patients that have died as she makes her rounds to collect urine and pills. During her daily routine, Alice makes an observation, “She dumped the medicines into the drawer held open by Sue Kabnis, as she did before, and left to go home with a stomach that was upset, tossing bile, because she had been asked to actually witness the dying, to acknowledge, to make it real by reporting it.” (page 203) Alice is forced to face the fact that people die more frequently than she’d like to believe.
I have been fortunate enough to experience very few deaths of those close to me, my great-grandmother being the only family member I have experienced dying. Death doesn’t seem real in the hectic flow of everyday life, yes, we know it is coming, but no one likes to think about it until it’s actually happening. I wasn’t extremely close to my great-grandmother, she lived two hours away and was well into her 90’s while I was growing up. My memories are of her always being at family gatherings, muttering comments at Thanksgiving dinner and slipping us dollars as we kissed her papery skin goodbye. I was in fifth grade when she died, she was three months shy of turning 99. Going to the funeral home for her showing was a first time experience for me; the people, the music, the odors and the flowers were surreal. My two younger siblings and I were still very young, it was confusing how to respond to death, so my aunts sat us down in back few seats to entertain us as my remaining family mourned.
The only word I can use to describe the feeling of seeing a dead body is weird. There’s a stillness to a dead body, the unblinking eyes, silent fingers and breathless chest, make it hard for me to believe that they had once been living. I find that I think of loss more often than I used to as my close relatives grow older or as I see sickness in those around me. When thoughts of possible demise occur, I push them away, mainly because I am uncomfortable at the thought of death.
Handling the passing of those close to us is difficult, so ignoring this everyday reality is understandable. Expecting one person to acknowledge the constant loss of every person in a hospital would not only be exhausting, but incredibly depressing. Alice’s physical response to the duties of her job at the end of each day makes sense, because she had to report it, therefore “making it real.”