I didn’t know Gordon Aikman. But the news of his death this morning was terribly sad nonetheless. His beautiful New Year message on Twitter, ‘Oh hi 2017, I didn’t expect to see you’, was a shaft of light and hope in the bleak midwinter.
Gordon’s impact on so many lives will be immeasurable. For his husband Joe, his family and many friends, today will be devastating. The expectation that his death was coming soon will make it no less so. They have lost an immense presence. Now they have to travel the next chapter and those beyond with his loss. He will be in their hearts and minds of course. But Gordon the human being will no longer be physically present in their daily lives.
For so many others beyond them, Gordon’s death will resonate too. They may not have known him personally. But he will have touched them in a myriad of ways. As an MND campaigner, a gay man, a political activist, a journalist. And so much more. For me, the extraordinary power of Gordon’s contribution was that he brought death into our lives.
I don’t mean that in a morbid sense. Quite the reverse. In sharing his life with us these past few years, Gordon taught us about so much about death. He reminded us that its taboo status is absurd and damaging. Its prospect is something each and every one of us shares. Yet for the most part, we don’t have a language to talk about it that isn’t predicated on fear. A fear we need to seek to understand better.
That fear permeates far too many of the personal and professional spaces in which death is discussed. It is disabling in itself no matter what else is happening. I’m not suggesting for a moment that it isn’t real. But one of the many things I will take from living with the imminence of my late partner’s death is that articulating the fear was enabling. Not doing so was crippling, for him then and for others to this day.
And as death hovered lower one thing become abundantly clear to both of us. It wasn’t his dying we feared the most. It was his not living anymore. We managed in small, and with hindsight inadequate, ways to understand that simple truth. Because of that, we were able to plan just a little bit better, practically and emotionally, for the moment when he was no longer here.
And that fear contaminates far too much of the space in which we remember those who have died too. Every morning as I leave the house I look straight into the eyes of my late sister. Her photo sits on a table by the front door. Nine years after she died she leaves an unfillable hole in my life. Twenty-two years after my partner died he leaves another.
I could go on. And so could anyone reading this. But if we could learn to face death more openly the way we deal with those holes might change. We could have different conversations which rather than edgily commenting on the sadness of someone’s passing before swiftly moving on, would celebrate the presence they had, and still have, in our lives.
Today will be filled with sorrow. No amount of openness about death and dying can change that. But when reflecting on Gordon’s immense contribution, I think we should thank him too for bringing death into our lives with such grace and courage. We can all learn from it.