Death Becomes Us
On the universal experience
Liz Levine is an expert in death. The writer, director, and producer — best known for her work on Kyra Sedgwick’s Story of a Girl and Douglas Coupland’s JPod — lost both her maternal grandparents, a sister (to stillbirth), and several friends before she even finished high school. The loss has only continued into adulthood: “I’ve been to more funerals than I am years old. And given more eulogies than most people will in a lifetime.”
Nobody Ever Talks about Anything but the End is primarily about two of those deaths: Levine’s sister Tamara, to suicide, and her first love turned best friend Judson, to Burkitt’s leukemia. With a fragmented structure and chronology, not unlike memories of loved ones lost, the book explores Levine’s relationships with Tamara, with Judson, and with her own feelings. From “Teflon” avoidance to acceptance and vulnerability, her internal conflict propels the narrative and, ultimately, a personal transformation.
Levine’s relationship with Judson is a smooth one. They grow up just blocks apart in the 1980s; their dads are lawyers at the same Toronto firm. Levine describes her teenage late-night goodbyes with her boyfriend as “snow-jacket hugs and runny-nose kisses.” The young couple break up at fifteen and Judson later comes out as gay, but their love remains undiminished, only changed. When he is diagnosed with cancer at twenty-seven and dies the following year, Levine is heartbroken; she misses him and medicates with cocaine.
The relationship with Tamara is more complicated. From an early age, Levine is suspicious of her younger sister. At seven, Tamara attempts to sabotage their parents’ amicable divorce by exaggerating stories of their respective dating lives. At ten, Tamara tells her principal that their father has been sexually abusing Liz, “to see what would happen.” As the years go by and the lies and delusions worsen, Levine’s pleas for intervention go largely dismissed, especially by her mother, a psychologist. A united family front isn’t established until after Tamara’s psychotic break, at thirty-four, and subsequent diagnosis of psychosis with paranoid delusions.
Levine copes with humour, boundaries, and distance, but Tamara’s illness takes its toll, seen most clearly in Levine’s reflections after her sister’s death. “I don’t really miss her,” she writes, with characteristic frankness. “She has not been a part of my daily life for decades. While I note her absence at family affairs, it is more with a sigh of relief than a twinge of loss — because these moments are easier without her.”
It’s now something of a Brené Brown truism that vulnerability is the source of wholeheartedness and joy. But for Levine, it is a revelation borne out by personal experience. Months after Tamara’s death, on a drive from Toronto to Vancouver, she experiences an intense catharsis, for both Judson and her sister. “I only wish I’d known about feeling from the start,” she says. “I wish someone had told me that vulnerability is like a superpower.”
With How to Die, Ray Robertson takes an altogether different tack on the subject that seems all around us today. The author of a dozen books — including Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live, something of a prequel to this new work — concedes he’s not really an expert in the subject of death. “What do you know about death?” a friend asked while Robertson was writing the book. “As much as anybody who hasn’t died yet, I guess.”
While Levine grapples with the loss of others, Robertson invites us primarily to contemplate our own mortality as a route to a better life: “If we gain a better understanding of what death is, we’ll also know more of what life consists.” Throughout the slim volume, he peregrinates over a great many ideas: a cemetery as “ego corrective,” the metaphysics of monsters, even a spirited, Malthusian argument in favour of life-threatening diseases like cancer (I wonder what he thinks of the coronavirus). He peppers his meditations with anecdotes and choice quotations, from Cicero to Montaigne to Sontag.
On the relative merits of cremation versus burial, Robertson argues that “nothing and no one is remembered for very long” and that “the bigger the tomb, the larger the delusion.” He writes, “Ashes in the sea or bones at the bottom of a hole, we’re all poor Yoricks.” He’s right, of course: unless one believes in the afterlife, reincarnation, or some other persistence of the soul, dead is dead. “Silence. End scene.”
Except it isn’t, exactly — at least not as Levine helps frame things. What remains after the body is either burned or decomposing is the scars, mysteries, unreconciled griefs, and traumas that stay with the living and can travel down through generations. The person may be gone, but in grappling with their legacy, it only means we have less to work with.