Editor’s Letter: What Is Death?

Our latest cover story asks when life really ends. In a postpandemic world, that question has never been more urgent

A veiled woman in black clothes jumps from skull-shaped rocks across water

In 2019, a young doctor named Blair Bigham wrote a story for The Walrus about an aspect of his medical training that left him uncomfortable: establishing the official end of life. “As technologies and medicines have grown in sophistication,” he wrote, “the line between alive and dead has become more difficult to determine for some.” House of Anansi, the publisher that produces The Walrus Books literary imprint, commissioned Bigham to expand his observations into a book. An adapted essay from that new title, Death Interrupted: How Modern Medicine Is Complicating the Way We Die, is our cover story this month.

Over the past few years, we’ve all had to become, if not exactly comfortable with death, more aware of its place in the life cycle. It’s around us, in the nearly 6.5 million lives lost to the COVID-19 pandemic worldwide, more than 43,000 here in Canada. Concurrent societal issues like the opioid crisis and medical assistance in dying, or MAID, have also kept the subject in the news. I’d be lying if I said my own relatively mild cases of COVID-19 didn’t trigger in me a renewed appreciation that good health is conditional on circumstances. Indeed, one of the underacknowledged burdens of the pandemic has been the need to go about our routines—school, grocery runs, time with friends and family—with a sharpened awareness that time is finite. To truly live with COVID-19 is a big flex.

The reality of death has, as Bigham reminds us in “The Death Dilemma,” always hummed in the background. What has changed is that death was once much more familiar; life expectancy was lower, and most people died at home. Today, it is common to die in hospital in old age—and (especially in the time of COVID-19) away from loved ones. Knowing what science can now make possible, we often try to keep people alive at all costs, even when death is inevitable (Bigham cites doctors and nurses futilely trying to resuscitate patients with COVID-19’s “shredded lungs”). “Technology can now prevent death from coming too soon, but it can also delay its timely arrival,” he writes. An awareness of mortality doesn’t make it any easier to let ourselves, and each other, go.

To come to terms with what you cannot control is, of course, another important lesson of the pandemic. The world is being reshaped by factors bigger than what any one of us can grasp—the climate crisis, political and economic forces both immediate and rooted in problems far away. While this issue of The Walrus includes tales of rebellion, ambition, and hope, it also includes a notable number of stories about people just trying to deal with problems they don’t know how to solve.

In “Seeds of Mistrust,” J. R. Patterson, a resident of WestLake-Gladstone, Manitoba, illuminates the strain that divides neighbours and friends, elected officials and their constituents, when almost $500,000 of municipal money goes missing. There appears to be no clear remedy for people’s mistrust of local politics other than to restore the pillars of democracy that have traditionally kept power in check: faith in government, for example, or local media coverage. Kate Beaton’s new graphic memoir, which details her two-year stint in Alberta’s oil sands, is reviewed by Gabrielle Drolet in “Lines in the Oil Sands.” One of Canada’s best-known cartoonists, Beaton tries to square her personal convictions about mining’s toll on the environment with how Cape Bretoners like her end up in the industry in search of a better life.

Living with discomfort isn’t a lesson that comes easily to many of us these days. Resilience, disruption, “lean in”—these are the more likely buzzwords of the digital age. In a time when action is seen as the de facto solution to challenges, having to push through even when we can’t change things can make us feel like we have failed. But as we’re all learning in the face of the pandemic, lessons offered by the business world are not applicable to all realities. What we’ve found does help, here at The Walrus: creating art and sharing it with others. While this issue deals with heavy subjects, we hope reading it helps people feel less alone.

Jessica Johnson
Jessica Johnson (@ejessicajohnson) is a former editor-in-chief of The Walrus.
Graham Roumieu
Graham Roumieu (roumieu.com) is a National Magazine Award winner and a regular contributor to The Walrus. He draws for The Atlantic, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.