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Let this sad habit meet a tragic end


May 15, 2014 by Richard Crowest

You are going to die. Apologies if this comes as a bit of a shock, but it’s best to get the facts up front. Some, perhaps many, people will be sad when you go, and for them the world will be a poorer place without you. Depending on what you’ve achieved, your death might be marked by a column or two in the papers. I’m lucky enough to have one or two friends who will probably be granted that honour, but unless quite a lot happens in whatever time is left to me I’m unlikely to join them. Nonetheless, there can be very few deaths whose lives are not mourned to a greater or lesser degree. And yet we still seem to have trouble talking about the death of any individual without apportioning for ourselves some share of that sorrow. So-and-so has “sadly”, or, perhaps if they are particularly young or gifted “tragically” died. Is it that, unless we make explicit our own sorrow, we fear that others will think us heartless? I’ve felt that fear, and used those phrases, myself. It is as if John Donne were sitting on our shoulders, reminding us that “no man is an island” and “every man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” But Donne’s admirable sentiment ignores the many millions of people who’ve died in my lifetime without my knowledge. Attempting to feel sorrow for each and every one of them would be as futile as trying to count the grains of sand on a beach.

As a people, the British have become a lot more open about death than we used to be. But it seems that with that openness has come a degree of mawkishness and a desire to be seen to display the right feelings. That desire was certainly on display in the tweets that marked the death of the teenage cancer sufferer Stephen Sutton. “Sadly Stephen passed away”, said Simon Cowell; David Cameron was “deeply saddened”; Ed Milliband described it as “tragic news”. What’s remarkable is that none of these messages offer condolences to Stephen’s family, the people bearing the greatest loss and sorrow. Rather, their main purpose seems to be to ensure that the senders are seen to have the proper feelings about an event of public interest. The nadir of this tendency was probably Paul Gambaccini’s tweet on belatedly learning of the death of Lou Reed in 2013 – he explained that he had been at private functions without his phone and so “missed sad Lou Reed news & the chance to comment”.

Many of the tweets about Stephen Sutton also, quite rightly, describe him and the way he reacted to his diagnosis as an inspiration. Viewed in another light, Stephen’s story is not tragic but gloriously fulfilling. Had he lived five times as long, it is hard to imagine that he could have touched more lives, or done more to raise awareness and funds for teenage cancer services. This, of course, will be scant comfort for his family and friends, who no doubt would have preferred him to have a long, if unremarkable, life that they could share. I feel for their sorrow and, like Donne, do indeed feel a little diminished by the loss to the world of this remarkable young man. But when we talk of Stephen’s death, or anyone else’s, please let us resist the urge to colour that fact with a worthless, sentimental adjective. Surely, our common humanity is enough to tell us that death is an occasion for sadness. But some deaths can be more. Stephen Sutton showed us how to die, and he showed us how to live before we do, and there is nothing sad or tragic about that.


You can donate to Stephen’s fundraising campaign for the Teenage Cancer Trust via his JustGiving page.


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