A Conversation with Death

“I find the more I look at death, grief and bereavement, the more I look at life and its possibilities…”

“All these examples of poetry give me insight and encouragement to explore more writing that express thoughts, feelings and experiences of life’s joys and sorrows…”

Feedback from previous participants

This workshop uses short prompts from literature to start a conversation about how we can imagine death. Is Death the grim reaper? A border or boundary? A kind of darkness? Sleep? How can it help it us to speak straight at death; to imagine death as a sparring partner; to conjure up an image of death as a human interlocutor? Is there any meaning to be gained from the act of writing to the beyond.

What happens?

Using literary prompts and ideas to guide us, we compose a letter which allows us to think through ambiguities of our own personal views on death and to try out some new ways of imagining.

No prior skill or experience in creative writing is needed; even the least literary of us can find an impetus to put pen to paper!

The resulting pieces of writing are yours to do what you wish with – to keep as a record, to return to again, to edit, to expand, or to start a conversation with someone close to you. Or, if you like, you can share your composition with us to post here for future participants. @what_death

The prompts and poems

(1) drowsy Death,
Like a gorged sea-bird, slept with folded wings

(2) Death is nothing at all.
It does not count.
I have only slipped away into the next room.
Nothing has happened.

(3) I am not violent. I am not malicious. I am a result.

(4) Death sat on a mountaintop. It wasn’t particularly high, or bare, or sinister.

(5) How would you feel about life if Death was your older sister?

(6) Death is the dog-headed man zebra striped and surrounded by silence who walks like a lion

(7) Death, where is thy sting? […] it is here in my heart and mind and memories.

(8) Anne Finch, ‘To Death’ (c.1712)

O King of terrors, whose unbounded sway
All that have life must certainly obey;
The King, the Priest, the Prophet, all are thine,
Nor would ev’n God (in flesh) thy stroke decline.
My name is on thy roll, and sure I must
Increase thy gloomy kingdom in the dust.
My soul at this no apprehension feels,
But trembles at thy swords, thy racks, thy wheels;
Thy scorching fevers, which distract the sense,
And snatch us raving, unprepared, from hence;
At thy contagious darts, that wound the heads
Of weeping friends, who wait at dying beds.
Spare these, and let thy time be when it will;
My bus’ness is to die, and thine to kill.
Gently thy fatal scepter on me lay,
And take to thy cold arms, insensibly, thy prey.

(9) ‘Death’, Rainer Maria Rilke (1918, transl.)

Before us great Death stands
Our fate held close within his quiet hands.
When with proud joy we lift Life’s red wine up
To drink deep of the mystic shining cup
And ecstasy through all our being leaps—
Death bows his head and weeps.

(10) An extract from ‘Nothing but Death’, Pablo Neruda

There are cemeteries that are lonely,
graves full of bones that do not make a sound,
the heart moving through a tunnel,
in it darkness, darkness, darkness,
like a shipwreck we die going into ourselves,
as though we were drowning inside our hearts,
as though we lived falling out of the skin into the soul.

Death arrives among all that sound
like a shoe with no foot in it, like a suit with no man in it,
comes and knocks, using a ring with no stone in it, with no finger in it,
comes and shouts with no mouth, with no tongue, with no throat.
Nevertheless its steps can be heard
and its clothing makes a hushed sound, like a tree.

I’m not sure, I understand only a little, I can hardly see,
but it seems to me that its singing has the color of damp violets,
of violets that are at home in the earth,
because the face of death is green,
and the look death gives is green,
with the penetrating dampness of a violet leaf
and the somber color of embittered winter.

Death is inside the folding cots:
it spends its life sleeping on the slow mattresses,
in the black blankets, and suddenly breathes out:
it blows out a mournful sound that swells the sheets,
and the beds go sailing toward a port
where death is waiting, dressed like an admiral.


These are the books and poems that the quotes came from:

Laura recommends: Mary Sidney Herbert, From ‘The Dolefull Lay Of Clorinda’
Emma recommends: Paradise News, a novel by David Lodge concerning family reconciliation at end of life, in which several of the characters grapple with their sense of how to imagine death and dying.

What next?

This activity is loosely inspired by the ‘empty chair exercise’ used in some forms of psychotherapy. If you’re interested in reading more: https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/therapy/what-is-the-empty-chair-technique-and-why-do-therapists-use-it

Why not try writing another letter to a different death; imagining what death would say in a return letter; or writing to another recipient such as your younger self, family members, your illness, etc.