“When are you going to die?”
“… Not for a very long time.”
“Ages and ages.”
A colleague of mine had this conversation with his 4 year old daughter a few weeks ago, and it’s stuck in my head ever since he retold it at work. Not least the assuredness with which his little one grasped the idea that death was a certain thing, but her fearlessness of it and, almost above all, the honesty of his response. Perhaps it was born of the shock of being asked, apropos of nothing at all, right before bedtime… But acknowledging to your child that you will someday cease to be there for them is tempting to skirt around; to euphemise and lay to rest as expediently as possible.
“It almost has a kind of subtle authority”, points out Luca Rutherford. “People will kind of accept it as a point of conversation, but then very quickly move on to something else.” We are, naturally, speaking quite openly of death, and of her new show Learning How to Die.
When a friend’s seven year old daughter questioned whether Rutherford was “making a show about dying and death”, she was interrupted by another guest at the table who quickly explained “Oh no, no, no – she’s making a show about dandelions.”
Though too taken aback to cause a disagreement at the time, today Rutherford has no qualms about how we should be speaking (to children and each other) about death. “A lot of people say ‘they’ve passed away’ or ‘we’ve lost them’. No we haven’t. They’ve died. They’re now dead. It’s important to say that and be with it.” It is this conversation that she aims to foreground in Learning How to Die; a solo and autobiographical piece that has had its own evolution not just in terms of performance, but within her own life.
Originally triggered by her father’s terminal cancer diagnosis and a longing for an alternative to what she terms as ‘sympathy mode’, Rutherford sought out a different way of dealing with the news; choosing instead to focus on how inspired her father made her feel. Much more, in fact, like being inspired to live her life than being stuck in a state of pre-grieving. “I just got so fed up of being sad about it… those feelings are always going to be there. I needed to do something else with this.”
Developing Learning How to Die became about finding ways to talk about death outside grieving and sadness, away from funerals and the graveyard. Then, during the show’s early stages, Rutherford received the news that one of her close friends had been on the downed Germanwings flight from Barcelona in March of this year.
As we are speaking, I struggle to imagine the enormity of that moment. Many of us have had The Phone Call. The one that comes out of the blue; a parent ringing at three on a weekday afternoon, a rather distant aunt suddenly appearing on caller ID, the voicemail that says “Please call me back as soon as you can” and spikes a fight or flight response to something which you are almost certain cannot be changed by either. I’ll never forget receiving the message telling me that a friend had had a stroke. My body seemed to well up with more than I could possibly feel, than anyone could feel, and the tears spilling out wouldn’t do it and the shaking wouldn’t do it and eventually, somewhere, some neural apex processed it as JUST SIT DOWN and I suddenly found myself on the ground.
And I can’t even imagine how it felt for Rutherford to process this, with news bulletins flying everywhere and a show about death, in all its finality, waiting for her attention. And I don’t ask, for even though we are speaking so plainly about grieving and death and everything attendant, there is still the inescapable knowledge that there are things we cannot touch, because they are too near.
Where she surprises, though perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising, again and again is in her honesty and forthrightness. “I’ve just been on a run now and wept to myself because it doesn’t leave – that pain – I don’t think. There’s not an antidote. And I don’t think there should be, actually.” We speak about the gap left behind by people who die, and the importance, for both ourselves and others, of perhaps not trying to cover it over. Not now, and not in 10, 20… 50 years time. “Celebrate them. And then celebrate them for the rest of your life.”
For Rutherford, this death marked a gear change both in her life and in her work. “She’s dead and I need to make it count for something. I can’t bear it being a waste. […] It’s about how I change my life and who I am; because she’s been in it, and she died in it and I need to be changed in a better way.” She fizzes with this energy, this determination to be more… awake, somehow. Here is someone who wants all of life to feel like a funeral, but “without the pain and suffering”, only that sense that the people around us and the things we do are so, so important.
When we have a great loss, it sears through our entire lives. Loss feels like the right word, sometimes. Not to be euphemistic about death, but to know that there is a losing in it – more of a limb than a wallet – and there will forever be a ghost, an ache, in its absence. The most important person I ever lost was not even related to me; he was a Cornish farmer called David, and he was the best man I have ever known. He and his wife were like grandparents to me when I was a child, and he taught me how to heard cattle, play croquet and that there were such things as grapefruit spoons. He adored Dickens and puzzles. I once beat him at Rummikub when I was 13 and was never sure whether he had let me win. When he died of leukaemia, I was incandescent. I burned with anger for months, but also with life. I was determined to be better, be kinder, be more; because he had been in my life and I needed it to show.
It could be easy for Learning How to Die to become overly personal, biographical, perhaps a little intangible. Or, as Rutherford bluntly puts it, “all about me and my ego.” But this isn’t simply about standing on stage and working through her own relationship with death, or preaching to anyone else about theirs. “I don’t want this to be some kind of cathartic art therapy for myself. It’s actually about trying to connect to other people.” The more I speak to her, the greater sense I get that the show is not a violent shake of the shoulders, not a wake up call, but a gentle hand upon your arm. I’m here too. Maybe we should talk about this more often?
Always aware that she is speaking from a position of privilege – of being above the poverty line and having the luxury of focussing on living, and not just surviving – Rutherford won’t be prescriptive about what she hopes people will get from the piece, or how it may make them feel. “I want to make a space where it’s ok to talk about death. And if that’s what I’ve done for 45 minutes, then that’s what it’s all about.”
Changing the language around death and its place in our lives can be tricky – phrases like ‘passed away’ sometimes feel more designed to be respectful than to skirt the issue. But thinking back on all of the times I have muted my own grief, or more often than not, been made uncomfortable by someone else’s; weeks, months down the line from the death itself, Rutherford’s straightforward parting shots ring true; “I think we should talk about death more. Let’s do it openly and actively. Let’s take death for granted, not life.”
Learning How to Die runs at Ovalhouse, London, from 20th – 23rd May.