Five months ago, less than a week after her 24th birthday, my fiancée, Shanna, collapsed. No one knew it at the time, but a blood clot had broken loose from her leg and made its way into her lung. Once it was there, it did a number of things: It put pressure on her heart, dropping her blood pressure. It made it almost impossible for her to breathe. And, despite the best efforts of nurses and paramedics and ambulance drivers and ER doctors and a thousand desperate wishes since, by the time an hour had passed, it had killed her.
I was there for most of it. There, as she lay on the floor, scared but fighting, while I held her hand and mopped her brow and told her to breathe for me. There when the paramedics fought to keep her conscious and alert. There, with her family, when the emergency room doctors were finally forced to concede that no amount of CPR would make her heart beat again. There when they declared her dead, my partner, my love, my best friend.
I won’t try to describe how much it hurt, or how much I miss her, or how much beauty and art and love the world has lost. If you’ve never experienced the sudden death of a person who was a cornerstone of your life, it’s not something you can really imagine—and why would you want to? And if you have, then you already know.
So I’ll just say that I spent the summer of this year in near-constant agony, desperate for any distraction from the thoughts and memories—some wonderful, some awful, all painful—constantly flowing through my head. Netflix was my constant companion—I would stream Futurama or Bob’s Burgers all day and well into the night, watching numbly until I was finally tired enough to cry myself to sleep. The worst moments of the day were in the shower, or when the house’s spotty Internet cut out, and I was left alone with my thoughts.
I began to notice that my reactions to pop culture had changed, in some ways drastically. I picked up a nasty aversion (which has lessened over time) to ambulances or heavy breathing, both of which could send me into memory-tinged panic attacks. Podcasters making jokes about strokes or embolisms would force my hands into fists. But more than that, I became horribly conscious of death in the media I consumed, and how often it was employed as a plot device for cheap effect.
I really wanted to like Guardians Of The Galaxy. By the time I went, alone, to the theater to see it, my grief had subsided to the point that I was essentially functional, and I was looking forward to what everyone was saying was the most fun movie of the year. But within minutes of the start of the film, I found myself angrily weeping, thanks to an opening scene that desperately tried to inject pathos into a movie that didn’t need or warrant it.
It’s not really Guardians’ fault—dead and dying parents have been a motivating trope since people first started writing down stories. But the movie’s opening, with young Peter Quill failing to say goodbye to his dying mother, is still blatant, gross manipulation of its audience, and, sitting in that theater with tears streaming down my face, I found myself getting pissed off. Having death shoved in my face in the first minutes of what was supposed to be a vacation from the shitty reality of my life tainted the entire movie-going experience, and suddenly, I couldn’t help but see every subsequent moment of the film—the weirdly bloodless combat, the plot-mandated sudden sad revelations that occurred like clockwork every 15 minutes, the perfunctory killing off of the supporting cast—as bald manipulation by people who didn’t understand what sorrow really was, or that death wasn’t just a plot device but a real thing, hideous and ever-present. The movie has a body count in the hundreds, but none of those deaths mattered, because no one involved with the thing had any respect for death as anything but a beat in the plot.
I’ve become a death elitist in the last few months. I watch actors, analyze scripts, judge the editing and the pacing of death scenes, try to gauge whether anyone involved has a real understanding of grief. The PG-13 rating, which divorces death and violence from blood and consequences, has become my nemesis. It’s not that everything needs to be drab or morose—by all means, Sterling Archer can and should go on as many rampages as he likes—but when a show or movie asks me to feel a death, it had better take it seriously. Nicholas Meyer killing Spock at the end of Wrath Of Khan works, because the characters, and the movie itself, treat it as real. Contrast that with the cowardly handling of Kirk’s “death” in Star Trek Into Darkness, with J.J. Abrams and crew milking the moment for fake emotion while desperately foreshadowing that everything’s going to be okay. For Abrams and his writers, death is little more than a screenwriter’s tool to evoke emotion, and that cavalier attitude toward one of the universal human experiences makes everything about his film feel hollow.
Worse, it trivializes the most terrible aspect of death: Its permanence. I will never see Shanna again. Never hold her hand, kiss her, talk to her. We’ll never sit next to each other, laughing and fighting our way through Spelunky, stealing kisses between levels. I will spend the rest of my life without her, and there is no hope of reprieve. And so, when I watch or read about a character being reunited with their lost love thanks to a fortuitous twist of plot, it fills my stomach with acid.
The point of the Orpheus myth is that Orpheus fails. He does everything he can, moves heaven and Earth, and in the end Eurydice stays dead. So when a man in fiction (and it is almost always a man, because there’s nothing as good for motivating a male character like killing off the woman he loves) earns his beloved’s resurrection through hard work or good deeds, it’s a slap in the face to all of us in the real world who would give anything and everything to have the people we need back. The worst offender I’ve encountered in recent years is the conclusion to Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy, which ends with protagonist Quentin Coldwater being reunited with his dead love, Alice, as, essentially, a reward for growing out of his adolescent neuroses. It’s a nasty betrayal for a series that has, until then, ably explored magical worlds without engaging in magical thinking. (It’s made even worse by Alice’s resurrection used as a metaphor for coaxing a loved one out of depression or mental illness, which is an ugly, nasty idea in its own right).
I’m not immune to the lure of escapism. Scott Pilgrim’s resurrection-by-1-up will always be one of my favorite comic gags. But when stories ask me to feel and care about a character’s death, and then reverse it by magic, the authors have gone beyond wish fulfillment. They’ve shown that they have no understanding of the truth of what they’re writing about. And without that truth, their art can never be anything more than a shallow reflection of life.
Some of this anger will fade with time, I know. Years from now, when the pain is just a dull ache, I’ll be able to read comic books and watch movies treat death like an open window or a revolving door with no ill will. But for now, I can only see it as a solid barrier, stopping me from having the one thing I need most in the world, and that terrible power must be treated with respect. I love you, Shanna, and I miss you.