Death and the Traces We Leave Behind

I have not forgotten that I need to write a companion piece to my previous blog post, Is Doctor Who Anti-religious part 1. I hope to have that up in the next few weeks. 

Spoilers for those who have not seen Vincent and the Doctor, The Pandorica Opens, and The Big Bang

Today is All Saint’s Sunday. For those who are not familiar, All Saints Sunday is a day when some churches/denominations gather to remember loved ones who have died. At the church I currently attend, University Christian Church, we had a beautiful service.  There was an orchestra that accompanied the choir and the music was particularly moving. (This is coming from a gal who grew up in a Pentecostal church while growing up and so it took me awhile to get used to mainline hymns and choral music.) But the most touching part of the service was when the congregation was invited to light a candle in memory of their loved ones.  The service centered on remembering our loved ones and holding on to God’s promise that our loved ones are safe.  They are not forgotten or discarded.

As an agnostic, I found comfort in the music and rituals, even though I am not sure that there is an afterlife or that there even is a “God.” I found comfort watching  people light a candle in remembrance of their loved ones. Regardless of whether there is an afterlife or not, I believe that we live on through the lives we touch and in our loved one’s memories that they hold onto and cherish. There was something holy about that moment when people lit a candle and reflected on the lives of their loved ones. But I must confess while watching others walk forward, I also felt a pang of worry, “would I be remembered if I were to die? Would my death matter? Do I matter?” And of course my thoughts about death became intermingled with how it is presented on Doctor Who (if there was any doubt on how much of a nerd I am…)

It’s become kind  of a running joke that when Moffat kills a character in Doctor Who, we can laugh and say, “Oh they aren’t really dead, they will just come back.” Take Rory’s death, I have seen numerous funny memes on facebook, one saying, “once death had a near Rory experience.”

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But jokes aside, what meaning can we find in the Doctor’s words: People fall out of the world sometimes, but they always leave traces. Little things we can’t quite account for. Faces in photographs, luggage, half eaten meals, rings. Nothing is ever forgotten, not completely. And if something can be remembered, it can come back.”

In the Doctor’s case, Amy remembers the Doctor and he literally shows up, decked out and ready to dance at her wedding. But in the *real* world, death-even if one believes in the afterlife, is more final. No jokes about our loved ones coming back as a roman centurion, no amount of wishing and dreaming will cause them to literally appear before us. And yet, I still find truth in what the Doctor is saying. When a loved one dies, it’s not as if they suddenly disappear and are no more, we don’t walk around as if they’ve never existed. They leave traces. Faint markers that urge us to remember that they were here, that they lived and we loved them. When we die, it won’t be as if we dropped out of history and never existed-at least not to those who knew us and loved us. We leave traces of who we were. We leave behind pictures, moments frozen in time. We live behind memories.

As someone who suffers from severe depression, it gets very easy for me to think, “Well who cares? I’m going to die anyway. Why not just end it all now? Why wait until chance, accident, cancer or old age kill me? Why not just leave on my own terms when I want to. It’s not like I’ll be remembered in 20, 30 years anyway.” But I forget about those I would leave behind. If I died, I wouldn’t be erased from history or from the memories of those who loved me (hell, even in the show, Rory still lingered on in Amy’s subconscious, even though he had supposedly been erased from history). I would however, be leaving behind a trail of questions and a future cut short. It’s hard for those who don’t suffer from depression to understand how comforting death can be for those of us who feel as if getting out of a bed is a feat in and of itself.  If talking about death is difficult enough, imagine the stigma that suicide and those who struggle with suicidal thoughts feel?  I guess this is one of the many reason why I love Doctor Who, the show is not afraid to tackle taboo subjects. I, for one thought, the show dealt with depression and suicide in a compassionate and not overly morbid way in the episode Vincent and the Doctor.

I can’t speak for any other person struggling with a mental health issue, but I know that for me, it often feels like I am fighting an invisible monster. So when Vincent struggles with a monster that only he can see, and the dismissive attitude others have towards him, (even in the beginning the Doctor thinks Vincent is just having a fit…) it’s hard for me not to see some parallel between the monster Vincent sees and the depression that chains me down.

VINCENT: It’s so clear you cannot help. And when you leave, and everyone always leaves, I will be left once more with an empty heart and no hope.

DOCTOR: My experience is that there is, you know, surprisingly, always hope.

VINCENT: Then your experience is incomplete. I know how it will end. And it will not end well.

In the episode, the ending isn’t particularly happy. Amy had hoped that by showing Vincent how much he mattered, he would find the strength to continue going forward. That does not happen.

 BLACK [OC]: We have here the last work of Vincent Van Gogh, who committed suicide at only thirty seven. He is now acknowledged to be one of the foremost artists of all time. If you follow me now.

AMY: So you were right. No new paintings. We didn’t make a difference at all.

DOCTOR: I wouldn’t say that. The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. Hey. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant. And we definitely added to his pile of good things. And, if you look carefully, maybe we did indeed make a couple of little changes.

Yet death didn’t have the last word. Vincent still mattered. His interaction in the show, with Amy and the Doctor mattered.

As I watched person after person at the All Saints Sunday service light a candle, I realized that in the real world, death doesn’t have the last word, unless we chose to give it that power. For those who lost someone, remember them, cherish the memories you have, and take care of the little pieces of themselves that they have left behind. For those of us who struggle with suicidal thoughts, one of the beliefs that gets implanted in our minds is the thought that, our lives don’t matter. Or that we will just immediately be forgotten.” Not true. Our deaths would leave a void in the lives of those we love, even when years go by, they would still be haunted by the traces of ourselves we leave behind. Another one of my favorite scenes is from, The Big Bang, when the Doctor’s time stream is unweaving and he talks to a sleeping seven year old Ameilia Pond:

 It’s funny. I thought if you could hear me, I could hang on somehow. Silly me. Silly old Doctor. When you wake up, you’ll have a mum and dad, and you won’t even remember me. Well, you’ll remember me a little. I’ll be a story in your head. But that’s okay. We’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one, eh? Because it was, you know. It was the best. The daft old man who stole a magic box and ran away. Did I ever tell you that I stole it? Well, I borrowed it. I was always going to take it back. Oh, that box. Amy, you’ll dream about that box. It’ll never leave you. Big and little at the same time. Brand new and ancient, and the bluest blue ever. And the times we had, eh? Would have had. Never had. In your dreams, they’ll still be there. The Doctor and Amy Pond, and the days that never came.

What stories do we want to leave behind? What stories have our loved ones left?

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