By Dan Higgins
I met Pamela Skjolsvik (it’s pronounced SHOLES-vick) in graduate school eight years ago. She was writing about death. I was writing about a missing boy who was presumed dead. So we had gloomy subject matter in common. I remember her from those days as a quiet woman who may have possibly been in a perpetual bad mood.
That’s not to say she was unpleasant. She was slyly funny. We were part of the same group who joked and decompressed over cocktails and cigarettes (hers — I had finally managed to quit by this time and resisted temptation). But I always got the feeling that something was troubling her. I read it as a constant level of annoyance. Over the years we remained Facebook friends, “liked” pictures of each others’ kids and wished each other Happy Birthday.
When I finally read her book, the slyly funny and moving Death Becomes Us, I learned the truth. She wasn’t annoyed, she was anxious. She was uncomfortable around people, even people she liked. She had social anxiety, to the extent that it affected her interactions with people on a regular basis.
Never was that anxiety greater than when the topic of death came up. She said about that time in her life, “If I learned that your mother died, I would try to avoid you.” Death was something you fled, or at least avoided thinking about and dealing with at all costs.
But once she started working on her MFA in Creative Nonfiction, she began to face her fears, both of death and of the living, too.
In her journey to understand how we feel about death, her book chronicles interviews with funeral workers, hospice volunteers, a bio-hazard cleanup expert who cleans up after suicides, and regular people who are grieving, hard.
We meet Heather and Dan, a married couple whose young son Tommy choked to death on a bite of pizza. The event led Dan to become an EMT, perhaps so he could save other lives when he couldn’t save his son’s.
Later, Pamela befriends Kristian Oliver, who was just weeks away from being executed by the state of Texas. She traveled to Huntsville, and was one of the last people to see him alive. Her brief friendship with Oliver taught her the enduring lesson of the book, that death is something that’s coming for all of us, and when it happens to someone you love, there is no comfort in loss, just the comfort of other people to be present with you in your pain.
There are lighter moments, too, in this humanistic, clear-eyed study of the elephant in the room. There’s the awkward navigation of divorcing her hairdresser. There’s the feral prison cat whose life she reluctantly helped save. There are her often funny and self-deprecating observations about moving awkwardly through the world, about being afraid, and pressing ahead anyway. The way we think about death, or studiously avoid it, says a lot about how we choose to live.