Death from the other side of the bed

Ian Rankin.

I don’t really blame people for shunning the dying. I try to do it myself, not physically but mentally by painting other pictures in my head.

My mother has perhaps less than a week to live. If what she’s doing now is living. Not living, just there. At least I can go to work. Dad can’t. He’s showing signs of going crazy inside his worn-out head.

And so it ends. After years of trying, and years of slogging, and years of self-neglect. What does it all add up to when you die? What do all the years of sweat and tears count?

So Dad, Linda and I sat up late on Sunday, expecting what we hoped would not come, but would come soon. And mum hardly knew us, spitting out her medicine.

It was 2.15 am Monday 25th June, Linda woke me up to break the news.

I didn’t cry, not yet. The arrangements almost fill your mind. The flowers of my mum have withered. Petals and raindrops. Last glance at her, then goodbye.

(Diary entries for June 18-24, 1979)

Looking back 38 years on:

Actually it was more than a glance, because my dad had this thing, he said you have to touch your mum’s forehead. You know she was lying in the bed in the living room. He said if you do that, you’ll never fear death. And so I did that, you know I’d never seen a dead person before, I’d never touched a dead person before.

The whole thing was gut-wrenching. Absolutely gut-wrenching. I remember my dad afterwards taking me to the tailors, to get a suit for the funeral. So there’s all this stuff going on. And it’s only when I sit down with a diary, on my own, that I can start to process it.

Because otherwise, what you’re doing is meeting the insurance people, and meeting this, and doing that, and you know, stuff’s happening. And people are coming to the door, and to offer their condolences and all the rest of it. And then I process it, as I’ve always done in my life, by writing it down.

From My Teenage Diary  BBC 5 Oct 2017.


Ian Rankin is best known for his novels portraying hard-drinking, anti-establishment detective Rebus, who lives in a tenement in the student-filled Marchmont area just outside the centre of town. Murders abound in the Edinburgh underworld. But this is an account of a very real death, his mother’s, while he was a first-year Edinburgh undergraduate across the Firth of Forth from home in Cowdenbeath.

The first part is contemporary writing from his diary, June 18-24 1979. Then his reflection 38 years later. The family bonds between the mourners feel precious. Re-reading it moves him still. Me too.

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Contributed by

Neil Turner

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