Don’t Fear the Reaper: How Death in The Sandman Allowed Me to Overcome My Fear Of Dying, by J. D. Harlock
“For some folks, death is release, and for others, death is an abomination, a terrible thing. But in the end, I’m there for all of them.” —Death, The Sandman
It’s difficult to say when I realized I was no longer afraid of dying—when that looming specter that haunted the recesses of my mind seemed to have retreated back into the stygian abyss from whence it came. As if I were charmed by an ethereal force, I came to accept the transient nature of our time on Earth, and the prospect of it coming to an end seems no more or less concerning to me—as life carries on for as long as it is meant to.
Not that this transformation happened so naturally, or even painlessly, but the unyielding grip that had suffocated me ever since I became aware of my own mortality was unclenched, and I was finally relieved—liberated even—for the first time in years.
That’s because as far back as I can remember, I feared death. The mere thought of it could induce a panic, and I would waste hours of my life in its cold clutches, shaken enough that something had to happen to snatch me out of its hold.
I remember one time as a child in Amman, I realized, after I had finally decided on being writer, that I only had a few years left before I would be the same age as the authors I idolized were when they had tragically passed away. The prospect of meeting an end at so young an age was no doubt daunting, but it was the imminence of it that stifled me, so much so that, caught in a strange stranglehold, I couldn’t leave my bed for days, until I was finally forced out of the house by my parents, who worried I wouldn’t have ever left otherwise. And this was no isolated incident, with this occurring often enough that I withdrew from social life for much of my adolescence and my parents felt the need to consult mental health professionals about it.
However, even though this fear dominated my early life, what I remember the most is that moment when it dawned on me that my parents would die one day, and there was nothing I, or anyone else, could do about it. I was sitting in my maid’s bedroom and, being close, I would ask her the questions I was too embarrassed or afraid to ask other adults. Someone I had never met had died, and my parents were attending their funeral, so I asked what that was and why it would be held, being so young that the concept felt distant, unreal almost, as if it wasn’t a reality of the life I lived. Without thinking, she mentioned that everyone dies eventually, and, in a moment of panic, I asked if that included my parents, to which she responded with honesty, even going so far to tell me that this included me, which had not—and I’m certain, would not—have dawned on me otherwise.
As I sat there, shaking and fumbling with my silly, little words, I broke down sobbing, crying out for comfort. Though in hindsight, it should have been, life would never be the same after that, and I’ve come to regret it.
But what I always found interesting was that I don’t remember much else after I was told the truth other than that strange stranglehold that suffocated the life out of what I was told was an immortal soul. Even trying to tell me later on that Heaven and Hell existed couldn’t console me. I had refused to fall prey to any of the religions around me as soon as I was informed of them and couldn’t force myself to believe in something so fantastical in the face of the crushing reality that is our mortality. For years afterward, I would fixate on the notion that one day I would die and had to find a way to stop it—any way I could….
Of course, there wasn’t much a child could do, but there never seemed to be anyone around who I was able to share these feelings with.
And there never would be.
What I experienced was nothing unusual. Humankind has feared dying for as long as humans have been around, so it should come as no surprise then that, when personifying it, the result was often horrifying. To this day, I’m still haunted by the indecipherable stare of the shinigami (a Japanese word meaning “death god”) Ryuk from Death Note, which gave no indication of what inhuman machinations were being concocted within its cold, calculating mind that set people at each other’s throats for no reason other than boredom. Nor will I ever forget the quiet woman in an old blue dress from One Hundred Years of Solitude, who, as an act of mercy, instructs the aged spinster Amaranta Buendía to sew her own death shroud with the promise that once it’s been completed, she will finally die in peace at the end of that day.
However, over time, writers and artists have personified Death in a way that makes these characters come off not as cold and commanding, but as friendly and compassionate, exemplifying the kind of person you’d want to have by your side in that predicament.
Even though these reapers are no less powerful or scary than prior incarnations, these nuanced portrayals allowed me to confront the prospect of dying in a way that no one around me could compel me to. No take on this trend has resonated with me more than Neil Gaiman’s Death in his comic book series The Sandman.
From its January 1989 cover date to March 1996, Gaiman’s seventy-five issues of this comic series (with a one-shot special in November 1991) followed the last days of the Morpheus, also known as Dream of the Endless, as he came to terms with his past and his place in the universe after a prolonged imprisonment. Since the comic chronicled the dealings of gods, monsters, myths, and cosmic powers, The Sandman was capable of telling stories in any style or setting throughout time and space, and Gaiman—with a number of artists and letterer Todd Klein—more than utilized this to full effect. However, what seemed to preoccupy Morpheus most was his siblings, the other six anthropomorphic personifications of cosmic powers, all with grudges and demands. In the course of the comic, he is forced to reconcile his duties as the Lord of Dreams with his past mishandling of his family affairs. Nowhere is this made more painfully clear than with Dream’s relationship with Death, which is first introduced by Gaiman and artist Mike Dringenberg in The Sandman no. 8 and forms the core relationship that anchors the series as it weaves in and out of worlds and ages.
When Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, has finally escaped decades of imprisonment and regained his artifacts of power, becoming more powerful than he’s been in eons, he finds himself at a loss. Forever changed by his experience but unsure of how to proceed, The Sandman no. 8, “The Sound of Her Wings,” opens on him at a park feeding the pigeons, despondent. A soccer ball comes flying at him, and he catches it without so much as a blink. Naturally, one of the players is impressed with his superhuman reflexes. Eventually, a cheery goth in a black top and jeans approaches Morpheus and asks him what he’s doing. When he informs her that he’s feeding the pigeons, she quotes Mary Poppins, gushing over the film—only for her to inquire about what’s wrong. Morpheus confesses to her that after taking his revenge, he no longer has anything to motivate him as he returns to his duties.
Throughout the entire sequence, the perky goth walks off, picking and admiring some of the nearby flowers before returning and snapping back at the Lord of Dreams. She chastises him for being so infantile as he sits there wallowing in self-pity instead of doing what he should have done and called her for help, revealing she has been worried about him for some time. Right at that moment, the same soccer ball almost hits her, too, but she also manages to catch it in the nick of time and hand it back to the player. When he comments on how she’s as good as her friend, she tells him that Morpheus is not her friend, but her brother….
What’s captivating about Death in The Sandman is that the only unusual thing about her appearance is the silver ankh on a chain around her neck and a marking akin to the Eye of Ra that surrounds her right eye. Pleasant, down-to-earth, and perky, you wouldn’t think of her as anything more than a young woman having the time of her life, lifting the spirits of all those she comes into contact with.
And that’s more or less true.
That’s why it comes as such a surprise that not only is she Death, but that she’s one of the most powerful beings in The Sandman universe, able to stare down her younger brother’s opponents and jolt them into slobbering stutters with nothing but a glare. Though out-of-character moments are often utilized in fiction to portray vulnerability, these moments are there to remind us instead of her absolute authority over all of us, being powerful in and of themselves, not because they demonstrate the fear and reverence that Death imbues in The Sandman’s most powerful characters, but because the contrast between the way Death usually looks and acts and her stature in this universe is on full display. Even when those dealing with her are fully aware that this cheery young woman is the personification of Death itself, her manner is genuine enough that it seems that even they forget who she is and what she’s capable of.
Wishing to stay but not wanting to keep anyone waiting, the perky goth informs Morpheus that he has to tag along with her as she is performing her job so as not to keep others waiting. The kicker asks if he and the goth could meet up again for a soda, and she innocuously tells him that she’ll be meeting him again soon before teleporting away with her brother. Their first stop is Harry, an old violinist, who initially doesn’t seem particularly perturbed to see them in his home. The old man explains who he is, but the goth says she already knows and, in turn, asks him if he knows her. No sooner is he asked than panic flashes across the man’s face before he calmly resigns himself to the inevitable. Excusing himself, the violinist is allowed to perform one last prayer before his spirit exits his body and sees his corpse on the couch. After letting him say his piece, Death draws him close, and all the lord of dreams can hear is the sound of her wings as the old man is taken to the “Sunless Lands.”
Had her portrayal relied only on the novel contrast created by her appearance versus her identity, this would’ve been as shallow a portrayal as the ones we typically saw for centuries, regardless of the novelty. But one of Gaiman’s strengths has always been his ability to humanize gods and monsters, gifting them with conflicts and arcs befitting their otherworldly nature yet somehow making them understandable enough to allow us lowly mortals to empathize with them. These beings far surpass us, transcend us even, viewing the world through a lens that is indecipherable to the human eye, yet, like us, are capable of changing, learning, and growing.
And so was the case with Death, because, you see, she wasn’t always this way.
By her own admission, Death was not always the kindly figure we are introduced to in the comic. When it all began, she was convinced that she had the most difficult job of the Endless, and that made it unbearable—so excruciating that she abandoned her duties, only for the universe to spiral out of control, and the others had to beg her to return to her realm. However, when she did, she became “hard and cold and brittle inside.” It was not until one of the souls she collected asked her how she would like it if they were in her position that she tried to see things from their perspective. That led her to spend one day a century as a mortal to try to understand what it was like for us and what she could learn from it, forever changing her approach to the job. After concluding that what most of us wish for in this situation is the company of a friend, her approach to her encounters with the souls she reaped reflected that from then on.
Death politely comments that the old man was sweet, but there’s something else on her brother’s mind. He informs her that his captors were actually after her the entire time, and he had languished in captivity for decades in her place. Both Morpheus’s and Death’s faces are visible in this panel, but Death chooses not to reply at that moment—the expression on her face is indecipherable. When she finally does respond in the next panel, she says she’s known all along, adding that they should hurry along so as not to miss the “next one.” Her back is to us when she says this, and there’s no way to tell how that was meant to come across—the first time in the comic we’re confronted by the impenetrable complexity of this personification of death.
As we follow Death on her next reapings, we witness the empathy with which she treats each of those souls—her spirit, even in the face of the cruelty and grisliness of the matter of death, comforts the souls as they pass on to the next life. The issue ends with her younger brother’s interest in the world around him renewed, having learned to appreciate the lives whose dreams he governs for the first time in his endless existence.
Probably what I find most riveting about Death is that in addition to being a friend to all and the most feared entity in existence, she is also a big sister—the kind everyone wished they had. Among the oldest and most powerful of her siblings, collectively known as the Endless, she acts as a caretaker of sorts, making sure everyone is doing all right and being there for them when they’re not. It is in these moments that The Sandman is elevated from the trappings of mythology and becomes something more—a family tragedy with Death herself as the chorus.
Yet, even though she is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating figures in the entire series, Gaiman wisely uses her sparingly, appearing when she needs to and leaving an impression each time. When she is the last person with whom the original Morpheus converses in the story, echoing that first meeting in the park, it feels right even though he’s spent far more time with other characters throughout the comic’s run, doing far more for them—and, in turn, them for him—than Death ever had.
Maybe it works because of how close they are, or maybe just because Death is there for everyone at the end.
It is even said that everyone meets her twice. During birth, she is the one to inject the breath of life, and all, whether mortal or god, will see her once more when it is time. Finally, when the universe dies at the end of time, she’ll “put up the chairs, turn off the lights, and lock the doors behind her when she leaves.”
Interestingly enough, in The Sandman’s conception of the grim reaper, Death is not the guide but the gateway into what lies beyond, and throughout the entirety of The Sandman’s run, we never learn what this beyond is like, and we never need to. Death, being by your side at that moment, is more than enough.
And, in a way, that was what it was like reading The Sandman. As Death guided the departed in the story to a quiet acceptance of their death, without knowing it, she slowly guided me to an acceptance of my own. Having this incomprehensible phenomenon personified—and in a sense, humanized—allowed me to confront what I couldn’t on my own with the thoughtfulness and care that I was unable to find in those who were meant to instruct me on such matters. This was the first time I had been presented with Death in such a manner, and though with time, other artists have been inspired by The Sandman to taken a similar approach to the way Death is depicted here, there is a distinct grace in the way Gaiman and collaborators tackled it, that after all these years, has me return to the tragedy of Morpheus, the King of Dreams, and find hope in his ultimate fate. For death is no longer the end, but a gateway into what lies beyond.
J.D. Harlock is a Syrian Lebanese Palestinian writer and editor based in Beirut. In addition to his posts at Wasafiri, as an editor-at-large, and at Solarpunk Magazine, as a poetry editor, his writing has been featured in New Lines Magazine, Strange Horizons, Star*Line, Nightmare Magazine, and the SFWA blog. You can always find him on Twitter and Instagram posting updates on his latest projects.