What is wrong with death? Why do so many ignore its existence until they have no choice but to deal with it? Why is it both random and predictable? Why is it such a certain thing with such mystery? Why does it bring both pain and purpose?
The first time is not a sure thing, but the final time is. Death, an unthinkable subject is one of life’s certainties. The last time we see a friend or speak to a family member holds more of a memory than our happiest moment with them. The impassable task of moving on without them. It feels there will always be a void. From your perspective, there always will be, that is until new people, children, spouses, or friends, enter your life who are not aware of the void. Just because one relationship is gone does not mean all new ones will never grow to meet or exceed those previous.
Hope of a better place and time should always remain even as we experience our final moments. To imagine what we will see and feel as our eyes shut forever, is a difficult path to go down. We are equally afraid, curious, and enslaved by death. Even those who claim to be prepared to die manage to keep their poker face as they approach the end. A few lucky people may go several years without dealing with the death of someone who is a part of their life. Eventually, that luck will wear out.
At a young age we are gradually exposed to death, from fictional characters to a family pet like a goldfish or a dog. Fictional characters on TV or in books die but then the story keeps going. As the content of TV and movies grows more graphic and depictive this allows for more introductions to various forms of death. All are easy to consume because they are fictional, and the person seen dying on screen is still alive in real life. Tragically, some childhoods are unfairly distorted by foundational members being taken away or witness to events far too premature on the ideal mental development timeline.
Death grows difficult to overcome the longer a person is a part of our life. The first one, either a grandparent, aunt/uncle, or old family friend, feels different because of the first real feeling of helpless loss. No matter how bad you want the departed person to still be around, it is impossible. It is that ultimate finality that is tough but important to work through to prepare yourself for, hopefully far out, future losses.
The example in my life was losing my grandpa when I was 13. I was old enough to understand but still young enough to experience the hysterical feeling of sorrow and loss. Too overcome not to be able to control my emotions enough to perform my pallbearer duties. It was not the first funeral I attended, but it was the first I was a part of from start to finish. The first experience where my life felt different afterwards. Normality was altered, it felt strange for the first few years, and I witnessed the pain of the void on my grandma and dad.
Other than experiencing others passing away, as you grow you experience things that prove your own fragility, injuries, illnesses, or close calls. Far from the border of the fatal threshold but enough to make you realize that if you are not careful things can go bad and go bad quickly.
It is a grave fact that few realize, when they are in a group of people; among that group one person will be the next to die and one person will be the last to survive. In any setting you find yourself, this rule applies, though it is impossible to know who. The only time it is known for sure is when you are sitting alone. Out of this rule, I wonder which person, the first or the last, has the better fate. The result spectrum ranges from the fear of missing out to the fear of losing everyone you love.
My 96-year-old grandmother has seen the start and the end to many people she loves. Her husband, her 4 siblings and, perhaps most unfortunate, her son and daughter. My visits use to be weekly, however now that I have young kids, I am not able to see her as often as either of us would like. Just showing up and talking with her, I believe is the best gift I can give her at this point in her life. However, if you asked her, the gift she wants is to die peacefully in her sleep, the sooner the better.
At first it was difficult to hear her wish for death but after over 5 years of hearing her say, “it won’t be long now”, or “I am ready to go”, I cannot help but notice that she is not getting what she asks for. A 96-year-old who is still healthy enough to live alone, walk, and talk clearly is a rare individual. It is desired by many to, one day, live as long as her while maintaining personal independence. However, I am sure the many that would desire it, and my grandma too, would trade in 10 years to avoid experiencing the loss of so many loved ones. Especially her 2 children. As much as she loves the family she still has, I bet she loved those now gone, a little more.
I have playfully picked at her beliefs by asking for some details like what age her loved ones are when she sees them. Or, how old will she appear to be to them? I made her laugh by expressing my concern for not being able to recognize her once I rejoined her if she was in her 20s or 30s. As much as I may question things about death personally, I, in no way, want to harm someone’s beliefs on the subject, my grandma or whoever. If a conversation I am having with someone ever gets to the topic of beliefs or, specifically, death. My goal is to only share my wonder and questions to see if I can cause a positive curious reaction or gain a new perspective from another person.
I envy my grandma for my confidence in my beliefs is not as strong as hers. The reason why she is ready to go is because she believes that is the only way she will be able to see everyone again. From my perspective, she brings herself comfort by having this one idea, and one idea only, of what is going to happen when she fades away.
The truth is death happens, and it will happen to you from all perspectives, ideally except for murder. However, I will never forget making the call to let my dad die, the closest I hope to come to directly causing death.
To be clear, the massive stroke caused by cancer in his brain is what killed him. In the ER the doctor discussed the results of the CT scan, and gave my mom and I two options: Emergency surgery to remove the blood and pressure on his brain, or, simply put, do nothing. The decision held too much weight for my mom to respond. I spoke up to voice the decision. The words, “Do nothing”, meaning let him die, came from my mouth. The doctors confirmed the next morning, once they got more information, the surgery would not have worked, so I made the correct decision.
As hard of a decision as it was, I am humbled that I got to make it. Years leading up to his death my dad was fighting prostate cancer. As much as he wanted to fight, he valued quality of life over quantity. The times he spent in the hospital were agonizing for him. Had the surgery worked or if he somehow survived the stroke, he would have likely stayed in the hospital the rest of his life. I knew he would have wished for death over a remaining life of submission, so it was an honor to relieve him of that, however insignificant it was to the actual outcome.
We avoid thinking about death, yet we cannot escape it. We prolong death until the end is more appealing than the continuation. We wish for one more moment after we say goodbye, but if we got that moment, we would probably wish for one more after that. However, if the version of my grandma’s afterlife exists then why do we still get sad to see our loved ones go? Is there something else after we leave this reality, if there is, is there something after that one? Or is there just the end? Compare the two and see which one you prefer: An endless awareness or a complete journey. I believe the best answer is acceptance of either option, for other than the transition, there is nothing to fear.
As Mark Twain once said,” I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” 14 billion years passed before you were born, and 5 billion more will pass after you are gone, as some physicists predict. For all the existence of the physical universe you got to experience 70-90 years of it. You witness 0.000000004%, a sliver of a sliver.
Try to think of the earliest memory you have. It may be fuzzy or difficult to determine the legitimacy of the memory but to you it is the earliest. Now, move before that memory. You know time existed before that memory, but it did not matter to you. Family members who would have loved to meet you, died before you were born. Events took place that you could not participate in. Maybe, you wish you could have met or experienced them, but you understand why you could not. Now, move your mind to the other end of the timeline. The other end being the upcoming years, months, weeks, days, or seconds. You may wish for the future to come sooner but you understand why it cannot.
Death is the great equalizer. In the natural form, death gives all life-forms something in common. As Charles Dickens wrote in “A Christmas Carol”, “to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys”. In my opinion if Christmas is a time of peace, joy, and being together there is no better summary of the unifying spirit of the season.
One thing wrong with death is that we too often view it negatively. Unfortunately, there are many people who do not value the lives of others for one reason or another. They take, destroy, torment, and hate, all because they lack compassion. As said in the 1998 movie, “Patch Adams”, “Death is not the enemy gentlemen. If we’re going to fight a disease, let’s fight one of the most terrible diseases of all, indifference.”
We don’t like death because we view it selfishly. We fear it because we are afraid of the unknown, certainty, and inescapability of it. However, consider the things we love and strive for, family, friends, celebrations, successes, and milestones. We love these things because we can share them. In short, the things we love the most are the things we share with one or multiple people. Consider then, birth and death are something we share 100% with everyone who is, will, or was, alive, regardless of culture, economic status, or religion.
Death is common for us all but what is uncommon is how people view death, how death is interpreted, and how religious beliefs have attempted to define the types of afterlives and guidelines of getting there. Like an art project it is difficult to determine the point where it is complete. Sure, once you frame or display it, but that would eliminate the viewing and inspirational portion of the piece’s existence. Imagine the turn out if it was announced that a world-famous piece of art was going to be destroyed or covered up forever.
Looking at death alone, any part can be better explained and better understood. Unfortunately, nothing about death can be fully explained because of the unknowns about both death and life. It is the unknowns that give us the most fear. Our natural reflex is to tense up. Just like when we are about to get hit, fall, or experience pain, we tense up which ends up causing more injuries than if we let our body absorb the impacts the way it is designed to. Sometimes our initial reflex doesn’t yield the best results. Just like dealing with impacts, we can train ourselves to absorb death rather than tense up as we sense it coming.
Death is painful, for both the primary and secondary observer. The limits of our lives add more value than it takes away. It is painful to lose a person, but there will always be countless ways that person is directly affected and continues to indirectly affect your life. All your future family will experience that indirect effect too, even without knowing or acknowledging it.
The absolute finality of death is enough to paralyze a person with fear. Personally, the fear of anguish about desires, experiences, and goals that I never turned into memories motivates me to keep learning and doing. Or simply, doing all I can with whatever time I have left. It does not matter if I have 5 years or 50 years left. The amount of time is irrelevant since at one moment you will be out of it. I won’t know what is wrong with death until I can experience it. By that time, if I live my life right, I hope my answer will be, nothing. If I view my life as fulfilled, I will simply view death as what needs to happen to complete it.