Death matters

card bear

This entry is written a day after the Connecticut school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

Death, and the grief that accompanies it, is one of the hardest thing for anyone to face, much less write about. It is not as if we are not aware that everyone of us, and our loved ones will pass on one day – most of all would have by now experienced the death of a loved one. But I suspect that despite evidence to the contrary, many of us still hold on to the belief that death would only come to claim us when we’re finally done with the business of living. Our idea of a perfect death is one in which we have lived a long a fulfilling life, and we go peacefully into the night surrounded by friends and relatives. We believe that the ‘ugly’ kind of death – by disease, hunger and violence happens in poor war-torn nations, not in our developed societies. We try to ignore the fact that many still die without dignity in our midst, but that they’ve only been kept out of sight, and hence out of mind.

And so we are often shattered when death does come to us, or our loved ones in a way which we didn’t expect. People are not supposed to die when they have their whole lives ahead of them, we reason. I have a five-year-old nephew whom I love dearly, and I cannot imagine how painful it would be if one day his life were taken before mine ends. And yet it’s a reality that is closer than we think. I have known, with just one or two degrees of separation, people within my age group whose spouses our children have died from accidents, disasters or diseases.

Most spiritual traditions tell of stories of very skilled practitioners being able to choose  (or predict) the time of their own deaths; some were even able to bring the dead back to life (accounts not just limited to just the Christian narratives), but the vast majority of us do not have such options. But we all prefer to postpone dealing with the issue of death. Certainly it is not an easy thing to face. The mere thought of leaving people behind, or of our loved ones departing from us is enough to plunge us into despair. And most of us don’t want to go through that. Or, we prefer to deal with that only when it comes. We believe that our lives will suffer if we keep these ‘negative’ thoughts of death in our minds all the time.

And yet many people have discovered that in fact the reverse is true. Etty Hillesum, who died at an Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland (and whose letters were posthumously published in 1981 in a book titled An Interrupted Life wrote: “We cannot live fully by excluding death from life, but by welcoming death into our lives, we grow and enrich our lives.”

Author Charles de Lint puts it more succinctly:  “If you’re not ready to die, then how can you live?”

And what about the deaths of loved ones? Personally, it is a lot harder thing to cope with than the thought of my own death. Death of loved ones not only leave a huge void in the lives of the living. There are also feelings of guilt, betrayal, incomprehension and anger. Especially when the death is sudden, we regret that we have not done enough to contribute to the departed one’s happiness before he or she leaves. Or when there is tremendous suffering prior to death, we are left deeply traumatized at being helpless to relief those sufferings and pain.

Many spiritual tradition affirm that death isn’t the end of existence, that at the end (whenever or whatever that end is) we all will be reunited with those we love. Then there are people who believe that the afterlife is a concept that we come up with as a coping mechanism at the loss of loved ones. I do not know what happens after death, but I do know that it is something that we should think about from time to time, and if possible to find our own answers, if only so that our lives do not simply fall to pieces when death visits us, or the ones close to us.

Recently, the mother of a good friend of mine passed away after a bout of illness. A week after the funeral, I sat down with the friend for a drink, and the conversation naturally drifted to how he was coping. At one point, I asked if he believed that his mother had gone on to a good place. My friend, who is agnostic, thought about it for while, then nodded.

“I’m pretty sure she is,” he said and broke into a smile.

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