I don’t know why, but for the past couple of weeks I have been thinking about writing this article pondering death. I think it is the flippancy around COVID19 deaths bandied around by some leaders in the media, but for whatever reason it has been niggling away. This can be a traumatic subject, so please take care when reading.
Early experiences with death
My first experience with loss was when my grandfather on my mother’s side passed away when I was around seven or eight years old.
We were close. My Grandma and Granddad looked after us often. He was a kind man who truly loved us and enjoyed our time together. I always remember him in the garden. That was how he showed his love, by helping our garden’s flourish.
On the day he died, my parents dropped me at my cousin’s place to play. My Dad picked me up at the end of the day and broke the news to me in the car driving home. I knew Granddad was sick in hospital, but I didn’t know it would end like this. Pure devastation poured out of me as I cried unabated in that car sitting next to my Dad, who was never one to cope with emotion.
Although I was young, I somehow knew he was gone and I would never see him again. I already missed him terribly. Again at the funeral I couldn’t help but let all of that emotion and loss pour out of me again.
When I was around 15 years old, both of my grandmothers died within about six months of each other. We had moved to Australia by then, so had to return to New Zealand for both of their funerals in that short space of time. My father’s father died when he was a child so I never knew him, and now all of my grandparents were gone.
Both of them died of cancer, and my father’s mother in particular got very ill for an extended period before she died. My parents spent time with them while they were ill, but my brother and I did not. We said our goodbyes at their funerals.
While they visited us in Australia, we didn’t have the regular weekly contact we did particularly with my mother’s mother before, so it was somehow different this time. And their deaths were expected because of their drawn-out illnesses.
I pondered grief. I felt their losses. I pondered not really knowing my father’s mother so well, and still feeling the pain of her loss. The thing that upset me the most about my mother’s mother’s death, was I knew she would have been scared. I didn’t want her to be scared.
But their suffering was over now so why did I feel this way? After much pondering I decided, while completely normal, grief was actually inherently selfish. My father’s mother was very religious and believed in God and heaven, so if she was right, she was in a better place, especially now her suffering was over. My mother’s mother had no reason to be scared anymore. I decided I couldn’t have been grieving for them, but for my own loss at no longer having them in my life.
Then I thought I had been looking at death all wrong. Rather than grieving the loss of a future with them, I should have been celebrating the time I got to spend with them, and the impact they had on my life. Maybe we had it wrong. Instead of feeling cheated for what we no longer had, perhaps we should feel grateful we had them in the first place.
Desensitised to death
While we deeply feel the deaths of those closest to us, there is so much of it going on around us, most of us are desensitised when it doesn’t directly affect us. If we weren’t, life would be impossible.
We are bombarded with graphic, violent deaths on the news, in movies, TV series, and video games from a young age which kind of normalises or gamifies it even for kids. We hear of wars, natural disasters, and mass shootings in other parts of the world from where we are, and might feel some pangs, but not the full horror of those involved.
I come from a place where occupational health and safety (OH&S) is a thing, road rules are enforced, and planning and building standards are generally very good and adhered to. I have lived in many places where that is not the case, and accidental deaths are exponentially higher.
Living in Egypt really hammered that home to me. On my first day there I witnessed a young boy most certainly die as he was hit by a speeding truck on a freeway. It was awful and absolutely preventable. There was a bus full of kids stopped on the side of the road to break up their long trip. There was desert as far as the eye could see either side, but they somehow thought it was better to play soccer on the busy freeway instead of those vast open spaces. When cars came, they would rush off to either side of the road. When the cars passed, they would resume their game, just like they probably did on the streets at home.
My cousin was driving and saw the imminent danger as three excessively speeding trucks flew along in the lane beside us. She slowed right down and started beeping her horn. The trucks did not slow down, expecting the kids to part as they usually did. The kids parted, then one kid decided he wanted to be on the other side so quickly darted over. He made it, but a smaller one followed suit, possibly a little brother, and was hit by the first truck who at that stage, and with the other two trucks right up behind it, couldn’t have stopped or slowed down even if it wanted to. There is no way that kid made it.
We were all shocked and my cousin wanted to pull over and help. Her local boyfriend said not to as foreigners we could possibly get in trouble even though we had nothing to do with it. And the child was most certainly dead. She drove on for a bit then pulled over to the side of the road until the shock passed.
That was day one, but every day after that I went on the roads, I saw at least one almost certainly fatal crash involving a horrifically mangled car. I did not see the same level of accidents in India or Indonesia. I worked out even though they have the same level of chaos on the roads, the traffic moves slower so the accidents, while frequent, are relatively minor. In Egypt, they drive like maniacs at ridiculously high speeds, and thus the crashes are more brutal.
Highrise buildings regularly collapsed, killing or seriously injuring all the residents and workers in there. My boyfriend who was only a couple of years older than me then, so we were both in our early-mid 20s, told me literally half of the children in his class from his school were dead. I thought he was exaggerating. He assured me he wasn’t. He listed them and how they died. I knew of one kid from my year in high school who tragically died in a car accident, but he wasn’t in my classes. His Auntie and some of her family members also died when their building collapsed. I have a vast extended family and am lucky they are all still with us.
Life was much cheaper over there than where I came from. Death wasn’t just on videogames and movies. It was very real, close to home, and constant.
Our own mortality
I am not afraid of death. Many think I should be given the high-risk places I chose to live and visit, and my already many near-death experiences. To me it feels like a weird thing to be afraid of because it is most certainly going to happen. People die all the time and we are all going to die at some point.
What are people usually afraid of?
We wonder what will happen when we are dead. Religion has done a nice job of gifting us the fear of hell or similar. So many of us fear eternal damnation or possibly worse, boredom in ‘limbo’ or eternal darkness. I am not religious but I know with certainty that a) I am going to die and b) I have no control over what happens after that until I get there. I feel there is no point stressing and worrying about it before it happens. There is far too much living to be done to be concerning ourselves with that.
The Dalai Lama backs me up here on this one in his book, Advice on Dying and Living a Better Life.
“Analysis of death is not for the sake of becoming fearful but to appreciate this precious lifetime during which you can perform many important practices. Rather than being frightened, you need to reflect that when death comes, you will lose this good opportunity for practice. In this way contemplation of death will bring more energy to your practice,” he wrote.
I came across this quote from a German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer from the 1800s I thought relevant.
“After your death you will be what you were before your birth,” he said.
Babies usually come out crying, so maybe things are scarier here than where they came from?
We worry about the impact our death will have on others and lament our fear of missing out (FOMO). This is a fear I understand. Many, many years ago I had an unusually vivid dream I was dying and there was nothing that could be done. I woke up with very real tears streaming down my face. Those tears were at the prospect of telling my loved ones and how it would impact them. I remember very vividly that was my greatest horror, not the prospect of dying itself. I never had that dream again, and I didn’t die, but I will never forget that feeling.
We think it will hurt. For some of us it will. For some of us it will hurt for a long time before we die and because of that, death may come as a relief. For some of us it will be painless and like drifting off. Who knows how ours will be? As someone who suffers a chronic, ‘incurable’ condition, I am no stranger to pain so that mystery is already uncovered for me. It is also impossible to know how you will go, unless you are diagnosed with a condition that has a well-worn path to death.
A couple of days ago YouTube for some reason suggested I watch Chopper Read’s last interview before he died on 60 Minutes. Chopper is described by Wikipedia as “an Australian convicted criminal, gang member and author,” is well known for a series of brutal attacks, murders, famously having another inmate cut off both his ears so he could escape a gang war in his prison division and be sent to the mental health division, and just so much more there are numerous books, TV shows, comedian impersonators, and movies about him.
At the time of the interview he had terminal liver cancer, knew he was dying, and wanted to confess a few unsolved murders he was responsible for. Perhaps he found Catholicism and felt by confessing all would be forgiven? When asked about dying, he said:
“It hasn’t hit me. I haven’t sort of thought of laying in the grave and you know… “What’s going on here.” I would like to come back after it is all… and see what all the fuss is going to be after I’m dead; read a few of the papers, and watch a few of the TV shows, and listen to a few of the arty farty debates that are going to be going on after I’m dead. You know, was he or wasn’t he a good writer, or was he or wasn’t he a good artist, was he or wasn’t he a good singer; ha ha ha…”
When asked whether there would be a debate about whether he was a good man he responded, “I suppose it’s debatable.”
Some of us, like Chopper, wonder whether we left enough of a mark on this world. We regret the things we did. We regret the things we didn’t do. How do we define success in those moments? Reportedly usually it is all about connection with others. We are told material things cease to be important, and our loved ones are the only things we see. Chopper was still a few months away from death when he did this interview. I suspect as the moment approached, what the public thought of him became less important than the people closest to him.
It’s emotional and it should be
I was really surprised when I started this article with the stories about my grandparents, I got a bit emotional. I still think about them, but not with sadness, loss, or emotion anymore. Actually they usually make me smile or I send thoughts of love in some way. Stephen King said in his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, that writing and storytelling are like teleportation in that you are writing something now, and at some point in the future (hopefully many points) other people will relive that experience. When I wrote about those memories, somehow I was teleported back to a time when those feelings WERE still raw and it struck a chord I wasn’t expecting.
When pondering writing this article, I academically thought about the people in my life who have suffered tragic losses of children, partners, and parents too soon, thinking they could fill in the gaps and maybe give us some answers on how to get through it or what it all means. I have been lucky so far I have not lost so many people close to me. I didn’t think deeply enough about the wounds I was asking them to rip open for the sake of a blog post. The loss of my grandparents was devastating at the time, but not unjust or traumatic. That adds a whole layer of grief and emotional complexity one can’t just gloss over or bare crudely to the world.
It’s all about connection
What is clear for me, is whether grieving for the death of others, or when I dreamed of my own, my devastation was for the loss of connection with my loved ones. I would miss them terribly. I didn’t want them to suffer.
I mentioned how my 15-year-old self decided it was selfish to miss someone after they passed away because you weren’t grieving for their situation, but for your lost connection with them and how that makes you feel. I still agree with that logic, but also believe sometimes it is okay to be selfish, and this is one of those times.
I also still feel a bond with those I have loved who have passed. I still think about them and feel them with me. Even some of the people I didn’t know as closely occasionally spring to mind and I feel their presence. For me, when someone dies, it is not that they are erased from the universe. Sure I won’t be able to hug them, or call them up for a chat, but I can access them in my mind and in my heart whenever I want to, and that never goes away. We are bonded forever, however long that is. Rather than a loss in connection, I look at it as a change in connection.
To paraphrase the Dalai Lama, if pondering death makes us lead more fulfilling lives, then let us ponder away and make as many wonderful and meaningful connections as are right for us. When it is my time to go, I want my loved ones to celebrate and be happy we connected, remember the crazy things we brought into each other’s lives, and know they just have to think of me and I’ll be there if not in body, in spirit.
The End (for this post, not for us!)
Until next time!