Death Teaches Us to Live, Now.
Today, a dear young man who I have known for his entire life was stricken by a sudden life threatening illness. This tragic event was reacted to in many different ways by those to were close to the him. The suddenness of his silence at his young age stunned all of us. Some expressed their grief immediately and passionately. While others were more stoic in their reaction to this new sadness in their lives. Our immediate thoughts ranged as well. While some looked to their faith for answers and began to pray, others searched for actions to be taken to support the immediate family while others like me, chose to find meaning as best I can.
Death visits us all at some point. Unlike the millions of events that must occur precisely as required for any of us to be born, death is completely predictable in its certainty for all of us and reliable once life has occurred. Death is the most equal opportunity function of life - the good and the evil of any age, gender, social status or religion - all will die. It can be unexpected in terms of timing and lifestyle but it should never be a surprise. The hows, wheres and whys will very for each of us but the result is the same.
I understand the Kübler-Ross stages of grief. It is my experience that while we all employ the same Denial-Anger-Bargining,Depression-Acceptance stages of grief as a process, we develop unique personal steps inside of each process step which I think of as our personal “Death Ritual”. Knowing the stages of what typically happens to humans during a loss, doesn’t help understand much about why they happen or what we can learn from each. No matter the situation prior to these events, we seem surprised as we enter into our own personal death ritual. Our experiences drive our ritual steps as does our spirituality.
Once the shock of the news and the thoughts of denial and anger pass, believers start asking for a miracle for their loved one. The concept of praying to save someone who becomes ill or is in an accident has always puzzled me to some extent. Praying is often the bargaining for a different outcome. We ‘know” that there is no negotiation. Whether you are a believer or not, we all know that we all die and that if it is not this current injury or illness, it will be another. We are just wishing we had more time to do some of the things we didn’t get a chance to do because we were doing other things. As we experience their tragedy, could we be experiencing some of our own as well? As we pray for our stricken friend or family member, all we want is more time or that person or ourselves to do or say things that we feel we were meant to do. We all get exactly as much time as we get and not a second more.
There is also a paradox in all this for deeply religious people. I have never heard even the most pious people exclaim, “Oh Good he will get to heaven sooner than we thought!” Most religions promise a heaven after you have completed your tasks in this life. So when someone we love becomes gravely ill it would seem logical that those that believe would pray for their quick and painless release to the afterlife experience that their faith had promised.
So what are we really asking for in these prayers or the bargaining we do within our ritual? Are we really asking for anything at all? It seems that maybe these prayers are just our way of revolting against the helplessness inherent in these events. We cannot comfort our loved ones enough to stop the pain of their loss nor can we give anything of ourselves (barring transplant situations) that can change this outcome. No matter what happens, the waiting for clarity or not waiting for clarity is horrible. The endlessness of not knowing if our loved one will die or not is every bit as painful as the endlessness of knowing their fate for certain. The ritual of prayer comforts us but it should also teach us that while life is wonderful for the most part, death is cruel in its certainty.
If death occurs in spite of our prayers or good wishes, it is assigned to that category of reluctant yet acceptable outcomes such as “Gods Will” or t”The Will of Allah” or part of the mysteries of life for the less religious. We put it in this place to help us get to adjust to a life without that person’s participation and influence. For us they move to the past tense. We endure the pain of when we catch ourselves thinking of some future event where they normally would be with us. We regret the things not said or past events that haunt us. We might even feel guilty for not feeling more stricken or loss than we “should”. We imagine the helplessness and pain of the more immediate family and it adds to our own. We also feel the sad twinges of joy that our immediate family is safe and sound for one more moment in a world where even very good people loose so much.
Inversely, if death does not occur, we feel relief and vindication that we were right for making our ardent prayers or bargains. We feel powerful in our get well thoughts and actions, even it it maybe only illusion. If we are believers, we may reiterate our beliefs and ardently reaffirm that which we feel made the difference. We call upon that belief to give us and those who surround us the strength to deal with the new reality of continued living after this scare or crisis, especially if there are lingering consequences… therapies, life style changes, etc. We were “granted” more time but how will that time be different than before this event.
Death and loss events like these should teach us. To say what needs to be said and to do what needs to be done everyday. When the day we find is our last day, our friends and family will know how we feel because we told them. Our deeds will be done and any plans will be shared so that our loved ones may find peace deeper and faster. Our resistance to learning these things is strong because to really learn them we must accept our own death at a conscience level and let it guide our priorities. We all want to live like we are going to live forever.
If you live long enough you will find some point where life gets out of order. A young vibrant person will be lost when the natural order things is that the old pass leaving life to be lived by the young. It doesn’t always work out that way. A a little child will pass before any of us who expected to go before him. Its not easy to celebrate such a “unnaturally” short life. We also cannot understand why such a good person is lost to us but others with less merit to their credit continue. The fact is we all live just as long as we can and we are able to, then we pass. It not hard for the dying, it is hard for those that are left sad and feeling like they should have said or done something more before the person passed.
This death ritual that we experience is not static. It grows and changes with us. It is our saving grace so to speak. Our ritual comforts us and often, just us. Some rituals are impossible to tolerate or witness for some of us while seemingly completely appropriate for others. There is no “right” or wrong way to live this important part of every life. There is just your way.
Until the next time death comes to visit someone near to us and then our personal ritual begins again within that context. It will be yet another unwelcome learning opportunity.