Death: The Ultimate Lesson on Living

Reading Time: 9 Minutes

TW: Death, Dying, Ceasing to Exist and/or Live, Passing Away, Dead

Billie Eilish croons about when we all fall asleep where do we go but as it turns out, i’ve got bigger topics on my mind.

For today’s segment we’re talking about Death – how we cope with the magnitude and reality of it, the loss we experience from it, why we shy away from talking about it and the ultimate lesson I think we can divulge from it.

It’s not lost on me the timing of this post – Fall is nearly here and in more ways than one, represents a certain level of loss, Death and letting go.

On the one hand, Death appears to be expecting individuals as if welcoming an old friend in from the cold for a hot cup of tea. My Grandpa is 88. While I’m not suggesting Death is welcoming him, I’ve noticed lately that the reality of old age seems to be hitting him harder in his twilight years, a reality he himself acknowledges in his I’m not getting any younger and I won’t be around forever statements.

On the other hand, Death appears greedy and takes people from us before their meant to be taken or before society deems appropriate for them to be taken. An example would be the recent death of Chadwick Boseman, at aged 43 from colon cancer.

Our relationship with Death is often an ebb and flow of it was his time to go or it wasn’t his time to go – but I don’t think Death (whatever form it is, if it is) really cares about it’s relationship with us. It does what it does in natural and unnatural ways, no matter the age, gender, race, health of a person, or when a person’s time exactly is. Death doesn’t discriminate.

Death in Popular Culture

On the one hand, popular culture is ripe with references of Death: We write novels about Death (José Saramago’s Death With Interruptions features Death turning into a woman, walking among society, and falling in love with a man), produce movies about Death (Meet Joe Black, featuring a young Brad Pitt as Death taking over the body of a young man to learn about life) and sing songs about Death (Sulfjan StevensDeath With Dignity and Eugene).

In many of these instances, we give Death human qualities, human pronouns or Earthly properties. Even the fact we capitalize it when using it in a sentence gives one the indication we’re talking about a person, seeing as this is what we do with names. Sometimes it resembles an animal. In other cases, we produce gaunt images of it, similar to that of the Ghost of Christmas Past from A Christmas Carol.

I think we do all of these things, as with many human pursuits, in order to understand it, but also to attempt to rationalize it. It’s like we’re saying to ourselves:

“If I make Death look, sound and feel more like me, or familiar to me, it will make it more tangible and therefore, less terrifying”.

We humanize Death in an attempt to bring ourselves comfort, or even closure to some degree.

As much as we hope to materialize it and make it tangible, Death is a complete mystery to all of us. We can’t research it, we have no test subjects who can “come back” and objectively report their findings. This is of course, aside from the folks who’ve come back from the dead when lying on the operating table, or survive a car crash and chock it up to a religious miracle. This poses a whole other debate in and of itself – religion’s stance on Death.

Why We Shy Away From Talking About It

Aside from popular culture using it as a form of art and expression, I think the the average human tends to shy away from talking about Death. I also think it shares a bit of a taboo nature similar to sex in society. You don’t see people getting up on their social media soapbox often (if at all) to pronounce loud and clear:

“What’s the 411 on death these days?

I think there’s a few reasons as to why we all topple a bit in strength when the topic of Death comes into play.

It’s Depressing

Death signifies the loss of not only a human, but one’s humanity – the flesh and bone individual we care for, will never be what we are able to tangibly recognize as a breathing, functioning human ever again. Our loved one, friend, family member, partner as we know it is no longer here and that ultimate finality is, at the core, something I think none of us can truly emotionally prepare for, as hard as we try.

It’s Incomprehensible

The sheer magnitude of what Death represents and what happens when it occurs (a person ceasing to live and/or exist) are not something any of us can comprehend. As I write this article, I find I say one thing about Death, which then opens a whole other can of worms. To say someone was taken, may denote they’ve been placed elsewhere – but where is this elsewhere in the context of Death? Is there an elsewhere? It is easier to say a person is gone, or passed away because it’s an easier blow to our systems than to say they are dead, or are no longer living? Do we refer to Death impacting our lives as someone being taken from us because it makes an impossible concept, possible to comprehend?

A close second which I consider to Death is outer space. At the very least we have explored some of it, but we’ve only gotten so far as our own planetary system (and not even the fullest extent) – the rest is so vast and massive.

It’s Unknown Territory

Let’s face it – we humans are a bit stubborn. We like to talk about what we know, and embrace the familiar. We get cozy and snug in our houses, our traditions, our Sunday family picnics in the park and we relish the shit out of it. The unknown can be frightening and unless we are willing to step into unknown or unfamiliar territory, then we’ll never know. Of course, this brings with it another concern – we can step into unfamiliar territory when we decide to live in another country, take up a new hobby, fly a rocket-ship into space – but Death isn’t something we can return from to recount our discoveries – it is final.

How interesting we can know nothing about something but the one thing we do know about it, is that it’s final (insofar as we are able to speculate).

Frankly, i’m a bit surprised there aren’t more of us having breakdowns and/or existential crises because of the very fact we are finite and Death can befall any one of us at any time. At the same time, I think our own inability to comprehend ceasing to exist as we know it, saves us from a certain type of insanity that can accompany Death, if we think too much about what it represents.

Death with a sprinkling of Religion

I think we can’t talk of Death without briefly touching upon religion. That being said, writing about religion makes me very uncomfortable.

Firstly, because there are so many people who practice religion, hence not wanting to offend anyone (which, despite best efforts, is bound to happen, I can’t win em’ all unfortunately). Second, because so many people take their religion as gospel, I think this can sometimes shroud objective decision-making and impose restrictions in life for the sake of being rewarded, in Death.

While I believe the root of my discomfort stems from a weakened level of Agnosticism (which as I like to tell people, means I believe in a God, but at the same time I don’t believe in a God), I consider myself primarily to be Spiritual not Religious.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I have a friend who is an Atheist. Atheists don’t believe in God, and essentially believe there is nothing after this life we can expect to welcome us with open arms (a la, them pearly gates o’ Heaven). Despite the gloom and doom which first filled my mind upon her admission, she expressed within her own atheist beliefs, that considering there is nothing afterwards, our purpose is to make the most of what our lives entail in the here and now. It is this last piece, that I especially align myself with, and changed my thinking of Atheism altogether.

So – What’s the Point to all this?

The post I mean, not life. Although you can muse about that on your own time if you so wish.

We try to understand Death in order to rationalize it and by extension, gain control of our knowledge of it. We humanize it and personify it in order to gain some semblance of control over it’s appearance. We steer clear from talking about it because factors such as it being incomprehensible and unknown to us not only because it makes us fearful, but make it difficult to control. We try to control how we will be treated and rewarded in Death by controlling our actions and devotion to a God in life.

All of that, and yet, we don’t have control of when it happens. No amount of medicine or treatment when sick, or even good health in old age, can prevent the eventual outcome, that is Death.

Maybe we do all of these things in order to subconsciously minimize however painful our Deaths may be, or to provide ourselves with some level of comfort and reassurance that there will be something after this. Or maybe it’s just to create well-written books and intriguing plot lines in movies, and songs with catchy lyrics and guitar melodies.

With all that being said, I think accepting Death to some degree can help us all to live a more mindful, fulfilled life.

So many of us tend to live our lives in the past or the future, but it’s discussions such as those surrounding Death that demonstrate the importance of living in the present. We can’t live specifically for whatever may come after this life, because we don’t know what, if anything, will – so why not live for the now? Why not cherish the people around you while they are living?

And if we can’t control it, and we don’t know about if and what is after, then why worry about it?

That’s how I plan on continuing to live my life, at least.

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