My first experience with death happened when I was 5 years old. Sadly my cousin who was 2 died in a trailer fire. It is safe to say that I really didn’t understand what death meant. Like many children I was a bit selfish, and perhaps somewhat used to a life where for the first 3 years I was the oldest grandchild and was likely doted upon, and I felt resentful of my younger cousin who always seemed to get first helpings of things like watermelon or cake, even though I was also hungry and, in my own opinion, more important. It’s safe to say I did not care for her. I remember distinctly my aunts and uncles sitting around looking quite sad obviously. Then I opened my big mouth and said “Well who cares no one will miss her anyway.” To this day I don’t know why I didn’t get a severe beating, but I am thankful for the wisdom of my elders for recognizing that I was only a child and didn’t understand. One of my uncles simply looked at me and said “Well what if you died, and we said ‘Well who cares no one will miss him anyway?’ “ The words made me understand, as is often the case, when we turn the things we say upon ourselves we can sometimes see their true measure. To this day, I find it hard to forgive myself for uttering those words. Understanding grief like I do now, even coming from a 5 year old, those words I uttered had to hurt. I’ve carried those words for a long time, and if there is no sympathy for a foolish child, then at least know that I truly believed it shaped me into a more compassionate adult.
I can safely say that at the time, however, the gravity of death wasn’t something I completely understood. It’s not easy to really understand when you’re very young and have so much growing yet to do. The world is full of adults and so it seems impossible that you won’t at least make it to the age of your parents or aunts and uncles. I’ve always liked the saying “death is an important part of life”. Because ultimately it’s true as paradoxical as it sounds. We have a beginning and an end. And while we are barely conscious at the beginning (which is really a shame to be robbed of remembering that experience of coming out into the world for the first time), death is something we are all too conscious of.
One could argue that life and death are the only true things that we know in this world. We are alive in this plane of existence and eventually that life will end. Now many believe in an afterlife and that’s fine, but ultimately that requires faith, but I believe that everyone, somewhere at their core, has a seed of doubt about the afterlife, even if they don’t want to admit it. Few people can freely give up their life here for the afterlife. Those that do still believe that their last earthly act will have an impact of value in this existence, and thus are still, at least in some sense, grounded here. Of course many of those people one could arguably say are crazy (i.e. suicide
bombers). Others, while heroes, when they give their life they do so to preserve it for others and I would argue the afterlife is still not their primary goal. It seems to me that notions of an afterlife regardless of whether they have a punitive or rewarding nature are simply but another to try and cheat the evitable. Non-existence.
As natural as death is, it is clear that all life fights it. The will to live and survive is in every creature, and as humans our awareness of death means we are much greater fighters than many other species. Life is the battle against death. In any other situation one is unlikely to enter any battle they know they will lose, but this battle is one we never asked to be in, one that we have to fight, and so all we can do is make the best of it. It does no good to focus on this inevitability, when you do life becomes much more pallid.
I think it’s also interesting though that when you don’t worry so much about death, you start to see that survival really only involves living. And that if you focus on how to live better, then you start winning that battle against death in a much more meaningful way. You will still lose in the end, but you are at least fighting with honor and dignity. The value we place on life (not only our own) has a lot to say, I believe, about how we behave in this world and this will be the subject of a later blog.