Perhaps I am an alien – or more likely, just experiencing alienation, again.
But I watch our culture’s primal death denial play out so constantly, so strangely, in such peculiar ways – and so few seem to question it.
I’m sure I once saw it all as normal too. And although it certainly is “the norm” I have come to see it as a sign of cultural madness. Evidence of the pervasive disease of individual and collective exceptionalism and the mass illusion of immortality.
There was a time, upon hearing the news that a friend or an acquaintance had died, was dying, or had a life threatening illness when I needed to know the details too.
People ask me about my own cancer diagnosis:
“How did you find out?”
“What symptoms did you have?”
Upon hearing of the death of others:
“Was it an accident? Was she ill?”
“I heard he had heart trouble for some time – his poor wife”
“Was he texting behind the wheel? Had he been drinking?”
So similar to the questions we ask about crime victims who have encountered an act of violence: “What was she wearing? How much did she have to drink? What time was it? Where did it happen?”
Our own bereavements and vicarious proximity to tragedy changes us – we are drawn closer to the void- and we are deeply curious what caused those who were swallowed up to fall in.
As if we could learn from their failures.
And I know there are many benign, essential and utterly understandable reasons we are curious about such things – we want to comprehend the loss. The details seem as though they might help us to accept death as a reality – like gazing at the body in an open casket.
But I know, because in the past I have asked such questions too, that we also use the answers, quietly, privately – never in the earshot of those more directly impacted – to reassure ourselves.
“He had a heart attack while jogging?”
(That is exactly why I don’t run)
“It started with your foot going numb?”
(Oh good, I’ve never had that)
“It was already advanced when they found it?”
(Note to self: schedule annual physical)
“Oh, AIDS? So sad.”
(Not gay, not an IV drug user, monogamous –whew, I’m probably clear)
These details don’t bring us any closer to the mystery – in fact, they merely help us to disregard and distance ourselves from the most overwhelming of truths.
No matter how or when we die – we will die.
Some will die sooner. Some will die later. Some will die by accident, some by disease, some by violence, some of advanced age. Some will die by foolish error, some will die by utter happenstance, some will die by their own hand. Some will die in their sleep.
Does it matter if he killed himself or was hit by a truck?
Does it matter if my foot went numb or I had blinding headache?
Does it matter if he was speeding or the car malfunctioned?
Does it matter if she was in front of a bar or in her bedroom?
Our lives matter whether they are long or short.
Our lives matter whether they are cut off by error, aggression, fate or decay.
Our lives leave indelible imprints on others, sometimes hundreds or thousands of others, whether we live well or horribly.
No matter how we die.
We all die of our wounds and our vulnerabilities no matter how or when or where.
The details won’t help you skirt death.
They will only help you put it out of your mind – and I’m not certain that is a good thing.
It is necessary to respect the finality of death, but it is pathology to be so fearful of it that we pretend that our loved ones and ourselves are exempt.
We might consider if it is pointless to seek such answers. Like a child filled with an endless string of unanswerable why’s:
Why did she get cancer? Why did he fall to his death? Why was he depressed? Why do people die? Why do bad things happen?
There are no answers.
Maybe instead of seeking answers and closure we could try to withstand the questions.
Do you ever think about how you are going to die? Do you think you might get cancer? Die from a sudden heart attack? Be struck by a train? Die by your own hand? How are you scared to die? How would you like to die? What makes life meaningful, even beautiful in the face of the ever present reality of suffering and death?
Maybe those are the kinds of questions that could free us from our fears.
But dead and the dying do speak for themselves and we are often so preoccupied with death itself that we miss their urgent messages:
Life is precious
Be brave, you will regret it if you live a life controlled by fear.
I wish I could be around a fire with you tonight, squeezing you all and holding you tight.
Now comes the mystery.
Make the most of this day. Whatever that means to you, whatever you can do, no matter how small it seems.
Don’t waste time, this is all the time you’ve got.
Love each other xo