Death is a topic that a lot of us avoid like the plague. It’s not something people are willing to talk about or engage with on a theoretical level, let alone directly when someone you know dies.
I get it–death is really weird. Absolutely no one knows what happens after you die, because it isn’t like anyone comes back and tells us about the experience. The only things we’re able to figure out about death definitively is that it is the end of life here on earth, it happens to everyone someday, and the complete break of contact with existence as we know it here. We don’t know if it hurts, if our souls move onward into an afterlife experience, or even if we have souls to begin with. It’s easy to get caught up in the rabbit hole of “what-ifs” about death. I can’t say I find that overly productive though, ruminating on questions that do not and will not have answers.
For me, talking about death is more productive when it is related to talking about life, and how it affects life here on earth. Unfortunately, I’ve had a couple experiences recently that have made me grapple with these topics more than I would care to be doing, which in and of itself is interesting. I wonder, when did we as a culture get so uncomfortable and fearful regarding death? Were we always that way, or is this a recent development? And why? At any rate, as I am not yet dead, I can’t offer any real reflection on how death affects dead people. However, I’m still living, and death affects living people, including myself, in very weird, wacky ways.
I’m fairly certain this is a result of having a relationship with the deceased–lots of people die every day, but not everyone is mourned by everyone else equally. Having a relationship simply end, with no warning, and no way to improve upon it, is as jarring an experience as it is saddening. With death, there are no do-overs, both for the dead and the living. The relationship simply is what it is, and remains that way.
My parish priest from the time I was a year old died a few weeks ago. He was 57 years old, and died of sudden liver failure. From the time I was one until I was 15, I was in the pews of his church every single weekend, come hell or high water. As I grew, I played (dreadfully) for the parish basketball team, attended religious education classes, and became an altar server. When I was 11, I transferred into his school, so I saw him even more than I already did, bopping around the halls telling us to keep our hands in “prayer position” and using gigantic words like “edification”. As if that wasn’t enough, my mom and he had known each other since they were in high school.
During altar server training, and while serving Mass, Father would give us looks whenever we crossed our legs or weren’t sitting up straight, but he also took time out of his homily one night to tell the whole congregation that my fifth grade basketball team had advanced to the championship round in our tournament. He was a mess of contradictions, in some ways–fussy about personal presentation, down to the littlest details, and yet would still rock out to Led Zepplin with my mom, occasionally. My relationship to him was largely as a child to an authority figure–as I grew up and went away for college and graduate school, we lost touch a bit, and I never had the chance to establish an adult relationship with him.
When he died, I was still angry with him about a situation from around a decade earlier, which largely prevented my reaching out to him before he passed. However, I was in the process of making peace with him. Partly, this was due to growing up and realizing that the adult world is never as morally cut-and-dry as we think it is, part of this was due to time passing, and part of it was how he was there for my family during the death of my grandfather, arranging for pastoral care and sending a thoughtful condolence card.
My friend, whom I will call Matt for privacy reasons, also died recently, under some very mysterious circumstances. He and I were close in high school, and he was a very devout Catholic. Somewhere along the line, in college, he began to come to terms with his sexuality as a gay man, which sent him spiraling into a deep depression that he did not really recover from. We would often have talks about philosophy and ethics, but then end back up in his all-consuming devastation and anger. I found out that he died two weeks ago through Facebook, and there was no obituary. His entire online presence had been completely shattered.
I don’t have any answers about how to garner meaning out of death. If anything, that’s the job of the living–to attempt to make some sense out of what seems utterly senseless. We can appeal to biology, philosophy, religion, evolution, and any other theory we feel like, but ultimately, there will be no answers. So, given that those of us who are living are stuck moving on, leaving our loved ones behind in time and space, what are we to do?
Ultimately, I find some answers in memory. Certainly, it’s not the same thing–I don’t want to romanticize it the way it often is in conversations about death. Memory is a painful and beautiful tool that is just as likely to wound as it is to help heal. But being able to extrapolate the things our loved ones did and said, and to see those quirks and instances alive and thriving in this world now can help us create some closure for ourselves. It’s ultimately a selfish action, as I highly doubt whether or not the dead really care about “continuing on” in some form here. But when life ends in the middle of a sentence, when relationships stop in the middle of a conversation, there is nothing else to do but to pick up the pencil and keep writing the human story. If we are able to see echoes of others in our story going forward, all the better.
Image courtesy of Deviantart.