When Death Comes

Death is a strange thing the first time we encounter it. Of course there had been distant relatives, a great-grandmother, someone’s elderly uncle. And the pets that had preceded me in my parents’ lives and towards which, as a small child, I had always felt a vague competition.

But when I was nine or ten years old, a student at my elementary school died. It was a small school in a small suburb, with perhaps 300 students, and everyone had known it was coming. I no longer remember her name, but she had a head of Shirley Temple curls and skin the color of orchid petals, a lavender-pink.

This was in the 1980s, when birth defects due to chemicals, prescriptions, maternal health conditions, and alcohol were far more common because the causal links were less well known to the general public. And this girl had been born with a heart defect. Although I don’t remember how I came by this information, school administrators or our teachers must have told us this in the hope that it would discourage further questions.

And for the most part, it did. The teachers had been frank, so we understood, as well as children can, that she wouldn’t live long. That she had in fact surprised doctors by living as long as she had.

The ADA had not yet been passed, and the disability rights movement was unknown in our suburb. So everyone was trying to do the best they knew how, with little to go on but the charity modeled by Christian churches, which is often a poor model for dignifying and empowering those with disabilities. The end result was that she was socially isolated, marked by death as it were, which left all of us in awe of and slightly frightened by her.

When she died, the teachers were very solemn about it, so we tried to be as well. A plaque was set in the courtyard to memorialize her, and I imagine it sits there still among the petunias and geraniums in a bed of dark soil. Sometimes, on pleasant spring afternoons, my teachers would hold class out in that courtyard, and I would gaze at the plaque and measure my years against hers, which never changed.

The strangest thing of all was that she was simply gone. She had been older than me, and I had never known the school without her. She seemed to always be out and about, exempt (it seemed to me at the time) from the rules of mere mortals, although I realized much later she probably had a lot of business in the nurse’s office.

It was years before I went on to junior high, so there was time to become accustomed to her absence on the breezeways, carrying slips of paper, her curls bouncing. The strangeness gradually eased. But it’s something I still don’t understand about death. The way a presence suddenly becomes an absence. Where do we go? Or do we simply end? Are we nothing but atoms, just a bit of energy that once was something else and must go on to become something else again?

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We all die.

They say children don’t understand the permanence of it. But I’m 40 now, and neither do I. What is grief but reaching out to where a loved one once reached back, only to find emptiness?

The loss of death is different from every other kind of loss.

It is permanent.

There will never be an accidental, fateful meeting on a street somewhere. There will never be a reunion or reconciliation. And if your faith in an afterlife tells you there will, that’s lovely. But it’s still not the same as knowing that somewhere, under the same sky, breathing the same atmosphere on the same planet, your loved one is here.

So I refuse to minimize death.

I refuse to minimize the grief of those who mourn it.

I don’t understand the finality of death. But I know of no other way to begin healing than to acknowledge, over and over again, that very finality. If for no reason other than to attempt to understand that “never again” is the truth.

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Buddhists are preoccupied with death. Most religions tend to skip over that bit, concerning themselves with how we live. And then where we end up after this life. Death in this view becomes a metaphor, the sting removed. It is a doorway, a passage, a bridge, a transition.

But having witnessed deaths, having lost loved ones to death, having believed (twice) that I was dying and indeed losing consciousness or memory, and having studied biology in college, death doesn’t feel that way to me.

So I’m Buddhist. And Buddhists think a lot about how we die. How we die, for Buddhists, is how we live. If we die incredulous that death has come to us, then we have not faced our own mortality. If we die with terror, and we die fighting that terror, we have fought life. If we die with acceptance, even of the terror, then we have accepted life. Buddhist practice, looked at in a certain way, is the practice of dying.

Different Buddhist sects teach different views of the afterlife, but Zen Buddhist teachers often shrug. Not a question I can answer, they are content to say. The closest they come is to say each individual is a ripple or a drop of water, that then returns to the ocean. In much Theravada Buddhism, there is an afterlife that most Christians would feel right at home in. But one thing most Buddhists agree on is that death is an ending. Yes of course, it might be the beginning of something else. But it is the end to this life, and to the person who lived it.

Because death is such serious business in Buddhism, a mourning period is standard. This can vary from 49 days to 90 days, but during this time, one performs ceremonies and chants to not only memorialize the dead but to remind ourselves that death is natural and normal and inevitable. It comes to us, too.

When our elderly cat, Luna, developed congestive heart failure and pulmonary effusion and we gave her euthanasia, I began the Buddhist mourning period. Some of the chants I used might be heretical when applied to an animal, but I took immense comfort in them.

One of my favorites comes from the San Francisco Zen Center, founded by Shunryu Suzuki, in their guide to death and dying:

I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape having ill health.

I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.

transl. Thich Nhat Hahn, The Five Remembrances

I always feel much better after chanting this. Maybe it is the acknowledgement that there’s nothing I can do. Nothing to control or force or make better. Feel what you feel. Do what you must do. Then, we die, and hopefully we have made things a little bit better. At the very least, we have tried to do no harm. That is that.

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Regardless of what country we live in, we have all been living in the valley of death for the last 16 months. Death is at the root of trauma. However, not all death is traumatic. Indeed, death is as inevitable and natural as the sun rising or our brain stems directing us to breathe. But psychological trauma involves a brush with death that was sudden and unexpected or particularly violent and horrifying. Like a pandemic that sweeps the globe.

Yet I worry that I live in a country where slowly, gradually, we are making all death into trauma. I worry we don’t understand that death is to life what heartbreak is to love. We can’t have one without the other. Which makes it harder for us to see the deaths that are cruel.

So many of the pandemic deaths could have been prevented if we prioritized public health and children’s education over business and church.

Police brutality deaths should not be happening. Attacks on Black Americans, Asian Americans, Muslim Americans, mass shootings, children shot dead by other children—these are nightmares that shouldn’t be real. Murdered wives and girlfriends and LGBTQIA+ people who shouldn’t be dead.

All these people should have died many years later, the way most of us will die, from heart attacks or cancer or a terrible accident or a stroke.

We all will die. Everyone we love will die. But to die because of a society’s greed or indifference or outright hate, that is tragic. And it complicates mourning for those left behind.

My schoolmate all those years ago was going to die as a child. Like all of us, she was born to die. Her clock was simply set for a much earlier expiration date.

But none of us said it’s okay then. None of us said well, let’s just not take care of her then. And no one said it’s fine if she dies earlier because she was going to die anyway.

Although this is exactly what so many communities in the United States have said these past 16 months about the elderly, the disabled, the immunodeficient. And now that vaccines are opening things back up? Many people have ceased to say anything at all about the 601,000 dead from COVID-19 in America.

Death is inevitable.

A cruel death isn’t.

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