….but we are all fabulous.
“After your death you will be what you were before your birth.” – Arthur Schopenhauer, German philosopher, 1788-1860
I have thought a lot about death since I was a child. My father died from cancer when I was 9. He and my mother knew that he was going to die a few months before he did and this aspect of death continues to fascinate and distress me. What must it be like and how would I cope with the knowledge that I was days/weeks/months away from death? I would like to think that after a period of grief and anger and fear that I would adjust and be sad but serene, but of course it is impossible to know until one is in that situation. I find stories of others who have faced this situation utterly compelling, although of course we only really hear about those who cope well with the knowledge rather than from those who remain distressed and don’t ever come to terms with it.
I sometimes try to imagine what I would do, where I would go, who I would want to see, if there are any relationships I would like to repair or change. Often I do this as an exercise in trying to grasp the reality of being alive here and now – to try and mimic the experience that many people facing death report of seeing beauty even in the mundane and of having a vivid desire to seize the day and make the most of every moment rather than squandering the time we have. Trying to project oneself mentally into that situation is like trying to find a shortcut to mindfulness or to identifying the things that are most important. In the end I mainly find myself distressed at the thought of being separated from the people I love most and of being forgotten. The fear of causing distress to loved ones or leaving behind misunderstandings or not really leaving much of a mark at all are emotional reactions to ceasing to exist since logically these imagined situations will cease to be painful once you have gone.
Joy of Life (Bonheur de Vivre), 1905 by Henri Matisse
Is it better to know one is dying or not to know? As a person who likes to know things with a view to trying to understand, I imagine I would prefer to know, to have the chance to play an active role in my own demise, a final illusion of control. Of course if one did not die instantly with no prior knowledge, this raises the spectre of pain and the fear of facing a difficult death, but at this stage of my life, that bothers me less than trying to get my head around the concept of not existing. Although it happens to all of us, death feels like a strange aspect of the human condition – utterly alien – the one aspect of being human that our minds are unable to fully grasp.
Many people gain comfort or meaning or a sense of hope for life beyond death from faith in a religion. Whilst I find the rituals surrounding funerals quite helpful, for me this is more about a marking of someone’s death and life with other people who were close to the deceased, rather than a spiritual comfort. I personally believe that one of the reasons that religions have evolved is as a reaction to our own mortality, a sort of existential comfort blanket – the inability to comprehend our own non-existence and to seek comfort in the notion of continued existence after death seem to me crucial to the widespread nature of belief.
This is hardly surprising – historically in the UK and today in too many places across the world, death is prevalent in the form of high infant mortality and death in childbirth rates, death from hunger, poverty, war and disease. Death isn’t something that happens in hospitals and in old people’s homes, something furtive and hidden and talked about in hushed whispers, it is everywhere. For those of us fortunate enough to not face daily reminders of our mortality and the fear that the next day it might be us, we are sheltered from and able to distract ourselves from the reality of death. Ironically, rather than protecting ourselves, we may be laying ourselves open to increased distress. When death is something that happens to other people in private, we perhaps fool ourselves that it won’t happen to us and when occasionally the awareness permeates through that it will, we find that distressing. I came across an interesting blog post here about why thinking about death can be helpful: http://popchassid.com/5-ways-death-makes-life-better/
[As an aside, I can’t help but feel that if death were more visible, we might treat our elderly and dying with more compassion in the knowledge that one day we too will experience the same fate.]
So where does this leave me? When I fall asleep I am not aware of not being fully conscious. Before I was born, before existing, I wasn’t aware of not existing. Once I die, I believe I will not be aware of not existing again. In the meantime, I would be grateful to continue to have the luxury of imagining what facing imminent death must be like rather than dealing with the reality for a long time to come.
(For more quotes about death and links to some more intellectual observations than this post: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn12734-quotes-death.html#.U8v1uvldV8F)