What I’m about to tell you is true. It is uncomfortable, it may haunt you. It may empower you. That will depend on who reads it.
I’ve seen a lot of people die. At least, what you think of as death. I’ve seen horrific deaths in the most gruesome ways to the most innocent. Nothing shatters your confidence in humanity more than watching humans laugh as they torture and murder someone who is innocent. I’ve watched your loved ones’ hearts beat, and slow, until there is only a faint tremor every minute or so.
I remember seeing the look in one gentleman’s eye when he was dying. Beneath the tears was a mad desperation. The thought of losing all you know and love drives us to stupid insanity. We beg, and plead, and search our memories for anything of comfort to hold on to, only to realize it is those exact comforts that are about to be stolen from you. The anxiety over the unknown destiny of our surviving family, the fear of the impassable chasm of mortality… It is a fear that can be shielded in two ways.
The first way is to have it happen. To experience that fear. To truly wonder if a certain moment is “the end.” Not in the quick shock of a car accident, but the pulsing throb of realization…when the moment has left, but the death is upon us. It isn’t the shot from the gun that scares you. It isn’t the pain. It isn’t the blood. It is when you realize you can’t focus…you are losing the light…when the permanence of the condition makes itself known….
Experiencing that will change you. Forever. Experience it enough, and it will lessen the fear of our passing.
But there is another way. A way that shields you from the fear of your death, and the fear losing your loved ones. It is the way I comfort myself when I witness death.
Life and death are an illusion. There is not something alive, or something dead. You, even in your complexity, are not wholly alive. Your tissues and organs are in constant regeneration. Dying, shedding the dead, new cells born. A solid argument could be made that your individuality is an illusion as well. But that is a different topic for a different day.
In this state of flux, your body is a habitat for a certain group of genetically similar cells. They work together to create an organism. A habitat that is shared by a wealth of other life forms. From saccharomyces for some, clostridium, escherichia, and micrococcus luteus for all. It is a habitat at war, with factions fighting for resources and supremacy. Many die.
Our body is not wholly alive. Parts are dead, right now. Pounds, more than likely, of dead cells are inside you, connected to you. Your hair is not alive. Neither are the tips of your fingernails, or most of the outer layer of your skin. You are a chimera of life and death. The death is everywhere. It is in the tissues of your retina. Your brain. Your heart.
Which brings me to another point. Your death is not based on your heart. Did you know that clinical death has certain criteria? The body has to be in a physiological state with various markers. Here is a quick guide we use.
But did you know that your heart beats after we decide you are dead? I’ve seen it. A lot. I’ve looked at a corpse connected to an EKG, and watched the heart beat once every minute or so.
It isn’t the brain either. Brain activity doesn’t stop when the heart stops. It continues on. The beautiful and powerful brain can have brainwaves emit spontaneously many minutes after “death.” It isn’t the body either. Our internal organs continue to function, for as long as they can without blood supplying fresh oxygen. For some muscle groups, that is an enormously long time.
Death, rather than a single instant, is a culmination of collective organ failures. It is when the medical science at hand can no longer resuscitate the victim. Death, scientifically, is a vague transition. Those other life forms I mentioned, by the way, continue to thrive for weeks.
When I started to think about death like this, I realized something else. We are kinda, sorta, already dead.
Think about someone “living” that you love. They might be near you, they might not. When you think of them, is your love attributed to their physiological status? Their body? When you miss them, do you miss their pancreas? Their elbow? Their left amygdala?
No. You probably think about their essence. The totality of their presence. The memories you have, their jokes, their stories, things they said to you, their values, their interests, all of those little details that mean THEM to you.
If you think about it, none of those things die. At all. You repeat the jokes, you tell their stories, you adopt portions of their values, maybe even interests. So do many of the other people they interacted with.
The things we think about are not living things. They are eternal memory. Memory that demonstrably has a lasting and profound impact on life around them.
You’ll see parts of them in a movie you watch. A song you hear. It used to make me cry when it happened. But now, I smile. Because that is proof. They are still present, still alive. Sure, I can’t touch them directly. But the feeling I got when I touched them is lingers on. They are now, truly immortal. Beyond suffering, beyond pain.
This memory can truly affect the world around us. Just like they were still here. You can affect the world to echo their morality.
No, you can’t hold them ever again. No, they won’t be holding you and comforting you. But they can make the pain and fear subside.
And it hurts….oh it hurts. To think about their memories, their passions, the things they loved. To go to that empty house and see their things…trinkets, keys, books…
We become fiercely protective of them. “This was theirs….” becomes an agonizing refrain that draws tears, even years after the loss.
But you have to remember, they were never wholly alive. Our biological presence is a temporary tool to affect change. Change in the world. Change in our hearts. That change doesn’t go away. It is carried on for generations in some cases. Moods, looks mentality…reverberate down the generational line. Families can be devoted to values that never waiver. Values that were started or reinforced by the deceased.
These things ENDURE. They do last. And it is a considerably comfort to know that we can ease the pain by supporting the things they love. Start a charity in their honor. KEEP them alive. Teach their values and their stories to your kids!
It is okay to miss them. But is that new? You’ve missed them before. Yet you still can love them, still can be and agent of their change. Do not abandon hope, and do not mourn the loss of our loves. They are something else now. Something beyond the pain of death.
No, they can’t hold you anymore. But their favorite song will still play. Their favorite movies won’t vanish. Their books. Their passions. All of it stays. The only thing you lost was a biological piece of refuse. One that, again…was never wholly alive.