Dealing with Death

[Originally posted on my 360 Blog]

I found out on Friday night that my best friend from grade school had committed suicide. His funeral is in a couple of hours and I’m trying to write a eulogy right now. I’ve got a bit of experience dealing with death — too much for my tastes. When I was a junior in high-school, my paternal grandmother passed away followed by my father’s sister and his uncle all in the same year. And then the next year, one of my best friends had a skiing accident right in front of me that required 14 hours of brain surgery and put him in a coma for 3 days. Mercifully, he survived and is largely ok now. But, the confrontation with mortality was as jarring I have ever experienced. Subsequently, I’ve lost a fraternity brother to a car accident, a friend to a shooting, and more family, including three uncles with whom I was close and my maternal grandfather.

Everyone has their own ways of dealing with death. But, I think there are some consistent things we all feel when our own mortality pulls back the curtain and stares us in the face. Life is fragile and fleeting, and if we truly grasped that fact on a daily basis, we wouldn’t be able to function. And so most of the time, we live in a state of willing delusion — we refuse to confront ourselves with the reality of the human situation, that the life that is the center of our being can and will terminate. And that’s why death is always such a shock to us. It’s the finality of it all; the reality that sometimes there are no more tomorrows invading our necessary fantasy that the sun will still rise no matter what (or, more accurately, that we will be around to see it when it does).

I remember what I felt when my paternal grandmother died. I was 16 and it was the first time I really had to deal with death. There were two main sources of sadness, and I realized later that they were both rather selfish. It was the shock of the absolute finality that made me cry. I cried about the fact that *I* would never see my Grandma Lu again and that she wouldn’t be there to chide me and impart her pointed wisdom. I cried from the realization that there were no more fond memories to make and that the existing ones would inevitably dull and fade with time. And I cried from regret, and the fact that there was no longer any way for *me* to right those wrongs. I regretted every time I had been a brat to her (and there were a lot), and I most regretted not going to visit her (she lived in Chicago) the last time my parents went before she died. Of course they didn’t tell me quite how sick she was, but it was football season and if I missed a game I might lose my starting position. The fact that I chose high-school sports over my family was not as much a statement of selfishness as it was of obliviousness — it never entered into my mind that she wouldn’t be around when football season ended. The only unselfish reason I cried during that time was for my father. For knowing that he must be feeling those same things I was feeling only stronger. 

I never actually cried for my grandmother. She was a dignified woman, who lived a long and full life, and she wouldn’t have been happy living on in a state that required constant care. When my Grandpa Wolfi passed away several years later after a long hospitalization, I was actually happy for him. I cried a little for myself, but mostly for my mom and grandma. Of course, it is quite different when someone passes away as young in life as the friend whose grave I will be standing over later today. The prospect of a life cut short and opportunities not lived is a tragedy. But it is a tragedy with no possible remediation. That is the finality of death that we struggle not to grasp. There is nothing we can do to change things now, and so there is nothing gained in crying for what will not be.

If you want to truly mourn, don’t do it for yourself. Don’t cry over memories that won’t be made, put that energy into cherishing the memories that you already have and making them last as long as possible. Don’t cry over regrets you won’t be able to make right, put that energy into righting the wrongs against others with whom you still have that chance, and do it in the memory of your friend who reminded you that you might not be able to fix things tomorrow. And don’t cry for the life not lead and the opportunities not realized, put that energy into honoring your friend’s loss by living your own life to the fullest. But do miss your friend. Miss him every day, because that is the highest honor you can show someone who is gone. But do it with happiness and laughter and with friends, because that’s what he would want.

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