Wednesday, January 13, 2016
Grape #22: Unfearing Death
A hundred years or so ago, I took a theology class at Manhattan College called Death & Dying. The title alone grabbed my attention, but the more I read through the class description, the more I knew I had to sign up. The subject matter covered a wide range of material, from hospice work and resurrection theology to near-death experiences and apparitions. And while my personal focus for the semester was near-death experiences, I've never forgotten the depth of knowledge I received just from that one class. In many ways, it was a massive introduction to a field of study I've happily immersed myself in ever since.
Death, I learned back then, is something of a secret no one dares speak about. People barely whisper about it, even at funeral homes, and they generally do everything they can to avoid the topic completely. It's almost as if the act of discussing it might make something happen, as absurd as that sounds. "God forbid my grandmother ever dies, I don't know how I'd go on." Huh? Your grandmother IS going to die. So is every other person in your family, all your friends, everyone in town, the country, and the world. Oh, and sorry, but so are you.
Perhaps my favorite quote on the matter--passed on to me through that college class I took--is this: "Death is like masturbation. Everyone does it, but no one ever wants to talk about it."
As kids, we hear about people dying, but it's often shared with us like some sort of a fairytale. "Aunt Bea went to live with Jesus," or "Uncle Joe went up into the clouds to sleep forever." We shield children from the truth, or at least our best understanding or belief of the truth, but the problem is, we never end up talking about it once we're old enough. We never have a sit-down conversation as a rite of passage into adulthood, where our older family members finally explain the truth of it all.
And what is the truth? Well, we don't know. We have stories to rely on, and nothing more.
People die due to many different causes, and when they do, we cease to find any sort of life in or around them. Believers, whether or not they were believers beforehand (an important distinction), say they've experienced something beyond all human comprehension when a loved one's body died, or even when their own body died and was brought back. Whatever their stories, believers believe and unbelievers do not.
Death, then, seems to mean two different things. It's either an absence of pain, stress, and fear due to the fact that you no longer exist, or it's an absence of pain, stress, and fear due to the fact that you transcend into a beautiful reality beyond all human comprehension. There are, it turns out, just these two possibilities, but both include the reality that you become free from all pain, stress, and fear.
So what reason is there to really fear death? Why do we flinch away from it, like it's some sort of nightmarish reality? If someone's body has died and they're now free from all pain and worry, whether or not they've transcended into an afterlife, then what about that do we find gruesome or horrific? What part of it makes us really hurt inside?
Well, that's easy. The part of the deceased person that we loved is now gone from us, and this new absence makes us cry. It makes us hurt. It makes us hate the reality of it all, that our loved one is no longer with us in the here and now.
So too does the mystery. We can't stand the mystery, because it speaks to how much we don't know as human beings, how much we can never know as human beings. We're built to want to know everything we can about everything we can, so when someone presents us with the scene of our loved one in a coffin, we can't help but be flustered by the impossible truth laying there in front of us. The mystery hits us hard. The absence hits us hard. The impossible reality of that which we do not understand is quite literally staring us in the face.
Unfearing death is an ability you can learn to cultivate. You can even learn to master it. How? By accepting reality. By facing the truth. Every human being who ever lived prior to our current crop of humans later died. Their bodies stopped working, their brains stopped functioning, and their hearts just plain stopped. Every human being, without exception, has to die. It's part of what being a life form on this planet entails. Heck, even Jesus died.
In other words, stop being surprised by it. Stop finding it shocking when someone slips away and all life seems to disappear immediately from their human frame. Cry, yes. Be sad. I always am, and I've been through the loss of both my parents, several friends, and a sibling already. This isn't about conquering sadness. This is about conquering fear.
What we need to do is face our fear of death whether or not we are people of faith. And talking about reality is a great way of facing reality. We need to talk about it more. We need to come to a place of understanding, and then prepare ourselves to teach that lesson well to our children and our grandchildren. Fairytales may help them understand when they're little, but once they're old enough, they deserve the truth. We all do.
Want to unfear death? Want to make yourself stronger before the next unexpected death appears in your life? Then stop lying to yourself. Stop telling yourself that person will always be there, will always be around. They won't. Things happen. Death happens. Death always happens, 100% of the time. Stop lying to yourself, and start talking to others about it. Reach out to a loved one willing to have that hard chat along with you. Talk about it. Face the facts, and do it sooner rather than later. It'll help you stay strong in the midst of the hardest times we'll all go through as human beings. No, it won't make you invincible to pain, nor should it, but accepting death as part of what life is will make things just a little bit easier to handle once the next death arrives.