An unchararacteristic meditation

Margaret and I have been talking about death. No, we did not get together over tea and decide to bring this up. This has been a virtual conversation. Last Wednesday, she wrote a touching and provocative entry about one of her patients. It moved me, and I left a comment, but I said that at least this man has had a good life. She wrote back to say that she was glad I was touched, but his good life doesn’t make his death any easier. So I was sitting here this morning writing a reply to this comment, and it ended up being hugely long and, by the end, confused. I started to say what I wanted to say and by the time I finished, I didn’t know what that was anymore.

“Margaret,” I began, “I hope I didn’t sound like I was trying to downplay his mortality, because I was trying not to do that.”

I had said in the first comment that I thought this man was lucky to have had a life full of love and joy. I didn’t mean that this made it any better that he was dying, but I felt that his life was not something that should go without celebration.

I continued: “Maybe I am wrong, and maybe it is ridiculously arrogant of me to say this, but I feel that given that we are all dying, the fact that some of us are fortunate enough to find joy in our lives does, I hope, count for something. Maybe at the moment of death it doesn’t matter at all, but surely — I hope — it counts on every other day of our lives.”

As I wrote this I read it over several times to see if it sounded like I was being callous in any way. I suppose I thought it did sound a bit self-righteous, because then I felt it necessary to add that I know nothing about death, which is true. I have never seen any person I love die. I have never had to stare death in the face and try to figure out what it means.

So I kept on writing, to explain this as a sort of disclaimer: “But what do I know. I know as little about death as any person can know. I am completely terrified of it. I’ve dreamed about my loved ones dying, and every time I have woken up crying and frightened and with the dreadful feeling that I never did tell them how much I love them.”

I reflected a little more. “Maybe,” I added, “when my time comes to deal with death directly, all these things I’ve been saying will seem like bullsh*t. Or, more likely, I will still believe them in theory but I will lie awake nights cold and sad and terrified and feel my world crashing down.”

At this point I really did stop and think. I thought about what I’d been saying about how life matters, but I also thought about what Margaret was saying in her comment, and about my nightmares of my family dying, and even the mystery novel I read last night, in which a much-beloved man had his life cut short by murder. And this is when my comment started to become more confused, because I was beginning to realize that there are things about death that I have never thought about before, because I have never had to think about them in my life.

“Okay,” I finally knew I had to admit. “I am going to stop now with trying to talk about what I have not experienced, and just be humble and say I don’t know what it’s like and these are my thoughts.” I realized that by never having to deal with death, I had (thus far) escaped certain inescapable truths.

I sort of hate it when these realizations come upon me, because then, besides having to acknowledge painful facts, I also have to acknowledge how young I am and how naïve, and I am (this I know) still young enough to hate doing that. I go through life generally confident, thinking I am emotionally mature and that I have seen a reasonable enough representation of the world. Then something like this comes and I feel like I am eight years old all over again. It is a really uncomfortable feeling.

What I think I have realized about death, and what I have never understood before – this admission makes me writhe so much, because I feel like I really should have gotten this earlier – is that in some sense, it really doesn’t matter, as I’d been believing it did, that someone has had a good life. The really dreadfully inescapable part about death, as I think I am beginning to understand, is that once someone is dead, they won’t have that good life anymore. I feel so childish for never having grasped this before. Is this what you were trying to get at, Margaret? That death is the great equalizer, because no matter what came before, our lives all end here – in not living anymore?

As all these thoughts tumbled about in my head I found it harder to write out what I wanted to say.

“I guess,” my words came more slowly, “any words or thoughts are empty when death comes around and that is what you were trying to say in your comment.”

I thought about what scared me most when I dreamed about my loved ones leaving me, and I remembered that it was the realization that we wouldn’t have any more good times, and I wouldn’t get to tell them anymore how much I love them, and that (in the case of my sisters) I would never get to watch them grow up and get married, and we would never get to live close together and all be mothers and aunts and raise our kids together as we have always said we would. When I had this thought I realized just what it is that is so inexorably terrible about death – at least I think I realized – and that is the future, not the past.

Feeling much less sure of myself, I wrote: “When someone you know dies, I guess what matters then is not the life they had, but the life they were not able to continue to have, and there is no way to get around that fact.” Since we none of us want to die, it hardly matters whether we have enjoyed a life of pleasure and enjoyment, or one of squalor and suffering; either way, death ends the life we know and cuts short all possibility for future experience. It makes me feel so idiotic that I never realized before that death at its most basic means simply no more living.

In my life thus far, the only deaths I have encountered personally have been those of people (or animals) who were very old, or very sick. In either case, what people told me was, “He was old, he’d had a good life,” or “At least she’s not suffering anymore.” I know we say these things to comfort ourselves, and I don’t think they are entirely empty, but I’m not so sure of them anymore. I guess now that I think of death as no more living, I’m not so sure just because one is old and has had a good life is any indication that one was no longer interested in what would happen tomorrow, and I am not so sure that if I were suffering, I wouldn’t still want to wake up the next morning and kiss my husband and pet my cats.

I don’t know. I guess I just have to reiterate what I wrote in this comment on Margaret’s journal, that I really know nothing and must now just be humble. I don’t know anything about death and I think I take back what I said earlier about one’s life being the important part, because now I am not so sure that that is the main point. I just won’t pretend to know anything about it anymore, because really I don’t.

[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at]