Monday, May 21, 2007

Facing Death

It's funny how some people, actually most when I think about it, look at a death in a family in terms of what it means for the future. Thanksgiving dinners, Christmas mornings, all changed forever with the passing of a loved one. They will no longer be there, wherever there may be: a graduation, a wedding or a mundane dinner on a typical friday night. They are simply gone.

One cannot live in the past, even though so many of us try, but I think the best way to handle death, or especially a long illness that preceeds it, is to immerse yourself in memories. I guess as I watch my family cry over the past couple of months, I felt like I wasn't experiencing the same thing. Yes, I was sad; yes, I was afraid of the emptiness my grandfather would leave; but for some reason, and I think I know why, his death didn't affect me in the same way. Perhaps my idea of death and life are different from the concepts of those I'm close to. I think it was because I chose to remember rather than project that caused the difference of experiences. Perhaps that my philosophical beliefs are different, and hence my perception is slightly askew from those of the rest of my family.

Or, it could be that we really were experiencing the same things, and it was our interpretations and handling of those experiences that were executed differently. Some became angry, and were vocal about it, whereas my own frustrations were probably expressed in a very passive way: by buying and reading Christopher Hitchens's GOD IS NOT GREAT or researching Richard Dawkins's ideas. Well, passive in that it may be a quiet protest to anyone who may have walked by, but also a giant fuck you to any spiritual being that may or may not exist.

There are no atheist in foxholes, and I'm pretty sure there are no atheists when it comes to consoling the grieving; which puts you in an odd place if you are agnostic at best. While you are dealing with your own sorrow, you must also take care in not offending those trying to comfort you with prayers and mentions of Jesus Christ, whom, to tell you the honest truth, has always given me the willies. (How different my view of religion would have been if Kevin Smith's Buddy Christ was an actual tool of the church.)

Of course some of my attitude toward death is because of my time working for a Hospice. There, death was not only a part of life, it was part of your workday. I only ever went out on visits on really rare occasions, basically for employee training and awareness, learning what the organization does so that I may feel like my work on the IT system was of the most importance; however I still had to deal with names and histories of people who were one day active and the next, their folders were purged from the current files. Ones and zeroes, along with numerous bits of paper - dealing with Medicare, the government, always means numerous bits of paper - were the accumulation of these people's lives as far as I and the computers were concerned. But computers are stupid and lack any moral center, and the computer operator, while still just as stupid, is cursed with a heart. And how do we deal with matters that bother our hearts, our conscious? With humor. And dark humor at that. It is much easier to understand what death is, especially on a daily basis, with laughter rather than tears until you can develop your own idea of what death means to you.

So, what does it mean to me? Well, that's much easier for me to understand than it is for me to explain. I'm not a philosopher, and I'm pretty sure that explination I've created for myself could be demolished by even an undergrad Philosophy major. Does that mean I don't have faith in my own thoughts? Perhaps. I never said I had the answers, just the answers for me. But it makes sense. Isn't that what we are looking for when we look at the world, when we question why? We want it to make sense.

And while my philosophical thoughts may seem ill conceived here, or to put it another way, never truly revealed, it has caused me to look at this experience of watching my grandfather die with a different perspective, basically through memories of who he was and what we did together, the actions and places that will define him for me forever. I chose to go back and relive some of those moments. As sad as I am, there is a larger part of me that feels greatful that he was in my life. In the end I'm happy in celebrating his life, because the greater sorrow would be that he never existed.

I will miss my grandfather, and already do. He was a great man. And as for that sudden vaccuum created by our loss, well, I have more than enough happy memories to fill it.


Lyman said...

The loss of a loved one is always difficult but I'm in your camp when it comes to grieving. When my grandmother died one of my cousins said something like "she's leaving us behind for a better place." It really bugged me... tremendously so. My grandmother didn't leave me behind. She was still with me in memory. All that she taught me, her mere presence was all part of who I am now. My condolences for your family's loss but also my congratulations for realizing all that your grandfather gave to you to make you who you are today. The body may falter but the gift of their life never ends.

Christa M. Miller said...

Steve, thanks for writing this. I didn't grieve for my grandmothers' deaths the same way anyone else did. In general I don't, for the elderly anyway. I thought there might be something wrong with me.

The only time I really grieved hard was after my miscarriage. That was because of all the future potential that had been lost, and because I had no real memories - not even an ultrasound. I did get angry at God - very angry. I still don't like the idea of "trials" because they make it seem like God is a dysfunctional parent trying to "teach you a lesson." But that's probably because I'm Gen X and therefore, lazy. ;)

Anyway, I'm glad you have so many wonderful memories and that you are at peace with your grandfather's passing. Take care!

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

Sorry for your loss.