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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Cheerful Philosophical Musings On Death

I want to talk a little bit about death. This is apparently a touchy subject for people, so if it is for you, you may want to not keep reading.

Everybody is going to die. I'm going to die, you're going to die, my best friends are going to die, your relatives are going to die (if they aren't dead yet), everyone is going to die. Everyone. This isn't meant to be a mean statement, and to my thinking it really, truly isn't mean. It also isn't meant as some sort of threat or menace. It's just truth. Everyone dies.
In my dealings with (most) other people in the past decade I've noticed that they tend to get a little... antsy? jittery? anxious? upset? when this fact of life is mentioned. People apparently are scared of death, and because of that they will do lots of things to make that fear go away. One of the things they do is try to forget that death happens.

Early in my undergrad. years, I read a set of stories in Spanish class.

The first was the story of a youngish (we'll say 30s?) man who was a servant. One day he went into the market to get his master food or something, when he ran into Death. When he saw Death he was shaken up, because in most cultures (and I assume the one the story is told in), usually people only see Death when they are going to die soon. And then, something that terrified him even more was that Death seemed to grimace extra when he saw the man. Clearly, the man was on Death's shitlist. So the man ran back to his master's place and begged for the week off and the fastest horse or donkey around, 'cause he really really needed to visit his sister in far off Gargleblat (can you tell I'm not good at details?). The master agreed to the time off and the donkey on the condition that the man told him why he needed it so bad. The man said that he'd just seen Death in town and he was hoping to outrun/confuse Death by going to Gargleblat.
Of course the master then decides to go to the marketplace to see Death and find out what the whole deal is about. When he gets there, he asks Death why he grimaced upon seeing the servant. Death explains that he was just surprised was all, as far as he knew, he thought that tonight they had an appointment in Gargleblat, and it was weird to see the guy in Plonkville.

The second story in the set was written as a response to the first, and honestly I don't remember it nearly as well because it didn't really resonate the same way for me. In the story the man has reached Gargleblat and realizes that Death is still after him. He goes around town looking for someone to help him outwit Death, but as soon as anyone hears that tonight's his night they shutter the windows and kick him out, until he finds a guy who tells him that he'll help him. The man tells him that so long as he can survive till the morning, then Death won't be able to ever take him. Then they somehow beat Death with mirrors.

The first story treated fear of death as silly and misplaced. It framed death as an appointment, and Death not as a bad chap, just a guy with a job. The second story treated death as something to be avoided at all costs. Never dying was a reward for successfully besting Death. Death became an adversary. Lastly, it was unrealistic, since everyone dies (we'll put aside the manifestation of a fact of life) and at the end of it, the man is made immortal.

Everyone in my class liked the second story better than the first. Everyone, but me and the teacher. I thought the first story was funny. I liked that it looked at life head on. I liked that it admitted that death is going to happen.
Everyone in the class said I was morbid.

This past week I learned that my grandmother's situation is deteriorating. When she got her prognosis 6ish months ago, they basically told her that 6 months was on the outside of how long she'd have to live. So, it's not really a shock that this is happening now. However, one thing she's been firm on for a while is that she and my grandfather are not to talk about the possibility of her dying. She won't talk about it with anyone. Which means that she didn't get around to setting up the necessary steps for her to get hospice care in the home, should she fall into a coma (nor has anyone else in a position to do so). No one knows what to do, because if we all go see her right now on the likelihood that she won't be around in a month, or if we start putting pressure on her to get all the hospice/end of life care stuff worked out, then she'll feel pissed about us forcing her mortality on her

For context, you should also know that my grandfather's first wife (my mother's mother, who died when I was 2) steadfastly continued to insist that she was getting better and that the Goddess (or the Universe, or whatever) would heal her, right up until her death. Some of her daughters' last conversations with her were fights. So...

I'm conflicted, because on the one hand I definitely feel like everyone has a right to self-determination. If you want to shut your eyes and bury your head in the sand about your impending death, fine, do it. But it does harm people around you when you do it, and frankly I just don't understand it. I told my cousin this recently and he said he really sympathized with our grandmother. Which, again, I just don't get.

Then he said "not everyone is like you, most of us are afraid of death."

And I realized! Being depressed and wanting to be dead for all of my adolescent and adult life has given me the gift of less fear! I feel like a superhero: "Depresso Guy"!
Well honestly, if I was dying of cancer, maybe I wouldn't feel as nonchalant as I do about it right now. Admittedly, many things that seems cool in the abstract are fucking terrifying in the real. Like snowboarding. Tried it once, loved going fast, probably looked really awesome and such, until I realized I had no idea how to stop and started worrying about killing a child (ETA: *by going too fast and hitting hir*) when I got to the bottom. So I purposefully took a dive in the trees, pulled some muscles, decided that snowboarding wasn't for me, and anyway it was classist and exclusionary. (Sorry, off topic).
The point is, maybe I'm just deluding myself into thinking that I don't find death terrifying. Maybe I do, and in the long tradition of people who are scared of something and therefore convince themselves that they aren't scared, I say I'm not.

But I've got to say, the idea that maybe for once my Depression has given me something useful, namely the ability to not find my own death so terrifying that I shut down in the face of it, that's sort of cool.

Anyway, I hope your life, however long it is, is one which you generally enjoy.


  1. I think you're right, DeviantE. People who live with depression long-term get used to death hanging around, like a neighbor with a lot of attitude that everybody else is in awe of, but having known hir a lot longer you've just come to think of hir as kind of a one-trick pony.

  2. That sounds like a reasonable therory.

  3. I find it baffling, sometimes, how folks go to extremes to avoid death. I guess it's because in the culture I grew up in, death isn't seen as a final destination, what with the whole karmic wheel and all that. Even the monotheistic religions in my region don't see death as an evil, but as something that eventually happens, so everyone harps on Living A Good Life so they can die with a good conscience, making those of us who're already depressed that we're different even more depressed.

    That first story sounds funny, though!

  4. I'm not very afraid of my own death, the thing that scares me more is being mis-gendered after death. That's what I worry about, that once I die people will decide my preferred name and pronouns doesn't matter anymore. The other thing I worry about is that I have lots of online friends, some I'm very close to, and they wouldn't know what happened to me other than that I suddenly stopped logging on. I've wanted to talk to my family about this, or make some kind of will, but I'm in my early twenties and I feel like if I did people would think there was something wrong with me and I would get stupid "You're only 20-something, you shouldn't be thinking about stuff like this!".

  5. I want to put a small caveat on what Maud said. Someone very close to me has had depression for the better part of 10 years, but not a type that lends itself to suicidality, and as such, continues to be terrified of death. Though I think Maud is probably right about those of us who have had death ideation for a long time.

    @Jha, other cultures have very different feelings about death, and not being part of them, I can't really parse that. However, I will say that Christians, who arguably would assume to have a *great* deal waiting for them when they die (everlasting life of happiness, woo hoo) have been found to be some of the most anxious about actually dying. Likewise, my grandmother is definitely a "circle of life" type of gal, (though I don't know if she believes specifically in karma) and that is evidently not helping her process all that well.

    @SeaweedJim, I'm so sorry. I too think about how my online friends will know what's going on. One thing you could do would be to make a document on your computer called "in the event of my death" and then put in relevant passwords and requests for whoever is going to manage your estate. In terms of having the discussion now, it's scary, because yes, people are going to question why you're doing it. The problem, of course, is that if 20 is too young to do it, then 21 must be as well, (after all, it's only a year later), and then 22, and 23, and somehow you're 60 and you never bothered to have that tough discussion. At the time that Terry Schiavo was getting all that media coverage, I happened to be in a Dying and Death class, it was a great opportunity for me to tell my parents my wishes, under the auspices of "you never know, plus we've been talking about it a lot in class, not to mention that my professor has this as an assignment". Perhaps you could make up something similar ("someone I sort of knew from: work, school, the community, whatever, died and I've been thinking about it because he was so young.... blah blah"). That's my best thought on the matter.

  6. Well... you know, I don't know if it's the fear of death that's an issue, as much as it is a fear of loss.

    I mean, here's saying if I go. I know for a fact that my passing will, no matter what I do to mitigate it, hurt the ones I love. It's like I know how it'll hurt my wife, for example, even if I take the steps to ease that pain... that pain will still be there, after I pass on.

    There'll come a point when you realize that, hey... the memory of that person? That person and I will never make memories like that again. The moment is past. It's gone. And that realization can still hurt, even after all this while.

    And, you know what? It's not a rational kind of fear, this fear of loss. But it's there for some of us. We react to that fear of loss, that loss of possibility, in a much more visceral way than we would consider the potential for release, for the end.

    You can comfort yourself by saying that, well, people can't live forever, that there are worse things to face than death, but when I think about the loss that I face when dealing with that... there will be times when I cannot help but quail.

    In any case, I've heard that first part of the story before, from Marjane Satrapi's Chicken With Plums. In Satrapi's tale, the guy who meets Death was called Mister Ashoor, and his boss' name was King Solomon (yes, that Solomon), and instead of a donkey or a horse, King Solomon ordered the spirits of the wind and air to carry Mister Ashoor to India.

    Of course, as you can tell, Death was surprised. "I had an appointment with Mister Ashoor in India, and there he was, still in Jerusalem! What a surprise that was!"


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