“Death is the road to awe.” — The Fountain
Death is the seemingly final step within the lifecycle of Man. We are born. We live our short lives in whatever way we deem best. When we have reached the end we die. Our family is left to pick up the pieces. Death has a ring of finality to it and afterwards we equate our loss to an absence, a void, or a black hole. Death seems to have a life and gravity all its own.
When I was younger I was apathetic to death. I coldly rationalized it as being an important factor in the lifecycle of Man. I had known people who had died — relatives, friends’ parents, church members, and even celebrities. Each time I viewed death as this unstoppable juggernaught that there was little point in fighting against. There were a few times that I produced tears. I remember crying for my stepdad when his sister died to leukemia. I was disconnected from the death itself, but felt bad for him. When the step dad of a friend of mine died due to cancer I cried. Again the tears were for my friend and not the departed. When my foster mother died I again shed tears only for her family. I had considered myself so wise for having conquered grief over death and having an open acceptance of death’s place within our lives. This was regardless of the fact that I knew that the death of my best friends or my children would have produced an immeasurable amount of grief within me.
This changed circa 2004 when a girl from school died roughly ten years after graduation. Kelly was always a sweet girl. I did not know her very well at all, but she always had this sort of glow about her. She was someone that your attention is drawn to even when you don’t understand why. She had had a brief illness and never recovered. I attended neither wake nor funeral, but her death had a profound impact on both me and my closest friend. The closest feeling I can equate to is that of the feeling of when a fellow warrior has passed before our mission could be completed. Something about the death had felt wrong and out of place. This feeling typically comes up during the denial stage of grief — a stage I had never encountered with any death prior to this one.
From that moment forward death carried more meaning to me. It came into clearer focus. I could feel its impact on a deeper level than ever before. I watched the parade of deaths in obituaries and in the media throughout the years until one had the largest impact on me — the death of Robin Williams. Robin Williams was a beloved funny man with years upon years of struggles with drug addiction and alcohol in addition to mental illness and fame. Every performance he gave had impact in some way or another. His two most important works, to me, were “The World According to Garp” and “What Dreams May Come.”
Robin Williams’ death didn’t impact me from the perspective of a celebrity dying. It impacted me from the perspective of his battle with mental illness. Here was a man who seemingly had everything. He was wealthy and loved. He had children and a wife. He had overcome addiction and continually sought to help others when he saw that they were in need. In many ways I saw a kindred spirit in him, but one who had found a way to have a greater impact on the world than I did. As I read more about what led to his death I discovered that he had had a best friend in Christopher Reeve who had, unfortunately, died ten years earlier. I immediately went to self examination and introspection comparing our lives. I have had many trials and tribulations and, as a result, have wanted to have an impact on the world. I have a very close friend, but unlike Robin mine lives. When I thought about what the death of my friend would do to me I realized that it would be very difficult to keep on going. To make it ten years would be a miracle. I also looked at our comparative ages. He had successfully fought until age 63. I was barely hanging on at age 37. When I considered that 26 year gap at the time I did not see how I could overcome it. Hence his death triggered in me a depressive cycle that only ended in October 2015.
“Death is the road to awe.” The passing of loved ones creates a path we must all journey that produces the most overwhelming feelings of terror (immediately after passing) and elation (upon final acceptance of the death). Death acts, in many ways, as a reminder that we are all unified as a species. I have mentioned in other writings the similarities between ourselves and the system of planets we inhabit. The death of a planet eliminates the gravity holding its satellites in place just as the death of a star throws off the orbit of the planets. Even in our own solar system if we were to lose Jupiter there would be massive changes to Earth. So too when a loved one dies the ripples echo across time and space impacting everyone else that existed within her universe. Death, then, becomes more visible than life.
In November 2013 I lost my biological father. He was a man that I had never spent any time with. I had been told horrifying stories about him my entire life. In many ways I felt that he was as absent as any father could be. His death pointed out that I was very wrong. My father helped raise me to be the man I am today as much by his absence as any other father does through his presence. I learned the very type of man I didn’t want to be. I learned the type of father I wanted to be to my children. This epiphany came quickly only after his death.
It is important to understand that death, as an addendum to the previous notion that it was part of the lifecycle of man, is actually a very important part of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. We are born. We live our lives. When we die something new is borne out of that death. In a metaphorical sense there is a rebirth of the way we live our lives. Our loved one is gone. Now we have to adjust to this new mode of living life without her. Life could go in two directions now — towards misery over the loss or through acceptance and remembering what she gave you. Neither is easy. Then again death is never easy. Death creates the most opportunity to grow. It is the biggest gauntlet we must pass through. Essentially as we pass through that gauntlet we are deciding then and there whether Truth and Life matter or whether we are hollow shells living only to die.
The loss of a child would be the most horrible and potentially most awe-inspiring death to journey through. Awe is defined as “an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful, or the like.” The feelings expressed during the death of a child are the most overwhelming feelings one could ever go through. They exceed even the feelings after the death of a parent, lover, or friend. It is also the death that creates the largest chain reaction. Suicide and depression become likely cataclysmic events surrounding the death of the child. Those overwhelming feelings send ripples across our individual universe. All who exist within it are touched.
I am still impacted by the accidental shooting of a five year old boy that my children knew when they were much younger. I didn’t know him. They only knew him marginally better. Yet here we are impacted by a death that occurred twelve years ago. In fact the suicide of a young teen over the summer was incredibly impactful as I was peripherally acquainted with his stepmother. Their deaths created opportunity for growth in those closest, compassion in those nearby, and sympathy versus apathy in those further out. As death continues to bombard us each and every day I find myself growing more and more into a state of compassion rather than giving in to nihilism.
That is the change that ocurred within me. It was easy to accept the nihilistic view that all things die. It was harder to accept that not all things live. Kelly, fellow warrior that she was, taught me to practice gratitude for the living so that in death Truth and Life mattered. I was born anew the day I learned of her death.