In ten days, it will be ten years since my Mother died; A few days ago I lost a friend, someone I will miss dearly for all that we shared over the years. Whether death comes after a long illness or in a sudden blinding flash of circumstance, no one wants it. Death is thrust upon us all, no matter how expected, logical or reconcilable the causes and the train of events leading to it. Death is never welcome.
Life is a strange thing, if you think about it; There is nothing else we cling to as desperately while fearing so thoroughly. When faced with death, more so that of ones we care about, we mostly fear for our own lives. Not losing them, but living them. For what is our most immediate question to ourselves if not how we will go on living?
As callous as that might sound on the surface, it is possibly the most reasonable reaction, because after all, what is there to mourn for the dead? If you’re a person of faith, you believe they have moved on to better places or different things, if you’re a pragmatist, you think of it as a simple end, neither of which are inherently mournful. The ones to mourn for are the ones who must deal with this newly formed void in their world, and we know no voids as intimately as the ones we feel opening up inside ourselves.
For those of us still living, death often turns out to be that most poisonous of intoxicants, sending us into stupors of grief in the short term and leaving parts of vital psychological organs deadened by its touch over time. I don’t think anything ensures that almost inevitable slide towards old age, in spirit and practice, than those deadened optimisms and hollowed hopes, accumulated over repeated exposures to the stark simplicity and the wanton randomness of death. Before it we let our spirits crumble and eventually we feed the beast in despair.
Sometimes, though this is cited more often than deeply-felt, I suspect, we truly do mourn for those who died for what could have been. Every one we cared for had something which they could have given the world and now won’t be able to. That lost potential bothers us, because in our closeness to people we get to know of dreams, talents, wishes and ambitions which few are aware of, potentials that will now not see the light of day. Both my Mother and my friend Rehab, for example, were poets at heart.
Not having lived in the time of blogs, my Mother’s attempts at rhyme and metre lay scribbled in random notebooks and scraps of paper pressed between the pages of dusty volumes; Some of these scraps still populate long-unopened pages of books on my shelf. Rehab’s interest in poetry was more publicly expressed but one thing she felt very strongly about in private was to write Urdu poetry well. Her attempts will perhaps remain in abandoned text files, unsent emails, and messages to friends with random lines asking for comments.
This eroding of spirits and loss of potentials is what really makes death so affecting to life. In trying to combat such effects, we often resort to knee-jerk reactions. Some turn uncaring and cynical, because what can it matter when death is an ever looming reality? Others grow careless in our renewed vigour to experience and reassert life in short, brisk packets of cliché and sentiment. Like all ill-considered reactions, however, these are temporary salves and ultimately self-defeating.
The cure for the chronic and accumulating effects of death, comes from the same seed of emotion as the grief of it, and that is caring. We grieve over the loss of those we care about, the loss of their potentials, and we let that grief smother our spirits in small, growing doses. The cure for our caring often lies in the caring of those who are with us no more. If we cared about their presence and potential, it is often likely they cared about ours, and we usually have enough proof of it if we give it a thought.
My Mother was never the most easily moved to tears, but I remember an occasion when I first started college, when I showed her something I’d written. It was a short personal memoir of my childhood love of paper, naturally featuring my parents in various anecdotes, and I remember her having tears in her eyes when she finished. That has stayed with me since, and whenever I think myself incapable of writing anything truly affecting, I remember that image and continue my efforts. There’s a lot to be said about the baseless biases of mothers for their children’s work, but I know my Mother.
Rehab was also a frequent encourager and inspirer of my writing. She’d have been one of the handful of people guaranteed to read this article when I put it up on my blog. She rarely commented here, but would often let me know what she thought later, or ask me why I hadn’t written anything for so long. She was also very fond of asking me open-ended questions to which I’d reply in long rambling emails with my thoughts on the subject, emails which ended up being fairly complete pieces of writing themselves, even if only for an audience of one. This piece could very easily have begun with an email from her with a single sentence asking me what I thought of death and grieving.
Death is not welcome because it is the end of the only thing we know and are familiar with: life. It feels like the end of everything that goes with that, the potentials, the caring, the hopes, the love. Yet it is those very things that can free us from the death’s detrimental effects on us, the currently living. As in the case of all unwelcome guests, it is easy to let death gnaw on our insides and turn us bitter, but it isn’t necessary, merely another knee-jerk reaction sustained beyond its usefulness.
The people we cared about, cared about us too, about our lives, our potentials, and about what we have to offer the world. They cared and they let us know, in big or small ways. If there is any better reason to not let death deaden our spirits over time, I don’t know what it is.
The last email I received from my friend, a mere 10 days ago, was asking after me and my recent silences online, which she’d noticed. I replied immediately, assuring her all was well, and with renewed energies to write more, I signed off, for what I didn’t know would be the final time.
My warmest wishes for caring,