Friday, February 18, 2011

Grief

(News-Herald, February 17) Sooner or later, everybody dies.
Of all the universal truths, of all the inescapable pieces of cold, clear knowledge, this is the one we least like to admit. We might let it stand around in the lobby of our brain, but we rarely invite it to come in, sit down, and make itself at home in our hearts.
It’s almost impossible to ignore death, but we get pretty good at letting it become a background noise, like the tv in the next room tuned to a show that we don’t really follow.
And not all deaths are created equal; some are easier to cope with than others. William Cullen Bryant’s poem “Thanatopsis,” once a staple of funeral services, suggests that after a well-lived life, death is an opportunity to “lie down to pleasant dreams,” and I suppose sometimes death is like that.
But sometimes death jumps up and clubs us in the face. We are suddenly reminded of death’s finality, how completely it erases possibilities for the future both for those who pass and for those who love them. No more opportunities, no more shared joys, a future slate that will remain forever blank. It is gut-wrenchingly horrible to see someone swept up suddenly by that oblivion, even harder to see someone willingly embrace it with either a quick final choice or a slow steady spiral.
It’s a grief that renders us stumbling and mute, because there is suddenly so much that we want to say to someone to whom we can no longer say anything at all. There is so much that we want to have explained to us by someone who will no longer explain anything. And it’s just plain unfair.
The responses to such untimely death are such familiar clich├ęs (be nice to others, don’t waste time, honor their memory with good work, blah blah blah) that is surprising how real and compelling they are when you really mean it. You can go through the motions of love or prayer for years, but when the day comes when you really do it, do it with your whole heart and intent and energy, the power of it knocks you off your feet and you whisper, amazed, “Oh, so that’s what it is.”
This is like that.
You grieve, sometimes a huge grief when the loss itself is huge. But there’s more. You carry forward the work of the departed, do for them the things that they no longer have the power to do for themselves and in so doing, you become a forward extension of their too-shortened lives.
That means you give love to the people they would have loved if they had been here to do it. And you work for the causes that they would have worked for had they stayed longer. You become their heart and hands in a world that they can no longer touch for themselves. You do the best you can for all the Jamie’s and Mike’s and Molly’s and Leslie’s and Chris’s who can no longer carry on for themselves.
And you remember that sooner or later, everybody dies.
It is so easy to slip into denial. People talk about just zipping through a day, as if, on the other side, there is an infinite supply of days. People make choices—or DON’T make choices—as if they are simply rehearsing for some infinite supply of opportunities ahead. Some people slip into the ultimate version of the old lie “If I don’t really try, I can’t fail”—“If I don’t really live, I won’t actually die.”
Our lives are powered by our passions and commitments; that flame which we carry forward has been fed by the people we have known and loved, and many of them are no longer in a position to carry their own flame. That’s our job now, and when we stop feeding our own fire, theirs dims as well.
Life can break people in places that no doctor can reach, and death can be cruel. Sometimes people lose their way, or their strength fails. But mostly human beings still get a choice about how to care for each other, how to use our time, who and what to hold in our hearts. It is not always a bad thing for us to remember to conduct ourselves with love and care, because we have an unknowable expiration date, and so do the people around us. Sooner or later, we are all going to die. But in the meantime, we live.

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