Death is a horror.
I don’t know how I forgot that, but I did. I’ve had moments of remembering, of course; you have to be sleepwalking through this world to refuse any awareness of the horror of death. What I forgot was the power of some deaths, or rather some loves, to bring on a grief that takes hold and won’t let go.
The ache, the longing, the tightness, the haunting memories. Those damned memories. (My father had a heart attack last month while I was held him, staring into his eyes as he groaned and gasped and held on to me until he could hold no longer. A lifetime of memories – of laughter and science experiments and road trips and tickle monster – have all been crowded out by the memory of his eyes and the grip of his hands.)
I also forgot just how ridiculous all arguments are that make death into anything but a horror. My father had a good life, lived to see all of his children thriving, provided financially for my mother, and was ready to die. He was ready to get rid of the body that had betrayed him so long. And I was relieved that he was spared the suffering that he feared. And still it was a horror. To describe it any other way would require a force of will so great that I would fear for my sanity.
Now I know that many of my friends and family disagree with me here. It’s sad, yes. But a horror? I’m just not looking at it right, they say. These people tend to fall into one of two camps. The first offer an materialist take on death. It’s a natural and even sad part of life, but certainly not a horror. Things live and then they die. The end. Our sense that it is not the end or should not be the end is an illusion, an unfortunate evolutionary bi-product.
I once asked Sarah Hrday, the anthropologist and primatologist whose work has influenced the field of evolutionary psychology, what the evolutionary purpose of certain forms of grief might be. She admitted that many of them seemed to proffer an evolutionary disadvantage. Might then our grief point to something beyond the material?
The second camp that denies the horror of death sees it as some kind of passage to a better place. Whether Christian or new-age, adherents to this camp say things like, “We’re sad, but they’re in a better place, looking down on us.”
This camp seems to minimize or outright disallow feelings of rage and sorrow. If they are Christians, there is no room for grief because this world was nothing but a sorry dress rehearsal for heaven. If they are of a more new-age persuasion, there is no need for grief because very little has changed. Uncle Bob is simply on another plane, still able to communicate with us, still enjoying Rocky Road ice cream – still exactly the same minus and pain or troubles he may have borne in this life.
This second approach seems to make a mockery of life. What kind of system is it where everything after death carries on just as it had before death, only better? Why, then, would this life matter at all?
Neither of these camps’ understanding of death makes sense of my experience, an experience of rage and yearning. Something horrible and wrong has happened. I want to break things and carry on like a mad woman. Death is not okay.
And not just my daddy’s death. What is happening to Syrian rebels is a horror. And to children committing suicide after being bullied. And to mothers watching their babies succumb to cancer. And to an eighty year old man losing his beloved wife after fifty wonderful years. It’s all a horror. And everything in my experience says that it’s not just sad, but wrong. Please don’t try to explain that feeling away or I might punch you in the face.
Experience is not everything, of course. People really and truly hear voices that aren’t there, so I understand that my experience may lead me astray from the truth. But having worked for years with grieving children and adults, my metaphysics needs to account for the fact that people react to death – not to the idea of death, but to death itself – as though it’s wrong.
It awakens a deep No and a profound longing.
It awakens a deep No and a profound longing; which is why I was never so ready for Advent as I was this year. I’ll write more about that tomorrow, but for now I’ll say the Christian church’s season of No and longing is balm to my weary soul.