Most nonbelievers think there is something absurd about the denial of death. Sam Harris expresses this view well:

We live in a world where all things, good and bad, are finally destroyed by change. Parents lose their children and children their parents. Husbands and wives are separated in an instant, never to meet again. Friends part company in haste, without knowing that it will be for the last time. This life, when surveyed with a broad glance, presents little more than a vast spectacle of loss. Most people in this world, however, imagine that there is a cure for this. If we live rightly—not necessarily ethically, but within the framework of certain ancient beliefs and stereotyped behaviors—we will get everything we want after we die. When our bodies finally fail us, we just shed our corporeal ballast and travel to a land where we are reunited with everyone we loved while alive. Of course, overly rational people and other rabble will be kept out of this happy place, and those who suspended their disbelief while alive will be free to enjoy themselves for all eternity.

So yes, things change. And denying death does have an air of almost obvious absurdity about it.

But then again, our cat died yesterday. I’m in an emotionally turbulent state and will remain so for a while. (He was eighteen and a half, and had a good and comfortable life, by cat standards. Nonetheless, he’s dead and something—someone—I cared deeply about has been ripped out of the fabric of my daily life.) In my current state of mind, I’m no mood to gripe about any comfort anyone might get from even the most absurd beliefs about death.

As I age, I increasingly harbor echoes of useless skills. Somewhere in my brain, only half-forgotten, lurks expertise on software no one has used for two decades, hints of ideas in physics that never panned out, traces of books that I never should have read in the first place. That’s just trash that accumulates. But there are also memories of people and pets I will never see again—not just explicit pictures but also patterns of response, an ability to predict what someone would have done in some situation. I have low-resolution copies of personalities lodged in my brain. And I would not get rid of all this if I could, even though it may not help or can even hinder how I respond to what I encounter today. The memories are all that remains, in many cases.

With time, maybe the clutter takes over. Certainly, the sense of loss does. My father tells me that the problem with living as long as he has (approaching 80 now) is that too many of his friends have died. Every year the clutter gets larger, and more valuable.

I don’t see much to do about all this than to shrug and carry on. But I can also see that a lot of people will be unsatisfied with life as one damn thing after another and then you die. They may perceive that as a problem, and be attracted by supernatural claims that propose a solution. And if so, arguing about such matters need not accomplish anything worthwhile. Right now, I miss my cat. Arguments are just beside the point.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • MikeB

    Cats can be such wonderful companions and we certainly miss the ones we've lost. I lost my best little buddy last year to feline kidney disease. He was a fabulous friend and companion.

    As you alluded to, it's easy to not only remember them but precisely how they might behave in certain situations.

    Take the time to mourn. Remember your little friend.

    My sympathies to you Taner I know its not an easy time.

  • Mule Breath

    I'll briefly share your grief, and tip my hat for a most excellent eulogy for a lost friend. I've cried before as well…

  • Andrea Weisberger

    So sorry for your loss. No words can ease your grief, but know that there are those who well understand what it means to lose a beloved animal friend, and who offer sympathy.

    Just yesterday I had to deal with the death of an anonymous young homeless cat in a convenience store parking lot. I don't know which was more touching — that the poor cat died young in such a dismal place or the other feral cat who would not leave the side of his fallen friend.

    Your cat was lucky to be loved for so long, and you were fortunate indeed to have been the beneficiary of such a dear friend's affection. People such as yourself who appreciate and care for animals are a bright light in a world all too often filled with cruelty and neglect.

  • Taner Edis

    Thanks for your sympathies. It helps.

  • RBH

    I'm not all that far from your father's age, and I know what he means. And not all the friends one has lost are human — I remember all the dogs I've had going back to when I was aged in the single digits. And that's a fair number of dogs: all but about 6 years of my life I've had at least one dog.

    Notwithstanding how many of them there have been, losing one is always tough, and I sympathize with your loss.

  • bob

    "Bootsy" wondered up a couple years ago. He was thin and friendly. I will never understand how a stray cat or dog can wonder up to a stranger and not have some apprehension.
    We took Bootsy in (just a month after "Slinky" wondered up, and a year before "Red" wondered up), fed him, cleaned him up, visited the vet, and he became one of the herd – 4 dogs and 3 cats. But less than a year later, "Bootsy" began to loose weight. Several trips to the vet revealed an always-fatal disease. We loved him, fed him baby food, carried him out when he hadn't the strength to walk, and eventually came to understand that our love for him was making him miserable, so I took him to the vet one last time. I wept so hard. A 50 year old man weeping in the waiting room of the vet with a cat I had known for less than a year.

    My dog "Ginger will soon be 20. Blind, deaf, and unstable when she walks. I have had her since 1991.
    I am growing so very weary with this process of loss.

    So sorry for you.

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