On Death

This might be the biggest subject religion ever has to tackle. Death as the ending of a cycle gives purpose to our lifespan and yet it is also an incredible unknown (and heading into something unknown is, frankly, terrifying).

There’s a lot that Hinduism has to say about death…

  • Death is an illusion. Our real selves are immortal.
  • Death is like going back stage after a show before coming out for the next one.
  • Time is an illusion and all things that have ever been, are now.
  • Death is a natural part of life and not something to fear.

And I believe all those things. Yet these beliefs were cold comfort to me when I lost my best friend.

That experience shook my faith to the core in a way that I didn’t even know was possible. It’s easy to believe these things about death when it is not affecting you or not closely affecting you. It’s easy for me to think it was my grandmother’s time to go. She was old. When my grandparents died, when my childhood cat died, when my hallmate in college died, I was able to have just enough distance to remember that in the ultimate reality they were not ended, they were not gone, all was okay.

I just was not able to feel it when I lost Ilana. I could not process in my mind a universe in which her death was part of the plan. Today is the anniversary of her death. She died in 2010 on Sunday January 17th. Though it has been three years, her loss still affects me profoundly today.

When it happened, some of my friends and family tried to comfort me by saying that “it was her time” and “there are no mistakes.” I really do believe those things. But despite that, hearing people say it made me furiously angry. I could not believe in a universe where it was Ilana’s time to go. Too many people needed her. I needed her.

I’m still not at peace about that.

It’s a strange thing when my beliefs and my visceral experience come into conflict.

I do still absolutely believe all those things about death. It is obviously a natural and important part of life. Talk of making our bodies and brains immortal scares the hec out of me because I think death serves a purpose. My brain is on board.

My heart still aches for Ilana. I miss her so tremendously that I cannot put it into words. I still have dreams where I talk to her, though not as often as I did the first year. It feels more real now and less like some cruel joke or misunderstanding.

It triggered depression in me for the first time. I’ve always been a very upbeat person with an extremely strong sense of purpose in life. I didn’t *get it* when people were depressed. What’s to be unhappy about?

But then I lost all sense of purpose. It became difficult to keep doing day to day life because it seemed pointless. Without Ilana, meaning drained out of my life. I spent the first year after her death in mostly a haze, doing what I needed to do without any sincerity behind those tasks. It’s gotten slowly better over the last few years, but I still have become more susceptible to depression and have frequent bouts of having to work extremely hard just to get out of bed.

One of the ways that religion functions in our lives is to give us a clue about what death means. Hinduism does that very well. It’s system of reincarnation makes sense in a way that a lot of other explanations don’t. To me it fits the evidence the best. You have to be careful in general to see what is in the world and base your explanation on that rather than to have an explanation and cling to it so rigidly that you dismiss evidence against it. One of the things I like about the Hindu system of death is the preservation of energy. However, I think that’s a post for another time!

Even though the Hindu beliefs about death make sense to me, I still rail against Ilana’s death. I think I have too much selfishness in me still. I want her here with me even if that doesn’t fit the system.

How have you coped with the death of a loved one?

Obituary Ilana Jonsson

Scholarship Fund Ilana Jonsson

About Ambaa

Ambaa is an American woman of European ancestry who is also a practicing Hindu. She is fascinated with questions of philosophy, culture, and the meaning of life. Join her in the journey to explore how a non-Indian convert to Hinduism experiences her religion.

  • http://none OM GUY

    At the age of 7, I saw a program on an early morning kids show, that depicted a scene in what I came to know as having been shot in Southern India along the coast. To make a long story short, the scene looked vaguely, but forcefully familiar. Ever since that time I have been drawn to discover more and more as the years passed.

    I was born a white male, in the Catholic tradition. In so doing, I was rudely smacked for asking questions about God. I knew then and there, that that was not the religion for me. not my way of life. After I got out on my own did I fully explore all religious ways, but settled on the best path for me, Hinduism.

    • Ambaa

      Awesome! I love being part of a religion in which I can ask questions and I can struggle with things without feeling like I have to hide that.

      What a fascinating experience with possible past life memory, too! I wonder what brought your soul to be born into a Catholic family. I wonder that about my own soul too!

      • http://none OM GUY

        Hari OM! Ambaa~

        Whatever the reason, it resulted in my looking toward all religious aspects while settling in on Sanatana Dharma, where giving to devotees is 24/7, not just on select days. It gave me the opportunity to fall back, in a way, and view the rest of religious views as mere paths toward the same goal. It was difficult when even my own sister, a born-again Christian refused to speak to me because I was now a heathen who’s soul would not be saved and I was doomed to lakes of fire.

        One thing is for sure though, instead of faith, I have truth and Hinduism is a way of daily life, keeping you focused toward that truth. Life has become so much easier despite the kali yuga’s roadblocks.

        • Ambaa

          What a great story. I’m so sad that your sister behaved that way! But you kept your head and are building a solid platform for happiness.


    @ Ambaa

    This is a very sensitive subject. I don’t think one can understand until it happens to the most important person in their family.

    My mother died on 14-Jan-2012 at age of sixty six. She was simple and very spiritual person in our family. It was because of her we follow Hinduism. I went in to dark place I thought I will never recover from despite understding every thing to do with death. I do understand your pain. We had puja planed to celebrate her life on 20-jan-2013 on sunday comming which was the day we cremated her exactly one year ago, because of snow and bad weather we had to cancel this puja. We will do this in few weeks time to celebrate the gift of life she gave to all of us, her children.

    The best things you and I can do is pray for them and do something that they loved and hope they get their peace and happiness in after life. I wish you all the best.


    • Ambaa

      Thank you.

      I hope you’re able to hold your puja, that sounds like a wonderful way to honor your mother’s memory.

      As much pain as I am in over the death of my friend, I can’t fathom losing a parent. My own parents are in their sixties now, so your story really hits home for me.

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