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?

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Scholarship Fund Ilana Jonsson

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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.


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