Feelings about death are complicated: illogical, guilt-ridden, speculative. We are often shocked by death and deem it unfair, knowing damn well that everyone and everything dies. Nothing is permanent. Look around you. None of what you see will exist forever. Nothing. It goes through constant change, and has a time when it will expire. That change, that progress, cannot be stopped, whether to our bodies or our environment. It is part of evolution, part of the big bang, part of the expansion of the universe. It started long before we got here, and will continue long after we’re gone. Even this planet we inhabit will eventually disappear. Being mindful of this impermanence helps us to appreciate everything more.
When my dog died last week – the third time in my life I’ve been through this trauma – it seemed so sudden, and kind of unfair. After the shock, my first feelings were ones of self-examination. Did I miss warning signs? Should I have done something differently? Did I somehow contribute to his death? We want to stop death, even after it happens. These feelings were piggybacking with ones of intense sorrow for my dog and any suffering he endured. But it went further than this. I felt sorry for him for being dead, which makes no sense since he no longer has a consciousness (well, maybe he does, but if so he’s still not likely to be suffering). He presumably can’t feel anything, so there is no need to torture myself over his absence. It is those left behind, the living, who bear the burden of sorrow and suffering, which is somewhat ironic. The dead have the easy part. The living have the hard part.
Our wanting to prevent and stop death makes perfect sense – it highlights how much we value life. But life would not be special if it were not for death. Without death, living things would have little challenge, purpose or meaning. Existence must be finite, because we cannot fathom or tolerate the infinite, at least not in our present state. If you knew you were going to live forever in this form, how would you feel about life? Even the optimist may become pessimistic, and the pessimist who used to get up and think “just another day closer to death” may realize that this was actually a good thing. The gradual changes that we and everything around us goes through prepare us for death. Our bodies and faculties start to fail us, and we find that we no longer fit in very well with the world around us. It now belongs to the next generation, and we must move aside for them, just as our ancestors did for us.
Premature death is another matter. When one dies early in their lifespan, we feel they have been cheated. Maybe so, maybe not – it depends on what comes after death. I’ve always thought that those who believe in a glorious afterlife should celebrate death, not mourn it. If nothing happens after death, then yes, you could argue that those who don’t live a full lifespan were cheated, but in this particular instance they no longer have a consciousness and aren’t at all aware or affected by this unfairness. If there is consciousness after life, then they weren’t really cheated at all. We were, of having them around. So when someone dies, are we sorry for them, or ourselves? Usually both, but the sorrow for ourselves makes much more sense. But to dwell on “what ifs” and painful moments leading up to a death is unproductive, and a futile attempt by our minds to cheat or reverse death. In some cases death may be delayed, but it cannot be cheated, it cannot be stopped, it cannot be changed, no matter what we do. To have an awareness of missing the deceased because of what they meant to us is much more productive.
This is where others can step in to fill the void. Perhaps the animal or person who has passed on has given us new insight, a new outlook, a new opportunity with their passing to make new connections with others. Maybe we take the best in them and incorporate it into ourselves. Maybe we have more patience with the living. Maybe we have a greater appreciation for life in whatever time we have left.
So when you do anything in life – listen to music, converse with a friend, go to your job, clean the house, or take out the dog – be mindful of impermanence, and the fact that whatever you’re doing will have an endpoint. If you experience a “bad” thing, know your feelings about it will end, and be glad. If it’s a “good” thing, know the same and thereby appreciate it more. Not taking things for granted will help you be more grounded and live in the moment. Nothing is forever – even grief.