Day 11 – On death

(This post is part of the 30 for 30 challenge).

Writing early in the morning brings out random ideas in me for some reason.  One of them is death. Death: the BIG sleep, as it is sometimes known (although I think that is not quite a helpful way of putting it for purposes of psychological ease in dealing with the matter.)  Who wants to sleep forever AND be aware of it?!

Okay I admit. It’s a seemingly macabre topic, but one that I’ve often been fascinated by for quite some time.

When my grandmother died two years ago, I became even more fascinated.  I saw a woman of 79 years go from a perfectly healthy, active member of her community, to a gibbering basket case, unable to make sense of words or her surroundings, ultimately losing it all due to the random ravages of a malignant brain tumor.  It was quite sad to see this progression slowly taking place.  What was even more upsetting was seeing how she too knew it was slowly happening, and was ever more aware of her inability to comprehend.  Talk about a downer.

Once she died, and i was able to see her body at the funeral, the curious thoughts that occasionally creep into my mind about death were suddenly forced right back into my face. Questions like, “Where is she now?” “Is she aware of this funeral, or anything?” “Does she feel anything, now?”  All very deeply probing questions, but all without the slightest inkling of anything resembling an answer.  I think that used to bother me – not having an answer – but now I’m okay with it.

Because of the nature of my grandmother’s ailment, I took to volunteering at a local hospice shortly after her death. I think secretly, deep down, I wanted to get as close to her experience as I could. I wasn’t personally there for her last few weeks, so I didn’t really know what to expect at hospice. It was a special home for people with dementia and/or Alzheimer’s who were in the final stages of their condition. My grandmother, who because of her brain tumor, exhibited a person with severe dementia.

I remember my first week there as being a daily reality check. I would leave one day, having had a very nice interaction with a person, only to return the next to find their room empty, their belongings removed.  “Oh right”, I thought.  “These are short term visits.” Even though I knew this would happen, I still couldn’t help but feel a small twinge of surprise and sadness each time I would return and a person wouldn’t be there.

I also noticed from my time at hospice that there is an odd awkwardness in our culture surrounding dying persons.  We want to act as though they are not really ill, not really going to die – that they will in fact get better. We talk about what we will do with them in the future, and make plans. I think part of it is human nature in not wanting to let go the persons we love, and part of it is that we cannot accept death as a reality of living. One thing I particularly admired about the hospice nurses was their matter-of-fact approach to the situation, and their ability to dispel the awkwardness of the giant elephant in the room that is a dying person. They were there to make people feel as comfortable and normal as is possible given the situation. Dying people are still people, after all, and what they really want is to feel acknowledged and enjoy as much peace and normality as possible in their last days.

I saw many dead bodies at my time at hospice. Some of which I encountered at the moment of death, others hours later. Each time it got easier to see them, but the mystery of it all only grew stronger.  However, the feeling was consistently one of peace, and an unconventional beauty.

Our culture has a deathly aversion to “that which shall not be discussed”. Not only do we do everything to pretend death doesn’t exist, but we also do everything to prevent it from happening in the first place, even when sometimes it is the clearest answer. Whether it is through our euphemisms describing death (i.e., he passed away; she is at home now), to the way we publicly allow death to be seen (i.e., open casket funerals where the person is made to look alive again), to the way we preserve bodies in the ground in iron clad coffins, death is seemingly something to be swept under the rug and ignored.

Ironically, our culture also has a fascination with death – dramatic death. The media portrays every death to be a violent struggle – writhing and in agony.  As they grotesquely say, “If it bleeds it leads!”. The truth of the matter is, most death is quietly experienced in a bed, or chair, frequently alone, and often in silence. As one hospice nurse eloquently described dying in hospice to me,

You notice it in the breath. It’s like watching a plane land from far away. It gets slower and slower, and lower and lower, until it just touches down, lands, and stops. And then there is nothing.

One of the great modern thinkers and writers on the human condition, Alan Watts, had a lot to say about death. In an series of extensive talks on the matter, he quipped the following which I think is one of the most informal, yet on point descriptions of death I’ve read:

Watts says,

What’s it gonna be like, dying? To go to sleep and never, never, never wake up. Well, a lot of things it’s not gonna be like. It’s not going to be like being buried alive. It’s not going to be like being in the darkness forever. I tell you what — it’s going to be as if you never had existed at all. Not only you, but everything else as well. That just there was never anything, there’s no one to regret it — and there’s no problem. Well, think about that for a while — it’s kind of a weird feeling when you really think about it, when you really imagine.

You can watch part of his talk on the matter here.

Yes, a very weird feeling indeed. I have often had these thoughts of “non-existence”.  It is a curious thought experiment which, when one really tries to think about it, feels like peering into the black hole of the mind.  As living, thinking humans made of matter, we cannot fully comprehend a non-existence where thoughts, neither old or new, exist or have ever existed. We cannot fathom nothingness in the most pure sense of the word. Yes, we can imagine experiencing the “nothingness” for all eternity, but that’s about as far as we can usually get. Our brains won’t allow us to make the logical next step.  Well, unless you are a Rockbiter.

Okay, i have sufficiently expounded on the matter for one day.  Time to go do something meaningful now, and push around some paper.



Author: Zack Hayhurst

New Yorker enthusiast, cartoon caption contest contender, book hoarder, cultural omnivore, writer

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