Obviously, none of us voluntarily choose to undergo pain and suffering. As a person myself, I spend a majority of my waking life, trying to prevent and escape from pain and suffering: I go to yoga to release my anger and frustrations; I make sure that I eat constantly and get an ‘adequate’ amount of sleep, so that my physical state is not harbored; I surround myself with friends who uplift me, make me laugh, provide me with wisdom and guidance. This last year has seen a significant amount of pain and suffering by death in my family and my loved ones: most recently, my Opa, but also my grandpa, friends of friends, aunts, dogs. So when I find myself in these positions OF pain and suffering, while they are uncomfortable and something I would prefer not to be in, I also think there is some beauty that can be uncovered as we peel back the layers of grief, and move towards a state of healing.
Death reminds us of our humanness. Both my Opa and my grandpa passed away from what we might call “side effects, induced by old age”, which gave us all time to prepare, and when I got both of those calls, I wasn’t too surprised. What I was surprised by was just how difficult both losses were. In my ignorant mind, I thought I would cry a little, and that would be the end of it. Unbeknownst to me was all of the other side effects that come along: the single desire to sleep, so that my brain could subconsciously prepare me for a life without; the distractions of my thoughts, and my inability to complete my work, the random triggers. But, all of this reminds me of my humanness; that, no matter how hard I try, I can’t quite escape these all too human feelings, and that’s an incredibly humbling state to be brought back to.
Like the circle of moral obligation, I think there is a circle of responsibility when related to death; at the very center of the circle is the immediate family–the spouses, the children; next comes the grandchildren, the close friends, the co-workers. And each level supports the one before; my co-workers and friends support me, so that I can support my dad, so that he can take care of himself. Death restores our relationships with one another. The best relationships I have are ones that have endured trauma. Human experiences–funerals, child birth, break ups–put us through the wringer, and we always come out a different version of ourselves. When we are in these experiences together, we witness things, see each other in our most vulnerable states, and together, share some kind of sacred bond that we can continue to revisit, even if we never speak about it again. I can honestly say that, through death, my relationships with my family have changed (but more on that later).
Much like a forest fire, death allows us to burn off all of those emotional layers that have been singed on for so long. I think, as we go about in our daily lives, we build up wounds that turn into callouses that aren’t quite big enough to scrape off yet, but over time, they become small mounds that cloud our lenses of the world. Someone might make an offensive comment to me, and I brush it off, because it’s not a big deal. I might make a small, but still immoral decision, one day, and I kind of let it go because I have other fish to fry. The traffic lights might serve as obstacles, the Starbucks line takes longer than I anticipated, the sun in my eyes, and these experiences build tension that, when I get to work that day, I have to put aside to accomplish the important task–my job. But, overtime, these things build up, and while the individual events seem minute in exclusion to one another, together, they create an emotional barrier that death allows me to remove. I spent my entire weekend crying–from Friday to Monday morning when I arrived to school, and they were not necessarily all tears of sadness, but rather, tears of catharsis and as I woke up this morning, I felt refreshed–much like the supple green bark that peaks through on a budding spring tree.
Death brings change. Like any big life altering event, death spins us into an identity crisis, especially in a situation where you lose a family member. My Opa has been a static object in our lives for our entire existence, and when that static object is stripped away from us, we are caused to re-evaluate our places in the world. I think part of our identity formations occur through trying on different masks, and shedding those when they don’t quite seem to fit anymore. With death, I don’t have that entity to bounce and project my own existence on, so now I must figure out how to do that on my own, and that is often scary. But, its also change, and while also never welcome, change allows us to re-evaluate our relationships, redefine our goals, re-conceptualize our positions and purposes in the world. After the loss of both of my grandfathers, I’ve realized just what EXCELLENT male figures I’ve had in my life: hard working, genuine, imaginative, intellectual, humble & kind, and I weld that new revelation into a new understanding of myself (such as, why did I EVER date some of the people I did?…)
And, death causes us to recognize changes within ourselves. As many of you know from social media, there is no doubt I come from a dysfunctional family (my mom always says, “Other people keep their skeletons locked in the closet; ours are just out, dancing in the streets”), and we have all put in a joint effort over the last couple of years to change some of this dysfunction and how we relate to each other. I used to be a work-a-holic; I worked on all those important holidays–Christmas Eve, Father’s Day, Fourth of July, birthdays–because money was more important to me. But, this was causing me distress and dysfunction in my life, and it wasn’t until my grandpa passing, and then my Opa, that I saw the evidence of these changes, and just how important my family has become to me. In both of these situations, all that I wanted to do was be with my family, and I can remember just how comforting it was to be in their presence. I wanted to sit in the circle, decompress, share funny stories. I wanted to throw them a tissue, offer a hug when those spurts of grief came about. I wanted wear the matching momentos, look back on pictures, eat at Country Buffet together–I wanted nothing more than to be with my family (something I would not have said five years ago).
And, most importantly, death reveals love. As I sat at my Opa’s funeral this past weekend, and we watched a slideshow of his life, I could feel the love radiating out of the pictures, and the love his essence that he left behind. The ‘Fort Opa’ sign that I made as a child to stake in front of our hay-bale castle was displayed in the church, and reminded me of how much that five minute project meant to him. The pictures of us, as children, running around the farm in rain boots, driving the lawn mower across the pasture, eating popsicles on the porch reminded me just how loved we truly were. I looked around at my family, noticed our shared characteristics–our long legs, blonde hair, love for travel, adventure, and sarcasm. I watched people hugging each other, offering tissues, pats on the back–and realized just how much LOVE we were enveloped in.
I think we would all avoid it if we could, but perhaps there is just a little beauty in death.