Death is that thing none of us talk about or want to talk about yet it’s going to happen to each and everyone of us. We don’t wish to address it and we hope it’ll never happen to us.
Death is around us everyday. It is the great equalizer. It’s going to happen to everyone of us. There’s no way out. Death remains hidden behind the sanitized doors and windows of local hospitals and nursing homes.
The Stoics viewed death as natural, a return to Nature. It is the value-judgments we place on death which makes it as terrible as it is. This is the existential dilemma we all will face at one point or another in our lives. It often appears after the passing of a loved one or someone close.
I thought about death this past Sunday morning. I walked to get the Sunday paper. I followed the same route to my mother-in-laws house to deliver that paper that I follow every Sunday. As I exited the store I saw three older Harley’s and their riders take off from a traffic light. I was intrigued by the bikes because I like those old bikes. I walked one block and as I rounded the corner I watched the riders of those bikes stopping and removing themselves from their bikes. I also saw to other bikes stopped in the middle of the street as if they were about to enter the intersection. A car was parked diagonally across the intersection. It did not appear damaged. I saw paramedics hovering around the rider of a Harley trike. As I approached I was able to see they were attempting to pull him from his machine. His name was George as I ascertained from the shouts of the paramedics who by this time were performing CPR furiously pushing down on his chest in attempt to restart the heart that had failed. I continued to watch and a fire truck and ambulance finally arrived on the scene. The paramedics continued CPR and George was loaded into an ambulance for what would be a short ride to the nearest hospital.
I have been around death before when my grandfather died and then some 20-years later my grandmother passed. There is something surreal when one sees death from that distance, death that has been “cleaned up.” When my grandmother passed I had the opportunity to sit with her and hold her hand as she took her last breath. There was no fear but there was joy as the suffering with which she had been plagued for so many years had now ended. She was free. George, on the other hand had no idea this would happen. He rose in the morning looking to go for a relaxing ride with friends when tragedy struck.
Many years ago when I was very young in my career, I was met at the entrance to my office by three NYS Troopers. They asked to speak with me. Immediately my mind began to race. I had no clue what they had wanted me to speak about. They told me a client with whom I had done counseling and who I had spoken with the psychiatrist at the time of his last session had been found dead. He had overdosed on the medications that I had spoken with him and the psychiatrist about. As time progressed thoughts continued to race. I was interviewed by several people and agencies. I felt as if I was on trial. That death in 1988 was one that I would carry with me for several years. Barely a day went by that I didn’t blame myself. That death taught me a lot about life and about being a social worker. I had only ever dealt with one death before, that of my grandfather. His passing would prove to be one of the most difficult and painful things I would deal with in my life. It also taught me the importance of living life and to not fear death.
Other clients and other people in my life have passed away since then. I have remained open to the life lessons that make themselves available. Life lessons are always around us if we’re willing to listen. Over the years I have learned to accept that death will come to us all and that in some way it will touch us all, whether or not we want it to. There have been some deaths that have stunned me such as Anthony Bourdain’s and the murder of a friend who had moved with his wife and church members to Jamaica to minister to people on the island. When I think of these deaths it is difficult to not think about what happened. When someone takes their life by suicide I find myself asking the question as many others do, “Why?” Of course there is no answer, at least not one that we will ever be made aware of. When Harold was murdered I again asked, “Why?” Once again I will be left to fill in the blanks the best way I can as there will never be an answer to that question.
Epictetus said about death, “Death and pain are not frightening, it’s the fear of pain and death we need to fear.” So we redefine death.” What Epictetus talked about when he said “we redefine death” was our perception of death. How we think about death. Our perceptions of things, how we perceive them can be a source of power or of weakness. As a social worker I am constantly working with my clients to reframe their fears. This ability and willingness to reframe what we see can help us to be able to control those fears by controlling our responses to those same fears. Clients tell me they have anxiety and depression and I ask why they carry it with them each and everyday. Having depression is very different than “being depressed” of “being anxious.”Anxiety and depression are common responses to our lives today, especially in the midst of this pandemic.
I no longer fear death. I don’t want to die, but I know and accept that one day someone will say over my body “ashes to ashes and dust to dust.” The difference is today I have learned to live my life, to focus on the things in my life which I feel gratitude instead of thinking and worrying about those things which I don’t have in my life.