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Thoughts on death and grief


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One thing I have learned that losing a loved one to death tends to do, is it forces you to face the reality of death head-on. 

Every single person in the world, someday, is going to die. It's one of the things that bonds every single human in the world together. Regardless of your nationality, your religion, your beliefs, someday you will die. People differ in what they believe will happen when they die, but every single person at some point will leave this Earth, for whatever is next. 

We all do know this intellectually. We even often learn it early on in life. When we're young, perhaps old great-grandparents or older grandparents pass on. As we get older, into our middle age years, our parents may die. Older relatives may die. But in some ways, these situations feel more "natural" when they happen at "the right time". If someone dies in their 90s, warm in their bed, after living a happy, complete, fulfilling life, it of course is sad and represents a loss, but I have noticed people seem to handle it a little better. Maybe it's because it's "natural" for someone to pass on after having lived a complete life. 

The thing is this. We are surrounded by death. It pervades our pop culture. Movies, books, and TV shows are constantly including themes surrounding death. Either a main character dies in the movie, or the movie discusses death in some way and how it affected one of the characters. I was thinking a couple years ago about all of my favorite movies and realized that pretty much every one either has someone dying, or includes a scene where someone talks about death. It's everywhere. 

Our minds seem to have developed a built in defense mechanism. We can observe death, talk about death, read about it, study it, and even experience it from a distance, and it won't emotionally affect us terribly. We can see a movie in which a main character dies, and even though it might make us feel sad for a while, we quickly move on and continue living life normally. Even deaths of well-known celebrities might evoke some sadness, but most people shake their heads sadly and move on with their day. When 9/11 happened and hundreds of people all died, the entire country mourned for a while, but we kept going. Most people did not suffer severe emotional trauma like we are all suffering on this board. 

This defense mechanism lets us enjoy life and live it. We collect material possessions and enjoy doing it. We go out in the world and have experiences that we love having. Especially when we share life with another amazing person, we build experiences together. Even though through all of it, there's a constant background hiss reminding us that we're all going to die, we learn to ignore that "hiss" and enjoy the music. You can't take it with you, but we still collect things because it's fun to do it. You may be able to take your memories with you, we don't know that, but you can't take the physical world with you. But yet we have made this physical world an amazing place to be.

When death happens so close to home though, suddenly we are unable to ignore that "hiss". The hiss has now become a deafening blast of static. Every single time we do anything that reminds us of the one we lost, which tends to be "everything" for a lot of us, we hear another burst of static that we can't ignore. If death came suddenly, or came too young, or came painfully, it's even harder. It goes against the expectations, the assumptions we made about death that allowed us to cope with the concept in the first place. The defense mechanism is gone. Phrases like "I have plenty of time left" are now meaningless. Things like "I'm young and healthy, I'm not going anywhere" are meaningless. My girlfriend said almost those exact same words, only two months before she died. And she was young and healthy. That didn't save her from death. So my own defense mechanism - believing that youth, health and will power will keep you alive until you get old - is completely shattered and gone.

Some people may find that it teaches you to "live life to the fullest" every single day. Other people find it sucks the meaning out of life. Maybe it's a little of both. If you were to ask me, even before she died, what the meaning of life is, I would have said something like "to love and be loved and to share this world with those people you love." Because that's what I truly do believe. Yes, this world is cruel, and all of us die. But some of us are lucky to meet someone to share our time with. We're lucky to have someone to share the world and its experiences with. That makes even that distant threat of death manageable, if not acceptable, because you know that together, you'll have such a great time here that when the time comes to go, you'll feel complete. But now, with her having died so young, so suddenly, I haven't found my way back to that yet. I don't have anyone now to share this world's experiences with. So for me, the meaning of life truly is gone. 

I would bet many of you are struggling with the same concepts. Many, if not all, of the rationalizations we use to mask or ignore our fears of death suddenly stop working. We are taught so cruelly and painfully that no, there is no way to keep death away if it's coming no matter what we do. When you see someone full of life, full of dreams and hopes, and who also accepted that death would come someday, and when you then see that person's life taken from them far, far, far too soon, it shatters everything you believe about life and death. 

The meaning of life truly does seem to be to love, be loved, and share with those we love. Without the ones we love, life loses so much of its meaning. People tell us to "pick ourselves up" and "move forward", not realizing that our purpose has been shattered and destroyed irreparably. I compare it to telling a concert pianist who just lost all use of his hands and limbs that he should "pick himself up" and move forward because maybe he'll find something new to do. For us, our beloveds were a central pillar of our lives. Losing them is not something we will just get over. And now that we have no coping mechanism, no defense mechanism, we're forced to face everything, all the horrible feelings and despair. 

It's truly a horrible existence. All of us now know just how horrible it has to feel for people who truly are suicidal, or who feel that they have no purpose and no meaning in this world. Because that's how many of us feel right now. My girlfriend herself admitted that she used to feel she was useless and had no real purpose and it caused her to have suicidal thoughts. She held on more because she was too scared to make an attempt. But as she grew, as we grew together, as our relationship grew, she found purpose. She found the happiness she so desperately needed and wanted, and I would like to believe I was part of helping her find it. How sad that her life was taken when she finally found the way to enjoy living it... 

I hope this has maybe helped someone at least understand and think through some stuff. I'm still struggling, 7 weeks today since I saw my girlfriend alive. Trying just to make it to tomorrow. Then the next day. Hoping that maybe, someday, somehow, in some way, I'll start to find a little tiny glimmer of hope. I don't have it now. I'm going through motions at work, getting things done at home, but going to sleep every night wishing to die, and waking up every morning disappointed that I didn't, and often also sad or crying because I dreamt of her.

Peace to all.


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Hi fzald,

Thank you for expressing yourself here. I know the feeling of what you are going through in your last words, of just going through the motions and getting things done, but wishing on the inside that it would all just end. Having had and lost the most precious thing to us in life, where is there left to go? It all seems to be downhill from here.

For me, though, while I feel that way quite often, I have too much depending on me to stay in that mode of thought for long. Two girls, one in college and the other in her first year of high school, depend on me for all of the same things they always have. As much as I think I am done with this world and everyone in it, it just isn't so. I've also got family that, while their dependence on me isn't an issue, I know my giving up would cause great, great hurt. And I'll tell you, I have no wish to hurt anyone in this way. I've seen the devastation that losing a parent has had on my own kids, and on my in-laws. As much sadness as I have, I just can't give in to it, no matter how much I wish I could. I don't know if I've ever really had a fear of death. It's not something I thought about much until I lost my wife. Even now I don't fear it, I sometimes even long for it, but that, to me, is an easy way out of my pain. I'd just end up transferring the balance of that pain to others, and that's something I would never want to do.

I've never believed in an afterlife. I've never had a reason to, even after my father passed away suddenly in a car accident some 15 years ago. I sometimes wish that I did believe it, though, just so that I could have the hope of seeing my wife again. Plus, I like the idea of her being happy somewhere. It's comforting. While I still do not really believe it myself, I've found that I now have an appreciation for the idea that I never had before.

On that note, I'd like to share something with you. The other night, I heard a song for the first time that really hit home. It's called Jealous by the singer Labrinth. It's somehow sad as hell and completely uplifting at the same time. It's quite a beautiful song; while it was actually written about a breakup, it captures the beauty and comfort in the idea that our loved ones are still somewhere, happy and at peace. If you decide to look up that song, be ready for the emotion in it - to me, anyway, it is very powerful and uplifting. 

In the meantime, please do take care of you, fzald. We don't need to have all of the answers right now. Maybe we will find those answers someday, and maybe things will eventually change for us. Who knows? Certainly not me. I keep going back to the line from Men In Black, when the guy says, "You know what they say, 'tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all," and his partner responds, "Try it."

Peace to you, fzald.

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1 hour ago, 4Hdad said:

Even now I don't fear it, I sometimes even long for it, but that, to me, is an easy way out of my pain. I'd just end up transferring the balance of that pain to others, and that's something I would never want to do.

Just a thought------In the end, when it is our turn to go, that is what will happen regardless. Transfer our pain onto others. Cycle of life and death.

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I think a lot of it depends on what you care about, and what you can affect.  The circle of concern and influence from "7 habits of highly effective people".  We care about death, our own, our loved ones, and others.  But we can't affect that.  Oh medicine and science give us the illusion that we can.  And to a small degree they do.  Stop smoking and you will live longer.  Maybe.  But it is just illusion, we can't really change it.

What we can change, affect, or influence, is our reaction within the rule that one day we will die.  It could be tomorrow for me.  And if it is, I am ok with that.  In the meantime, between now and then, I will live the life that I want to.

This life that I want to live has another rule, I must now live it without the one person I most wanted to share it with.  That is also outside what I can affect.  It is a bitter pill to swallow.  She didn't deserve to go, I didn't deserve to lose her.  To place that outside my circle of influence is awful, close to unthinkable, and yet it has happened.

What is within my circle of influence, what I can affect, is how I react to that.  I choose to bring what parts I can affect back within my circle.  I can't change the fact she is gone, but I can try to ensure that the compassion she showed continues.  I can't share the beauty and wonder of the world with her, but I can experience it myself and reflect on how she would have enjoyed and reacted to it.

I can't forget about her, but I can honor her memory by rejoicing in the time we had.  I can't have new people meet her, but I can explain the philosophy and way of life she embraced to them and hope that affects them in some small way.  Comfort and peace to all,


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13 hours ago, KMB said:

In the end, when it is our turn to go, that is what will happen regardless. Transfer our pain onto others.

I never thought about it like that, but I don't think there's anyone that will miss me to the extent I miss my George.  We expect to lose our parents someday, and when I go, my kids will have their own partners to help them with their grief, but we are making our way through this, for the most part, alone.

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I haven't looked up the song you mentioned yet, but the idea of a breakup versus death is something I've wrote about on this board, I think the post got pushed a page or two in by now. I have also been through a hard breakup in the past, a breakup with someone who I, at the time, expected to spend my life with. Grieving the loss of that relationship was brutal. It evoked many of the same emotions I feel now, the "never agains" for shared experiences and the like.

But the differences now are two fold. First, my girlfriend who died was a lot more present in my life, since we worked together and we spent many hours a week together in person physically. My ex-girlfriend was "long-distance", in that we maybe only saw each other in person monthly or less, and not always in this city that I live in. So there were fewer shared experiences, most of the grief was the loss of a future. Second, my ex-girlfriend still lives to this day, in fact we have formed a "casual" friendship, we do still talk from time to time, and she even had met and talked to my girlfriend and told me she was glad I had found her. I was able to truly come to terms with the breakup, firstly because I had someone new, but even more so because I knew my ex was still alive, healthy, happy and well, and was happy for me, and the life I had finally found myself in.

Death is one of only a few "happenings" (the others perhaps being permanent disabilities or permanent cognitive disorders) that is irreversible. My ex-girlfriend was, and still is, out there in the world, healthy and happy. Of course she has changed since we dated, we dated almost 9 years ago now. But she still is out there. She's alive. She's still reachable, and I still do speak to her occasionally as I said. That fact alone is a comfort that I will never have with my girl who died. 

Afterlife? I do believe there is something, but I have also spent hours questioning WHAT that something is, and going from hope to fear to indifference to pain thinking about it. We don't know what comes next. Will I meet her again in the next life and spend an eternity with her loving her and finally having what I wanted so badly? Maybe. But we could also be reincarnated, and by the time I die her spirit lives inside another person in their 40s. There's so many questions with no answers, and the only thing I know for absolute sure is that her earthly essence, her body and her form, are gone forever. 

Also, to add to what I was saying before, I notice that while fiction and movies and such do often include death, most death has easily visible and predictable cause. People die because of plane crashes, drowning, freezing, prolonged illness, accidents, crimes, whatever. You actually don't see sudden unexpected deaths often. Maybe that's a sign as to just how uncomfortable and how painful sudden loss is. And yet this is how my girlfriend died - suddenly, without any warning, and with no chance to get her affairs in order or clean up unfinished business. 


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