Although we generally believe that mourning and grief are a sign that we care for others, it is possible they are really about our own personal fears, and dig us into them even deeper.
Death is generally considered a loss to those who are left behind, but what is it that has been lost? Can we lose our past? Our memories? Do we lose our love for the person? What is lost?
You might say that something that hasn’t yet happened is lost, but can the future be lost? Can we lose something that we have never had? Can something that was never guaranteed be lost?
Going even further, is loss bad? Would a life with no loss be meaningful, fulfilling or instructive in any way? Would we want to live the same perfect day, with the same people and things, over and over again? Does not loss give us a sense of movement? Without movement, what kind of ride would this life be?
Do sadness, mourning and grief really show how much we care about others, or how much we care about ourselves? We have no idea what happens to those who stop appearing alive to us, and for all we know it could be a transition into something beautiful and great. How could we be upset about that possibility? Does that not suggest that our emotional reaction to death is entirely selfish?
If those reactions are not for the dead, then they must be about us, unless they are a performance for others. Are grief and mourning a way that we send signals about our own attachments and identity? Is it a macabre display of play-acting? Competitive emoting?
The death of others is the most clear reminder of our own inevitable mortality. If we are unable to face our own inescapable exit from the world, then every death serves to exacerbate our existential dread. But if we were able to accept and even embrace our own ineluctable passing without fear or anguish, might we not be able to do the same for the passing of others? If so, would we use the occasion of their passing as a time for pain and suffering, or as a way to honor and cherish those people through a celebration of their life and death alike?
I am not suggesting we remain unaffected or apathetic. We should let our emotions run their course, rather than deny them and risk psychic damage in that manner. However the narrative we have created has asked us to amplify our reactions. We have constructed expectations that death must be traumatic and stick with us for the rest of our lives. I contend that we can and should fight against that habitual norm. That we learn to view the death of ourselves and others as welcome events that make the wheels of existence turn, which in turn gave us the opportunity to have all of the rich experiences this world has to offer.
To do that we must not just readjust our own ideas and actions, but to stop cannibalizing death itself as an opportunity to make political and social points. Loading our rhetoric with appeals to the sanctity of life, and the horror of death, simply exacerbates our inability to accept. We lord death over one another to justify our own self-worth. We have weaponized this aversion and fear in ways that create conflicts which inevitably lead to more suffering. When we amplify our finger pointing with examples of death, we send a clear message that death is unquestionably unacceptable, and that then amplifies our inability to cope and accept.
The affirmation of death is an affirmation of life. To value one and not the other is to deny both, for they are the only thing we can be certain is happening to us. To deny that connection is to destroy the balance on which the highest human virtues are premised. Courage, compassion, empathy, cooperation…all these beautiful human attributes (and many more) arise from a loyalty to principles that are greater than life and death. Without risking death we could never achieve them. Death is a sacrifice so that others may live and experience joy – and that is beautiful.
Read the follow-up to this piece: