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Four unexpected reflections on death
On the day we mourn Lisa, I share what I've learned from 5 years of losing the ones I love.
I previously wrote about why we should have funerals for non-human animals. What I didn’t share is my own thoughts on death. As someone who has seen too much death, not just in factory farms, but among my own family members, in recent years, I’ve had to spend a lot of time processing what death means. And I thought I’d share some surprising things I’ve learned, both so others can grieve more effectively, and so we can think together about how we can make life more meaningful, before it’s too late.
Death is not something that humans, or non-human animals, universally fear.
The great author Milan Kundera once wrote, “To be mortal is the most basic human experience and yet man has never been able to accept it, grasp it, and behave accordingly. Man doesn’t know how to be mortal.” The fear of death is often said to be the most fundamental of all fears, the driving force for so much in human existence.
Yet in my experience, neither human nor non-human animal has a fundamental fear of death. We fear lost opportunity. Suffering. Disconnection. And even the unknown. But death itself is not something that my mother feared. It’s not something the animals I’ve lost have feared, if they were aware of it. Death, after all, is a bit like sleep; indeed, it’s virtually indistinguishable from sleep, when you look at one moment in time.
Instead, what why mother and others I’ve known near their deathbed have regretted is what happened in life. This seems to be the most common anxiety among people near the end of their life, not that their lives will soon close but that they didn’t live life the way they wanted. Perhaps they held grudges too long. Perhaps they lived too safely, and never did the things they really believed in. But a bad death is not nearly as bad as a bad life. We should all learn from that experience.
Death’s impact is often greater on the living, than those who have died.
When my mother died, she was in a state where she did not really know that she was going away. The brain tumor that had been eating her soul away slowly took away her sense of self. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of my dog Natalie. Her cognitive abilities had declined to the point that she had trouble walking. And in her last weeks, we knew her end was coming. She lost her appetite; her desire to be touched; and, it seemed, her will to live.
Even Lisa, though she suffered in her last moments, probably did not suffer long. There was one minute where her heart was out, and her breathing stopped. Then it was over. But for those she left behind, the impact has been severe. I have had trouble sleeping for the last few weeks, and there have been many moments when the loss hits me so hard that I feel myself struggling to breathe. Lisa’s brother Oliver, a dog traumatized by his experience inside a dog meat farm in China, refuses to step outside, as he no longer has a canine companion to make him feel safe. Priya, Lisa’s co-parent, has taken a more positive approach to grief, perhaps in part because she believes (unlike me) that Lisa is still literally with us, just in a metaphysical realm. But Priya too has had moments of intense pain and sadness.
What this should tell us is that, in preparing for death, we should prepare the people around us as much as we prepare ourselves. And ensure that, especially for those we love the most, that we leave the relationships in a state that will allow them to move on in peace. Go have that experience with a loved one on your bucket list. Resolve that dispute that you’ve waited too long to work out. Make sure the people around you are not left reeling when you die, and that you aren’t left reeling when someone you love dies, as much as is possible.
The most important thing in a good death is to be near the ones you love.
My mom chose to die at home, rather than in a hospital, even though we knew she was in serious decline. Perhaps she could have lived a bit longer if she had been hospitalized. Perhaps she may have even suffered a bit less. But she chose to stay at home, and it was the right choice. Our entire family grieved in a space that felt safe. And the good bye felt like it was our choice.
In contrast, both Lisa and my cat Flash died suddenly, and in a hospital where they were taken from their loved ones and friends. Flash in particular died in a way that has left me seriously scarred. For days, she was in the hospital’s ICU. I was promised that this would maximize her chance at life. While I visited her every day, she cried pitifully when I left, begging me to come back. And asking why I was abandoning her. I could not stop myself from crying, too, when I heard my poor little one so desolate near the end of her life. And one of my greatest mistakes in life was not taking her home. She needed to say good bye. We all needed to say goodbye, and on our own terms.
I didn’t get that chance with Lisa, either, though at least there were not days of suffering and abandonment. My hope is that the memorial we are doing today will serve as a replacement for the death I wish she had, a chance to say good bye in a safe and comfortable place.
Death doesn’t make life precious. It makes life change.
There is old saying that, without death, we would not value life. In my experience, this is not true. Death is a terrible thing that shocks many people into reflection. But those who live a good life do not wallow in grief, or gain a renewed appreciation for life. Indeed, the people I have seen who grieve the longest, and most painfully, are the ones who seem to value life least of all. And the people who bounce back best don’t seem to value life more (e.g., by taking fewer risks); rather, they fear death less.
What is universal is that death causes life to change.
Change comes in part because of the hole left by the loss of the person in question. This mere absence forces change. My daily rituals, from rolling over to give Lisa a hug, to walking two dogs on a leash, have all been disrupted by Lisa’s loss. But even more important than the physical loss is the spiritual one. I don’t think we understand how much our psychological foundations depend on those we love, until they are gone. And the loss of that basic building block causes the rest of our psychological structure to shift and change.
The best thing to do, in preparation for this, is to embrace that change. For example, I can no longer walk two dogs, and that has left Oliver terrified to go outside alone. But I can try to bring him to dog parks, or on doggie play dates, so he has another dog to make him feel safe. The change is inevitable. We simply need to adapt and make it good.
What are your thoughts on the nature of death? Or how we respond to it? I’m interested in hearing how others grieve, and what significant they’ve taken in the loss of their loved ones. Or if you haven’t experienced such loss, how are you preparing for it, if at all? How do you think it will affect you?