I was around 10 when I encountered death for the first time in the passing of my maternal grandfather. He was a popular guy in his time with a large family and many friends and colleagues, so his funeral was a grand affair. It was the biggest gathering of people that I have been to up to that point in my young life. Black clad mourners were all solemn, sad, or crying. Before long I succumbed to the collective sadness and started bawling my eyes out so much, that they had to take me away. Of all the childhood memories, that day is most vivid.
At the age of 10 I did not analyze much or understand what was sad that day or comprehended much about grandpa not being around anymore or where he had gone. But I knew I was sad and, like most traditionally raised boys, pushed that feeling deep down so to never have to deal with it again (healthy, I know). I did that so well, that when my maternal grandmother passed few months after, and whom I loved much more, I did not shed a tear. Satisfied with the level of emotional suppression, and slightly disturbed at the lack of emotion, I decided that my armour was net positive and that I would keep it.
It wasn’t until about 13 years later that I saw the Grim Reaper again when it took my mother-in-law, after her brutal fight with cancer. To a young adult, the emotional and spiritual consequence was much more significant and harder to ignore or supress. With childish innocence largely gone and due to the nature and intensity of her suffering this encounter with death was a lot more visceral. In this case suffering was gut wrenching and soul tormenting but the death itself was nothing, a release, an escape, a peace. As it often works, an intense experience leads to an intense understanding and mine was all about the inevitability of death.
If there is one thing that is certain, if there is one immutable truth, it is that we will all die. Every other truth depends on the point of view. But death is absolute, and we all know it deep down. We all pretend this is not true at times, often chronically, and while that is perfectly normal, like any other lie, the bigger it is the more devastating its’ untangling. So, we hoard wealth and possessions, we distract ourselves endlessly with trivialities, we safeguard our physical well being at all costs. We fear the nothingness of death so much that we would rather spend our time guarding against it or willfully pretending it is not there, than getting the most out of our life. This is our curse as mortal, conscious beings.
We are briefly reminded of precariousness of life when we hear of someone dying. We tell ourselves: “That is life, one day you are here, next you are not.” It is in the aftermath of these small realizations that we intensely appreciate being alive. Alas, that realization is brief and fleeting and we quickly go back to our old, pathological ways. What some wisdom we gain with age comes from the fact that as we get older, we see the Grim Reaper more and more often.
Sometimes he decides to hang around for a while, like in the case of my mother, who has been battling a rare form of cancer for over 5 years. 5 long years of suffering with good days few and far between. My mother is stoic and relentless, and I am hugely impressed with her fighting spirit; I am not sure I, or many others, would be able to fight for this long in the face of such brutality. Because her suffering is so heart rending and emotionally devastating it is also a fountain of emotional and spiritual wisdom. It has refined my understanding and acceptance of death and its’ flip side, life.
See, coping mechanism that materialized out of my wounded psyche is a lot healthier than the one from the boyhood days. It is simply this – gratitude. Gratitude for my mom being around, gratitude for my dad and my aunt who are always there to help her, her friends that support her, my friends that support me, financial well being that enables us to hire help, the ability to earn so we can hire help. Gratitude for the public heath system, for advances in medical sciences, for ordered and humane society in which we live, gratitude for hospitals and for taxes that pay for them. Gratitude for my kids as endless sources of love and life, gratitude for my partner for having someone to share life with, gratitude for all the wonderful things that one can do when alive and healthy, gratitude for my career that enables me to pay for those same kids and those wonderful things in life, gratitude for all the people that make my career successful. List of things to be grateful for is endless and more you go down that route, more things you see that deserve your gratitude. It is that humble acceptance of nothingness that gives all the meaning to somethingness that is life. And when you realize that the only thing guaranteed to you is death at the end of the road, then everything else is a bonus, things you were never promised but you have nevertheless. Life and every single thing in it becomes a gift. And every day becomes that much sweeter.
I am not a spiritual guru by any stretch. Necessity has given me a way to not only cope with the situation at hand, but a way to enjoy my life more thoroughly. It is no wonder that every great spiritual tradition has gratitude at its core. What works for me is a morning practice of listing 10 things that I am grateful for and why. I find that my subjective quality of life and satisfaction has increased substantially, and at the same time I am better able to withstand trials and tribulation of life, including suffering and hardships of loved ones.