Death and Grief
“If we vanished tomorrow, no organism on this planet would miss us. Nothing in nature needs us.”
-Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race
Let’s look at this Ligotti quote. The optimists among us would be quick to point out that our pets would likely miss us, were we to up and disappear. Beyond this point, there isn’t much. Taken in the relation to the vast and unthinkable expanses of time, it is all but a blip. Just as we happened upon our evolutionary tract, for better or worse, out of nothing, to nothing we will all return. It is this fact that drives many of us to and away from a love of life.
Death is the only guarantee of birth. There are those who would choose to sugar coat this knowledge with the ensuing potentiality of beauty and good that a new life could attain, maybe…we hope. When you cut to the gnarled marrow of the matter, the only guarantee that a birth can bring is suffering. Suffering unto death. Peppered with well-meaning (or egoistic) hopes and attempts to the contrary, a new life’s only certainty is death. Entropy being the only universal truth, the ‘gift’ of consciousness has only granted us a steadfast abhorrence to the inevitable.
The relativistic nature of death, whether sudden or slow, only adds a flavor of extra suffering. A suffering only felt by those left to grieve and those who are either forced into, or are victims of, a prolonged road to death. We invent stories of a life after death, a continuation to avoid the inevitable. The dread, fear, pain, and suffering of life and death isn’t carried by the dead. It is drawn from an overly attached need to keep going. Chasing the high of the few hits of serotonin we get per day. Or week. Or month.
Grasping at Straws
Our general anthropocentric notion that life needs meaning to be life is uniquely misguided. This bedrock of existential dread is the foundation of all we have created to avoid death. Lead a good life, get into heaven. Lead a good life, be reincarnated in a higher form. Lead a good life and be remembered in the annals of history. Segregate the dead so the only reminder we have is when we drive by headstones. Let the shock and despair sink in only when we are reminded that death exists.
Is this, truly, the best way to go about living? Avoiding the end? Or prolonging the remembrance of the dead to prolong the pain of the living? It is the unknowns, the “what-ifs,” that are the cause of the pain of a death. An absence is only felt as an absence because of an imagined presence. Life seen as the only good because the alternative is unthinkable, if only because of a need for meaning.
The pain of life made useful for the fear of death. Just as good people have lived and died, so too have the bad. So too will we all. Potentiality weighted as certainty is the harbinger of suffering. Take, for example, the young father dying before his child is born. Sad purely because of potentiality of the father’s life and the child’s to know his father. That potentiality is no guarantee of good, however. Skewing potential outcomes in an unending optimistic light may help to ease the suffering of the living but negates the equal likelihood of negative potentiality.
This ignorance of negative potentiality, in life as a whole and remembrance of the dead, only leads to prolonged suffering that gives the ignorant the feeling that life itself is okay; a mistake with positive purpose because the alternative is too bleak to be considered.
Grief, and Its Lack of Function
So, what then is the purpose of grief? When we make a mistake or feel remorse over an act we committed, we will tend to latch on to that feeling; whether for avoidance of said feeling and/or hopefully to learn from it and grow. Disregarding the residual causes or lead up to the experience of death, grief does not serve a purpose in this way. There is no ostensible growth from a loss, be it of a relationship or from death. True though it may be that we can augment our values or enjoyment or regaining of a sense of self, grief itself and memory of a grievous act do not themselves cause this potential growth.
With death standing as life’s only guarantee, it is only with the reminder of its existence that we “hug our loved ones close” and “cherish every moment,” to inevitably fall back into routine, with death returning to its home on the backburner. What is the purpose of grief, then? Negative emotions are avoided like the plague while positive emotions are chased like a high. Yet we will feel the need to celebrate the anniversary of a death, or the birthday of the dead, dredging up and living in those negative feelings and mourning the loss anew. This consistent linking back to an event bred of varying degrees of trauma, there can be no growth, no moving on and past it. We revel in our misery to give us new egotistical life.
Does this grief build us up in any significant way? Does it stave of our own inevitable demise from time or sickness? Of course not. Grief only serves as a reminder of the thin thread we walk and the existential nothing that greets us once crossed. The invention of eternal life and the everyday rejoinder of “rest in peace” exists, not for the dead, but for the living. The dead have no choice but to rest in peace. It is the living that need to find peace in the dead’s resting…in all our eventual resting.
We need that peace to negate the reminder of the absolute nature of death. To no longer harbor and require the touchstone of the fragility and nonsense of life, to live what little we have remaining. Because, in the end, each and every one of us will be forgotten to time, and that knowledge is true peace.
Once we stop fighting so heartily against the oncoming tide of the inevitable, we can have our peace here. Emotional connection to dead has its place but should not stand as a stark reminder to live, or to remain in place long after the event. A life built around grief and a simultaneous obsession and avoidance of the fact of death, is uniquely human. Imagine how freeing it would be to remove the friction, remove the pain, and let the tide of time do what it has always done.