Lessons from Death

My first encounter with death was when I was 5 years old. My maternal great grandma died during that time. I remembered very vague details from her funeral. But the only thing I remembered clearly was her inanimate body positioned upright on a chair. The funeral director had combed her hair and dressed her up in a traditional Chinese qipao. She sat there motionlessly, but her lifeless eyes stared forward.

Before her, many of my relatives stood shoulders to shoulders around her. My maternal grandma was on her knees wailing and crying out loudly. My grandpa was standing there stoic in his outward appearance, but suffering on the inside. My aunts, uncles, and parents all had their own fair share of misery, emotional outbreak, and silence. I stood there behind them, but I didn’t share in their emotion of misery and loss. I was too young to understand that, but I did feel something that day. I felt fear.

To this day, whenever I think about death, the first image that pops into my mind is my great grandmother’s lifeless face. It became synonymous with death for me, and that image has haunted me for a great majority of my life so far.

There is just something about not existing; not being able to be that scares me. I don’t understand it. I don’t know what that feels like. There are just too many unknown variables. Too many uncertainties for me about what happens when a person dies.

Sure there are religions that spout beliefs about deceased people going to heaven or hell. However, I am not convinced of those beliefs. I would love to believe in them. Who wouldn’t? It’s an easy sell. It puts our mind at ease knowing that people we love are in a better place and that people who commit crimes are paying for their sins in the afterlife. But all of that is nonsense.

Believing in heaven or hell shows a weakness of character. It shows me that people are too oblivious and weak to accept reality as it is, so they created illusions to deal with reality. I know this because I am one of these people. I am weak or rather I am someone like everyone else who is struggling with how to deal with death.

It is a reoccurring event in my life that I would have anxiety attacks and mental breakdowns related to the thoughts of death. Sometimes these thoughts are so overwhelming that I couldn’t function on a day to day basis. I lose all motivation to try, work, or do anything of importance to me.

I would say to myself, “What is the point of anything if I am going to die anyway? No matter what I do, it falls into unimportance. I am a mere dust, a speck of insignificance to the universe. My time here is so short; my reach here is so small. No matter what I do, within a hundred or two hundred years, they will all be forgotten.”

What I went through was a series of existential crisis. Yes, at times I would make amends and peace with my purpose in life. Other times, sudden panics would occur because life isn’t going in the direction that I desire. When that happens, I am overwhelmed with a paralyzing fear of death. I lock myself up in my room, scream into a pillow, punch the walls with my fist, or cry myself to sleep.

I am scared of death because it takes away the only life that I knew. I am scared of death because it takes away the life of people I love. I am scared of death because it is eternal and something that will happen. I have no control over this. The only thing I have control over is my own expectations of how to deal with death.

Attachment to Life

The only thing that I know about in this life is to live. I don’t know what it is like to die. I have no intention of experiencing death anytime soon, but it is something that we will all eventually face no matter if we want to or not. Death is a natural occurrence. It happens to the best of us, the worse of us, or just all of us. Despite knowing all of this, it is still something that I have a hard time accepting.

I believe the main reason comes from a deeply ingrained attachment to life. For me, I love life. I love growth, passion, love, truth, and beauty. I even love the opposites. I love sadness, hate, lust, anger, and laziness. Positive emotions, negative emotions; they are all parts of being alive. Only by experiencing them can we call ourselves human. To me, dying just means losing this entire plethora of emotions or values. I see death as the ultimate loss of what is precious to me.

It’s funny that I think that way because when I think about death, I also think about the things that I regret the most. I think about the relationships and strong connections that could have been, but never was. I also think about the things that I could have said, but I never uttered. These regrets and mistakes haunt me, so my attachment for life grew. Mark Twain has a great saying:

The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.

This is true on so many levels because what is the fear of death when you have absolutely no regrets? If I can live my life a second time and do the same exact things, then I already lived to my fullest potential. Though certain connections and things didn’t go my way, I did everything that was within my power. I cried. I laughed. And most of all I enjoyed life for what it was. If this is true, then I know I can let go of life when my time comes, whenever it comes.

However, my attachment doesn’t stem from my life alone. My attachment for life also concerns everyone else, especially for people I love. There is no greater pain for me than the tragic news of loved ones dying. I like to think of this as the ultimate tragedy because it affects people besides me. If I die, I die. The moment of departure from this world, means a departure from being. I would cease to exist. There would be nothing left from me: no emotions, no attachments, nothing except for my empty husk of a body. However, people who are still living will be affected by my death. The same logic applies to people that I love.

I often thought of dying as the easy part. It lasts ever so long. The hard part is coping with the loss of loved ones. When someone we love die, often times it is unexpected and unprepared for. It can shatter our world into tiny pieces, making all our daily concerns petty. Perhaps, if you are like me, it will make you feel pain and suffering in ways that you’ve never felt before. Perhaps, the suffering is further magnified when you realized people you love are suffering at a greater extent than you are.

For me, death is like a chain reaction. My attachment for life stems from a deep desire for love, harmony, and care. When people I know are suffering from a loved one’s death, I get extremely depressed because I want the best for all of them. I love them, I care about them. I don’t want them to suffer such pain, but that is not the case. Knowing that people I love are also suffering magnifies the intensity of my own suffering.

I know all about the law of attraction. Whatever we think about, we expand in our own mind. Thinking about tragedy and suffering expands that thought in my mind. To me, sometimes the pain is so great, it brings about an unconscious habit of mine to block and insulate myself from further suffering. I do this by escaping into my video game habits or indulging in base desires like pleasures from food, pornography, and, sleep.

Doing the basic things can relieve me temporarily from the loss of death. However, it builds and reinforces the weak side of me. By refusing to go further into my own suffering, I neglect the chance to grow beyond my pain and see things for what they are.

Death is eternal. It happens to all of us. There is no escaping it. Perhaps it came at an unexpected time, but whatever it is, it will happen. It is something far too great to be feared, but there should be no resistance to suffering. Grieving is a part of being a human being. Grieve for the perpetual loss of your own life. Grieve for the loss of the ones that you love. For death takes away from us the only things that we know and love in life. However, after all that grieving is done, move onwards.

This is what I want to get at. Take death for what is it. Be sad. Be shaken from the idea of death. But always, always take this as a moment for growth. A moment to redefine what is important in your life and a moment to separate the meaningful from the meaningless.

Death is Our Constant Reminder to Live

Death is your constant reminder. It is my constant reminder at every point in time to never take things too seriously. To let things be, to relax, and be at ease. There is just nothing in life to get upset over. Nothing in life to get overly attached to. If everything falls into oblivion at some point, then surely the worst thing that can happen is our own demise.

I have a lot of fears and anxieties about death. I fear dying because it seemed incredibly painful at times. I fear annihilation of my own mind. I fear loss of loved ones around me. But whatever those fears are, there is no need to resist them. If I am going out in a cowardly fashion, then so be it. Perhaps when that day comes, I could cower in fear and say, “I’m so fucking scared of death, I think I’m going to shit my pants!” And then die in a fashion that is more akin to my humor style.

It’s funny now I think about death because I realized how much I matured throughout the years. During my freshman year of college, I came across the translated work of Lucretius On the Nature of Things. Within this 50 BC Roman philosopher’s didactic poem, he had a segment about life and death. I don’t remember the particular line, but the passage was similar to this:

“If there were no fear of birth, why should there be any fear of death?”

I pondered that thought for a period of time. I asked myself the question:

“Did I fear being born?”

No, of course not. How the hell do I fear being born? I don’t even know what fear is when I was born. I don’t even have the memories to back that up either. All of this is very vague and unimportant.

There was my answer. How can I fear death? Where does it come from? When did I create it? Why resist something that is so great, when you are so small? Men far greater than you and I have died. Why should you be the exception? Those were the questions that I kept asking myself.

We are merely going back to where we once came from. Our mind and spirit may be annihilated, but it is not annihilated into nothing. It is annihilated into the oneness of our origin, a wholeness of the earth from which we came from.

Knowing this may not dissolve fear entirely, but it can bring us an immense amount of deep understanding and appreciation. We are not alone in our struggle to deal with death. Each and every one of us is struggling. Some of us are just better at dealing with it than others. But either case, learning to deal with death is a lifelong process. It may strike fear, but let it be a reminder for you to live your life.

Going back in time, I feel like I’ve learned all these lessons many times before. When I was in high school I read a play called Our Town by Thornton Wilder. The main character, Emily, had a premature death giving birth to her second child. In her last monologue as a spirit before returning to her grave, she said something incredibly enlightening:

Take me back, up the hill, to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-bye, Good-bye world. Good-bye, Grover’s Corners….Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking….and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths….and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute?

The answers that I was looking for was already within me. I just forgot about it time to time due to being caught up in life’s turbulent currents. The lesson here was about appreciation.

Appreciate the simple pleasures of life. Appreciate your next breath. Appreciate your next meal. Appreciate the laughter you share with friends, families, and even strangers. Appreciate the pain from a heartbreak and that there exist something in the world that can make you feel that way. Appreciate all the things that life has to offer.

Everything about life can be summed up in the absence of it. To not enjoy life is to commit an atrocious crime against your own existence. Think about it. Life has been conspiring and going out of its ways to give you the most amazing experience possible. Take a look around.

Your friends, families, and lovers are a result of you living your life. The experiences, good or bad, are the results of you living your life. At every point in time, you are being taught a life lesson. Life is saying:

“If you learn to play by my rules, you will live your life in heaven on earth. Otherwise, you will suffer hell on earth.”

This is true if you take a look and observe the people around you.

Do you realize that people who are enjoying life are the ones that are living it? They are also the ones that are attracting abundance and happiness into their life because they act out good, pure thoughts and actions. Likewise, people who are acting out bad, impure thoughts and actions attract further suffering and scarcity into their own lives.

This is why death is so important. It gives you clarity on how you should live your life, if you are not living it right now. The point of death is to teach you to “die before you die”. Steve Jobs said it best:

 “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.

Almost everything–all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. 

Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart. 

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet, death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it, and that is how it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”

Do you hear the alarm from your death clock ringing as loudly as mine? It’s ok if you don’t. Sometimes the alarm can only be heard during times of crisis and tragedy. Sometimes some people will never hear the alarming sound. But since you are reading this, you’ve heard my alarm, right?