On Death

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Note: This post is more emotionally raw than our usual posts. It also includes a discussion of the possibility of an afterlife, which could be an uncomfortable topic for some people. If you think you might be bothered by this article, please stop reading right now. This is a very unusual post and you may be better served by beginning your exploration of our website elsewhere. 


I lost my grandmother this week. 

She was 93 years old and she had lived a life full of joy and love, surrounded by family. As a victim of dementia, she had lost her short-term memory a few years ago, so in a way we had already lost her. But I was surprised how hard her death still hit me, emotionally. 

Although grandmother was the very last of my grandparents to go, she was the first person close to me to die since I began my internal work on emotional intelligence through my now-diligent meditation practice. Having now honed the skill of observing myself, I have been able to observe in much more detail what is happening inside of me as a result of these events. So I wanted to record those observations in this article, as well as to try to release some of these emotions I'm feeling in a healthy way, by writing these words.

The first thing I noticed is that grief comes in waves. One minute I would be carrying on with my day, as usual, and then almost randomly a thought would pop into my head about grandmother and I would immediately start sobbing uncontrollably. One scenario that keeps coming up now is me imagining her with a big smile on her face saying: "The Lord has called me home, John!" She seems fine with it in my imagination, but every time I think of it (including now) I start bawling. 

What I'm learning (as someone new to crying, really) is that crying is kind of like vomiting: it's going to just appear as a feeling in your body and you can either try to stuff it down and repress it or lean into it and try to let it out. I feel like letting it out is a much, much healthier emotional response, but I had never really allowed myself to cry freely because I guess at some level I wanted to seem all tough and macho. I only saw my grandfather cry once in his entire life, which probably had an impact on what I by default saw as appropriate male behavior. 

So this time when the emotion starts welling up, I drop everything, seek privacy, and focus in on the thought that triggered the emotional response in an attempt to encourage myself to cry. It's been really great in the sense that I feel like I am allowing myself to experience the full weight of these emotions. As someone who spends 95% of my time in positivity, giving myself space to feel the more difficult emotions feels like it is imparting a sense of balance, especially since these emotions can be so intense. Not everything in life is sunshine and rainbows and that's ok. 

My default behavior is to deal with grief in isolation, so I usually avoid funerals. I feel guilty about it though because I want to be there for other people, so it's something I'd like to change about myself. 

Another thing I noticed was that losing a loved one conjured the memories of the other loved ones I had previously lost, some long ago. If my mind was a house, grandmother's death had somehow opened the door to the death room and I began to recall all the other people I had lost. I thought this was fascinating because I realized that I don't typically think about these people on a day to day basis in the absence of a specific trigger. But I've re-experienced grief over the death of many people as a direct result of this grandmother loss. I thought about my grandfather. I thought about my other grandparents. My uncle. My aunt. And a host of friends I've lost along the way. 

I noticed that in my mind the death room was right next door to the fear room. I mentioned that grandmother had had dementia, which is now my worst nightmare about what could happen to me. Her death made me start to think: "What if my mom gets dementia? What if I get dementia???" These were thoughts I had rationally considered previously, but now they hit me at more of an emotional level. I consider that the best solution to such a concern is to take the best possible care of myself physically and mentally, which is a path I'm already trying to walk with this website and with my self explorations. 

Anyway, I previously alluded to the fact that grandmother was a devout Christian woman. I know that she would think that after her death she would be up in heaven, rejoined with my grandfather. I don't personally think that's how it really works although I do recognize that (a) she could simply have guessed the right religion and it had an accurate prediction about the afterlife or (b) if reality is some kind of complex simulation (as has been suggested), it may be that the afterlife is whatever you think it is going to be (ie. the simulation could be set up to give people different outcomes based on their belief systems).

My personal opinion is that all of this confuses what we are with this meat-bag human body we live in. There is only one thing that exists, which is the life force. I am the life force. You are the life force. We seem to be separated due to an illusion, which I call the Illusion of Separation, which makes us seem like a discrete entity called a person. In actuality, the life force is an ocean and each person's life is the foam crest on the top of one individual wave. It exists for a moment and then vanishes back into the ocean that it was always a part of. 

On the one hand my view is a bummer because it means grandmother and every other person I've lost is completely gone. They have re-entered the void and I will never see, hear, or touch any of them ever again. That's why we feel so sad. 

But in a way this view is liberating because it means that we can't really die. The life force is going to continue forever, in many different forms. Nothing we can do will ever stop that. So in that sense there is nothing to fear. 

What I've experienced through meditation is that releasing your identity and entering nothingness is actually a very pleasant experience. So I'm not afraid of nothingness. 

But something-ness is a very temporary experience, and if nothing else experiencing the death of a loved one makes us resolve to cherish the time we do still have with others we care about. When I wish I had called her one more time or visited one more time, I resolve to prioritize my relationships with my loved ones who are still alive even more than before. Death reminds us that existence itself is simply a brief flicker. 

Death also reminds us that, although we feel like individuals, what we really are is the latest link in a chain that stretches back since the dawn of time. I'm literally carrying around my parents and grandparents in the form of DNA. Have you ever wondered why native peoples always seem to be talking about their ancestors? My theory is that focusing on your connection to the past keeps you grounded and gives you a sense that you are never alone. Sometimes I do a visualization where I try to think about all my ancestors that came before me and to feel them inside me. Some of them were ranchers. Some of them were farmers. Some were professionals and some were warriors. I can feel all of them inside of me and I'm grateful for that. So in a sense I'll carry her with me forever, tell my kids stories about her, and pass along her DNA sequence via my offspring and their offspring. 

Mainly I'm sad for me because there is one less person in the world who loves me as much as she did. Even though I couldn't even have a conversation with her for the last couple of years, she could still hold me and I would feel safe, like I did as a child. I'm going to really miss that. 

I'll always remember a strong, loving woman who helped me become the person I am today.

Goodbye grandmother. I will always love you and I will cherish my memories of our time together.