-Pranav Bidare, NLSIU, Bangalore
Yesterday, when I saw my ten-year-old cousin, the first thing he said to me was, “One of my relatives died today.” On further enquiry, he told me that she was “some old grandmother he’d never seen”, and that she had been sick for a long time. Telling him to be more sensitive, I let this experience add to an epiphany I had a few days ago.
I’m sure most people reading this would’ve had their fare share of experiences with death in the family. Speaking from experience, funerals are usually filled with solemn-looking adults, some crying, others silent. At times, you find small kids running around playing, too young to comprehend the magnitude of the situation, and using the event as another opportunity to have fun. This got me thinking, what exactly are the consequences of losing a loved one? What is it that traumatizes someone to such an extent?
Now, consider this. You have a friend, a person you’ve known for a long time, since high school, perhaps, and have begun to love her/his very much. Years pass, and a few years later, you’re living separate, independent lives, in different countries. You haven’t spoken to each other for a long time, but nevertheless, the experiences you shared in the past make it impossible for you to forget your friendship. I’m sure a lot of such friendships exist, in fact, I’ve heard of a few myself. You’ve been living like this for a few years when, suddenly, you find out that your friend passed away six months ago. Most people in such a situation will feel utterly distraught, and when I explained the above scenario to a Dutch friend of mine, she actually cried out, “NO! How could this happen?”
What I want to show you here is that all the emotional trauma you experience here isn’t caused due to the death of your friend, as much as due to the knowledge of her/his death. In other words, your friend’s existence did, in no way, practically affect the way you lived your life, and to a reasonably large extent wouldn’t affect your future either. You could have continued to live for a couple more years without finding out about her/his death, and it would have made no difference.
I also realised that, when someone dies, it is not the loss of the person that affects you, but rather the memories of the experiences you shared with that person, and the realization that you will never share those experiences with the same person again, the nostalgia of which will make you cry. The more I thought about it, the more selfish the concept felt. You don’t feel sad for the loss of the person’s life, but instead pity yourself for the loss of company.
Now, back again to the first scenario. I’m sure you would be reasonably certain that the chances of you meeting your friend, had he remained alive, would be remote. Therefore, it would be safe to assume that the primary link between death and emotional sadness, being loss of future encounters would, in this case, be removed. Yet, you feel sad. To me, this seemed very irrational, almost as if the very concept of a loved one’s death has been contorted by the human mind, giving people the impression that feeling sad when someone dies is, morally, the right thing to do. One argument I received against this is that the loss of hope of ever meeting your friend is what causes you to become sad, which, admittedly, is possible.
When I explained this, or at least most of it, to a friend, he called me a Vulcan, which for all you non-trekkies (shame on you), is a person detached from emotion. The surprising thing is that, even after this realization, I still find the idea of an old friend’s death extremely saddening. But I’m sure, the next time I stand at a funeral, watching kids play, and adults cry, I’ll be reminded of this, and I wonder, will I still feel sad then?
To conclude, here’s a quote from Neil Gaiman’s The San∂man-8, “The Sound of Her Wings” (Shame on you again, if you haven’t read The Sandman)
“I find myself wondering about humanity. Their attitude to my sister’s gift is so strange. Why do they fear the sunless lands? It is as natural to die as it is to be born. But they fear her. Dread her. Feebly they attempt to placate her. They do not love her.”
-Dream, about Death.