For a long while now I’ve been trying to come to terms with mortality – both my own and others’. This process probably started with my fiance’s sudden death back in 2009, but it was something I was still in denial about until friends and friends-of-friends (most of whom were my age or younger) began dying as well. No, I’m not planning on dying anytime soon, but I can’t keep pretending like I never will.
Unsurprisingly, confronting death brings up a lot different issues, and trying to come to terms with it has fundamentally changed the way I’ve been thinking about these things. To spare you from a meandering, navel-gazing post, I’ll try to untangle a few of these issues and address each one individually.
Ah yes, the big one. Every religion known to humanity has tried to address this issue in one way or another. The one I personally subscribe to (Kemetism, which tries to reconstruct the religion of ancient Egypt) has not one answer but several. This is unsurprising since – to my understanding – the original religion was kind of cobbled together from several different local traditions and, when faced with two conflicting versions of the same thing (like the creation myth), basically took a “FUCK IT LET’S DO BOTH” approach. That, combined with the fact that the original religion was around for thousands of years and experienced some changes along the way, means that there really isn’t one definitive answer for what happens after you die.
I’m not nearly knowledgeable enough to go into all those changes in thought and funerary traditions, or even summarize them adequately. I hate to leave you all with the vague impressions you probably have of mummies and elaborate tombs and “maybe something about weighing your heart against a feather,” but I really don’t trust myself enough to handle this right and instead advise you to look it up yourself if you’re curious. It’s interesting, I promise.
Is it wrong to wonder if Thoth uses an iPad now?
In spite of my religion’s firm assertion that you definitely go somewhere after you die, I’m really just not sure about it myself. If there is something good after life, that’s great. I guess if it turns out there’s nothing, then I won’t know anyway. Worst case scenario would be that it turns out that I picked the “wrong” faith and, instead of encountering Anubis, I’ll be greeted by another religion’s deity shouting: “OHHHHH! NOW YOU FUCKED UP!” (Or, fourth option, my heart is heavier than the feather of Ma’at so Osiris is the one shouting that I fucked up.)
But in spite of my severe doubts, I did set up a shrine to the blessed dead a few months ago. I’d been resisting it for a long time, mainly because of my uncertainties about what my (mostly Christian) lost loved ones would think of the whole thing, but watching many of my friends struggling with grief over losing one of their friends several months back finally pushed me to do it. I guess doing so was one of my ways of dealing with the whole death question in general; it felt right to set aside a physical space in my life to acknowledge that sometimes the people you love just die, and there’s nothing you can do about it but remember them.
What we leave behind
Coming to terms with my mortality was also one of the big reasons why I began my decluttering quest a month ago. If I accepted the fact that I’m going to die someday, then I also had to accept the fact that I’ll be leaving all my physical possessions behind for someone else – most likely my family – to deal with.
I thought back to my childhood, when all of grandparents died within a few years of each other and I watched my parents struggle through house clean-out after house clean-out. Anyone who’s never done or witnessed one of these firsthand will have to trust me when I say it’s a physically and emotionally draining process, especially when you’re already struggling through grief. And the more stuff you have to sort through, the more draining it is. All of my grandparents grew up during the Great Depression, so they saved anything and everything that might ever be useful out of the fear that someday they’d need something like it and wouldn’t have the means to replace it. You can probably imagine what their basements and attics looked like.
The thought of putting my parents through that again if I died before them – forcing them to sort through twenty-some years’ worth of hoarded keepsakes, papers, journals, plushies, books, and unfinished writing projects – made me sick to my stomach. It’s a major reason why I’ve kept this decluttering quest going, even when it’s gotten tedious or emotionally exhausting; I’d rather take on that burden myself than leave it to someone else.
I guess what really prompted me to write this post in the first place was the fact that my family had to euthanize our beloved cat of 13 years earlier today. I won’t go into all the details about him and his battle with cancer here, because I can’t even begin to unpack all my thoughts about him right now.
One thing I will talk about right now is this: I’m glad I stayed for the whole procedure. See, when a pet is euthanized, you have the choice to leave at any time if it becomes too overwhelming; you can also stay if you want.
As I’d thought everything over after my mom and I first discussed the real possibility of putting our cat to sleep, it occurred to me that I’d been cut out of the actual deaths of all my lost loved ones. Sometimes it was deliberate, like when I was a child and nobody wanted me to be traumatized by watching a pet or relative die. Other times it was accidental, like when I was away at school when our other cat was euthanized two years ago.
I began to wonder how much of my lingering fear of death came from never seeing it. After all, isn’t it always the things we don’t see that we fear the most, like the invisible monsters under our childhood beds? So for that reason – and because I wanted to be at our cat’s side until the very end – I decided to stay in the room through the whole procedure.
For the first time in my life, I saw what dying looked like. (Of course all deaths are different, but I saw what at least one kind of dying looked like.) And it wasn’t scary. It was peaceful. One moment our cat was breathing, and then he wasn’t. It seemed natural.
Death as a part of life
And that’s what death is: natural. All living things eventually die. I think that’s what gives our lives beauty and meaning – the fact that they end. Because we die, we all have to make the most of life, both our own and others’.
If you have just one takeaway from this post, I want it to be this: try to accept death. Learning to see death as natural isn’t morbid; it helps you embrace life. (If you haven’t heard of it yet, check out The Order of the Good Death – it’s a group dedicated to helping people face their fears about death so they can learn to accept it.) I don’t know if I’ve fully accepted it myself, but at least thinking about it has helped eliminate some of my fears about death.
If you aren’t ready to confront death, that’s okay too. No judgements here. But I do hope you will be able to try it someday – it’s a hell of a lot better than living in fear.