Death and the fragility of it all

A mentor of mine recently lost her partner. She died unexpectedly last week from a massive heart attack. Must’ve been in her 50s or 60s. Otherwise in fine health. The memorial service was today.

When I heard the news, I was dumbstruck. I didn’t know what to say. What do you tell someone who’s just lost the love of their life? Of course I sent her a quick note with my condolences, and I was there for the visitation. But there’s nothing really comforting to say.

Death sucks.

Living with both eyes open requires that fundamental acknowledgment. There are lots of ways we try to squint, so that all the horribleness doesn’t overwhelm us. And of course that’s an understandable response. But if we’re going to be adults, we can’t pretend that the unexpected death of a loved one is anything other than dreadful.

It reveals the fragility of existence, of meaning.

Meaning, on a humanist view, is a human achievement. It is not granted to us from outside. Our life does not have a purpose waiting to be realized once we line up our will with the will of the gods, or of the fates. What meaning our life has is the meaning we succeed in crafting from it for ourselves. Or, I suppose, if we are less fortunate, it’s the meaning imposed on us by others.

But whatever we successfully build, it can all be taken away in an instant. Not for any higher purpose. Not because our story will be more beautiful for it. Not because anything.

You’re going to die. But that’s not the terrifying thing. What’s terrifying is the ones you love dying without you. Because you need them. Your life, as you know it, depends on them. But you can’t guarantee they’ll be alive tomorrow. They could die tomorrow. They could die tonight.

I’m not sure what practical difference it makes to stare death in the face. It’s sobering, for sure. But in the morning you have to go on living. And so we make plans, and we go about our business.

Some days, like today, I think we’d all benefit from thinking about the omnipresence and inevitability of death a bit more. Other days, I’m not sure it would make a difference. No matter.

Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.

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