What Happens When Someone Dies?

It’s one of the ironies of modern life that we have become so much more healthy than our grandparents and great grands — and yet in spite of our longer lives, we haven’t managed to overcome the short-sightedness, internal conflicts and stress of grief.

My great-grandmother had 7 children who all lived into their 70s and 80s — but she also had 4 children that either were born dead or died in childhood. She talked about the children she lost with the same vivid memory she exhibited when talking about my great aunts and uncles and their children.  And out of all those great aunts and uncles, only 1 of them lost a child under the age of 20.  If you look at my parent’s generation in the same family tree — only 1 child out of 70 died before the age of 20, and that was due to drunk driving.

It really wasn’t that long ago that more than half the children born died of basic infections that are now a simple (and usually free) prescription for narrow spectrum antibiotics!  Combine that with the taken-for-granted vaccinations for pertussis, tetanus, pneumonia and diphtheria, and the far less deadly bouts with measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, and others members of the previously deadly childhood diseases gang, and children have now moved on to other more human monsters to haunt their dreams.

It has always been a dangerous world for children.  We just don’t experience losing our children at the same rate that previous generations have.  As a result, we tend to think it’s normal for parents to die first. The truth is slightly different — everybody dies.

Losing a child, a partner, a friend… is everything it’s cracked up to be.  There’s a space that person previously occupied. Both the physical space and the time spent together are now empty.


Except that other people and ideas and adventures and activities flow in to fill the vacuum.  Other children have stories and games and emergencies to demand our time. Other people move into to fill the space.  Or most of it.  It doesn’t happen right away, but it does happen.

Like generations from 200 years ago — or 2000 — we still fill some of the spaces with sleep, conversation, liquor, and busy-work. Death and loss are probably why busy-work exists at all.  There can’t be any other reason for it, because there’s more than enough real work to go around.

My Great-Grandma talked about each child she gave birth to as though they were just outside playing ball or hunting for horn-toads.  Each one was an individual with their own sense of humor, their own ideas and escapades, their own favorite places, and their own talents– and that’s how she remembered them.  The trap that some people fall into is made of clustering all loss together. The fallacy is in thinking it’s one enormous hole where all loss resides, that keeps getting wider and deeper as our lives go on and others’ lives end.  It’s not true.  Each person we love occupies their own space — and when that person is lost, it’s a one person-sized space that’s left behind.  We may have a checkerboard dotted with those person-sized spaces that are slowly filling in with other adventures of life, but that is far easier to deal with metaphorically than a Grand Canyon full of blackness.

Which is not to say that losing someone we love is a casual or a common thing.  The pain is real.  The emptiness is tangible.  No amount of dread or fear in advance can lessen it. Pre-grieving doesn’t do any good.  Real grief — the opening and stitching of a wound — only really happens after the person is gone.  Pre-grieving in anticipation of real loss is its own kind of self-inflicted wound that can fester — if we allow it — for years.  Grieving needs to be kept sacred — as an appropriate response to death before life goes on.  And there is a lot to be said of celebrating the lives of those we love, both before and after their deaths.

I knew a man once who made it his life’s mission to torture his wife with the threats of and preparations for his impending death.  He wasn’t dying of anything — he was just aging and couldn’t stand to fear his own death alone. So in the grandest tradition of “gifts that keep on giving,” he trained her to spend every day making her own bed of nails so she could sleep in it and demonstrate her suffering and grief for him.  It was abuse, torture, and masturbation.  It was King Lear but without the eventual recognition of Cordelia’s love. And 15 years later, he’s still alive.

Pre-grieving is a good way to prolong the pleasure of death and loss, but not much of a way of life otherwise.

Building a national monument-sized pit where you can swim in all the sadness and losses that you accumulate in a lifetime isn’t such a grand idea either.

The way to grieve is to wait until after the loved one is gone, then weep, wail, scream at God, curse the slow progress of modern medicine, promise to live a better life — and then move on.  Anything less, anything more, and anything else is theatrical and makes for a luxurious bed of nails — but is not life — much less life going forward. Grief must be given the respect it deserves — and still, eternal and everlasting sacrifice of self and happiness is more than is required.

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