My Grandmother passed away recently. I’m not going to dwell on the personal and familial ramifications here. I have a journal for that. But it has brought up a long percolating thought. What do we do about our fear of death?
It’s a good place to think about this. For the last week, I’ve been in Varanasi, the holiest site of Hinduism, a place so infused with divine grace that to die here is to be freed from the cycle of death and rebirth. The environment, and the introduction of my work, prompts conversations along the Ganga about death and its place in our lives. These conversations, especially with other foreigners, circle around the same theme: “we should not fear death.” Moreover, the answer to that fear is simple: The Indian’s have figured it out.
Setting aside the problems of imagining there to be a single Indian approach, in a country of immense religious diversity, where even the focus point of this analysis, Hinduism, is notable for the flexibility of its doctrine, I think it’s worth exploring why we are so afraid of our fear of death. I don’t mean to imply it’s just in Varanasi. Over and over, from palliative activists and priests and funeral directors, I have heard that Western culture is scared of death, which is why we’re so bad at it. And often in the conversation there is a presumption that in the East, the religious realm has an answer we lost, or that just never developed in the West.
I hate to be a spoilsport, but after seeing how families react from the US to India, the anticipated loss of a loved one seems to tear at hearts no matter the geography.1
But I don’t think people are talking about a concrete fear of death in those conversations by the Ganga. They mean an abstracted, distant death. For most of us, our own death is a ticking clock. It’s a sense of closing doors, paths not taken, time slip slipping away. YOLO. If we see life as an accumulation of discrete, but replicable experiences–having a child, visiting a city, making that disastrous career move–reincarnation is a way out. A yogi said as much to me, that the rush and hurry of the West was a response to our single lives, whereas in India “we can just do it next time.”
But you can’t. Life isn’t lived that way. It’s not “a child,” it’s my child, my mom, my job, my life. Death is the loss of the specific, to the dying and to the bereaved. The dying are faced with a transformation or an elimination beyond their understanding, an erasure of the world of certainties. The bereaved are left with a hole that can be patched over but never filled. Why shouldn’t we fear the unknown, or loss, or our own fleetingness?
When my Grandmother died, I was scared. The constant subconscious sense of distance and unfamiliarity lurched into acute homesickness. I thought about how life contains this violence, that in the end everyone I know and love will leave me, unless I leave them first.
Religions offer ways of understanding these feelings, affirm our deep sense that this can’t be it. But that sense is dialectical, feeling responding to feeling. To reduce a religion to an opiate, or even to go further and call it a solution to the problem of being alive, is to ignore the way faith brings our fears to the fore, even as it offers tools to grapple with our terror.
So when I’m asked if this year is making me more comfortable with death, I respond with a firm no. It’s not about comfort. It’s about facing grief and fear head on, not trying to hide from it in either the biomedical myth that death can be fought off or the hope that there is some simple truth halfway around the world.
1. I think there’s also a commentary that I’m not making here about how Westerners imagine “Eastern” religion as the source of ancient wisdom and how this skates over the reality of other people’s emotional and spiritual depths. My (admittedly limited) experience talking to Indian people here about their thoughts on death suggests that most people don’t think their faith gives them an easy answer, even if it is a reassurance and a comfort. A simple narrative for the other, whether positive or negative, reduces their humanity ↩