by Kit Murray
More than fifteen years ago, on Sept. 11, 2000, I was told my mother had died.
I remember it so clearly. My brother and I waited at a family friend’s house. Uneasy and scared, we allowed close family and friends to provide comfort and support while our home was being evacuated. Everything would be okay. Mom would be okay. Minutes felt like hours. Eventually, someone dressed in a black suit with a sad look on his face, walked down the stairs to the basement to tell my brother and me our mother was no longer with us. I was too young to understand. I sat frozen. My brother started crying.
I’ve spent many years of my life trying to figure out why death is so painful. Many of us get so caught up in it that we let it take our own lives. I’ve had to witness this as well.
Recently, I’ve had to accept the fading of my own father’s life. He says he loved my mother so much, he will never get over her death. Over the last 15 years, he has allowed her absence to swallow him whole. Each time I receive a call from my neighbor, I fear it will be someone saying my father has died.
Death, a completely abstract idea, is hard for us to grasp. Until we are faced with it, we have no idea what it really means. Some of us put our faith in a higher power. Perhaps we believe we’ll be reincarnated, or we put our trust in the universe and allow the unknown to be just that. We’ve accepted a level of ignorance due to the solemn fact that none of us have any idea what death actually means. But what if death is something that could be seen as beautiful? Could it be a sort of liberating crescendo celebrating the miracle of life? Or are we too obsessed with the darkness surrounding it to realize that life should be appreciated and lived well because of death, rather than in spite of it?
I want to explore the differences between death and dying. It’s so easy to fear such an abstract concept, especially if we haven’t experienced a lot of death in our own lives. We glorify death with funerals, burials and ceremonies, but how often do we take the time to truly let go of what once was and appreciate what now is? Is it possible to approach death as liberating, rather than all-consuming?
What has helped me accept death is finding its silver lining. In order to appreciate life, we must appreciate death. It’s a difficult idea to wrap our heads around, especially when we hold on to those we love so tightly. Being able to let go as easily as we hold on is essential to our finite lives. When my mother passed away, I wasn’t able to grasp much beyond the instant confusion and sadness of a 6-year-old’s heart. How would I tell my teachers or friends? Sympathy became a sickening experience to me, especially when someone said they were sorry to hear my mother died. I wondered why. Why are you sorry, did you kill her? Do you have to go through what I’m going through? Nothing anyone would say could help. The five stages of dealing with death don’t mention it’s something you can struggle with for the rest of your life. I had to come to terms with death on my own, and after 15 years, I think I have.
Losing someone, whether by death or just by lack of compatibility in a fading relationship, is part of life. Death just is. I’ve let loss empower me. In my own life, I have struggled with letting other people define who I am. But my mother’s death doesn’t define who I am. It has only shaped who I am. It has allowed me to see firsthand how quickly everything can change and to make an effort to always truly appreciate life — the good and the bad.
The way we allow traumatic events to shape us is how we build our resistance and ability to overcome future hardships. Seeing beauty in the darkest of situations can allow some people to see the silver lining, while others are overwhelmed by the shadows and forfeit entirely. I want to encourage trying to appreciate, and even admire, the duality of everything in life. Without life, death wouldn’t exist. Time doesn’t always heal. Moving on doesn’t always soothe the pain. It can be frustrating how much time it really does take, but understanding and accepting that death simply is, has helped me immensely.
“Death smiles at us all, all a man can do is smile back.” – Marcus Aurelius