The unbearable truth about death: Life goes on

November 16, 2013
The unbearable truth about death: Life goes on - A still from The Unbearable Lightness Of Being

This short reflection has emerged in the wake of a few deaths in my family and social circles this week.

The litany of loss

The night before last I lost my last grandparent as she died peacefully in her sleep a few short months away from racking up 100 years of life.

Before that, a dear neighbour died from cancer.

And around the perimeters of my life, a guest speaker at a conference I am attending had to cancel his appearance because his father died.

The minor congregations of mourning

In all three instances, life for those closely associated to the dead person is impacted through emotional disturbance and then the physical cancellations of events and activities.

But in all three instances, life for those just a degree or two further removed went on all but unchanged.

With my grandma’s passing, my sisters and family members were busily engaged, I cancelled meetings, and all of us were pulled into a reflective mood as we recalled all the fond ways she had touched and shaped our lives.

With my neighbour, we were moved but we were not close enough in the circles to wrest ourselves away from work and ongoing routines.

With the conference speaker, the conference went on with other speakers stepping into the ring.

The unbearable lightness of being

And there it is.

Milan Kundera’s profound book title, The unbearable lightness of being, has again been shown to be profoundly, infuriatingly, unstoppably true.

Outside immediate circles of relationship, life and time marched on without skipping the slightest beat.

Arguments continued.

Comets maintained trajectories.

Love and hate ebbed and flowed throughout the lands.

Lions prowled and prey pranced in the unrelenting quest to delay the inevitable.

And there is nothing wrong with this.

This is just how it is.

And sadness can sit with this.

And pragmatism.

And delight in the brief flash of engagement we had with our departed can be rightly held and cherished too, without resort to fairytales of after lives and mysticism.

In fact, the deepest and most enduring source of joy and respect for life that I have found, has come from Richard Dawkins, the author of , The God Delusion, in a quote from his Unweaving the rainbow: Science, delusion, and the appetite for wonder:

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?”

Those are beautiful, insightful words. They capture what is, and bring proper context to the topic of life and death, in my opinion.

What I also like about that quote is that it is held in exquisite tension with our emotional feelings of loss when someone close and important to us dies.

Which is why there will always be a time and place for poetry like W H Auden’s Stop all of the clocks.

For me it is not a case of either or but of both/and.