Life: In Contemplation of Death

A friend died this morning. A kind-hearted woman with a positive outlook and the love of her family. Her only flaw was the insidious tumour in her brain that could not and would not be defeated. I’ll miss her joie de vivre and her ready smile. I feel a deep sense of personal loss. I feel lost in a swirl of anger and sorrow and helplessness.

The death of someone from within one’s circle of friends and acquaintances brings unwelcome emotions, but also introspection. It is perhaps a necessary stock-taking. Death is final but, in the meantime, we’re still alive. What’s the meaning of life? How do we feel about death? Why do we wait until it’s too late?

I find it an irony of mourning that it revolves around the mourner, not the deceased. While we feel sorry for the person who died far too young, we also acknowledge their freedom: from pain, from suffering, from the struggles of life. Mostly, though, we feel sorry for those left behind who have lost a beloved person. We feel sorry for ourselves. It is often our own loss we mourn for, shed tears for.

Soon after hearing of my friend’s death, my thoughts raged on the utter futility of life. How unfair it is that someone so gentle and loving should be taken while other less-worthy souls smudge the earth with their presence. How pointless life is when it can end at any moment, unfairly and unpredictably. How useless love and attachment are when they lead to the pain of loss. What is the answer? What is the point? Does anything we do make any difference?

Once the rage passed, my thoughts turn to contemplating mortality. Why her? It could have been anyone. It could have been me. What if it was me? How does it feel to face death? How does it feel to die? What happens after? What can I do to forestall death? Am I living right? Eating right? Exercising enough? Should I take up yoga? Give up coffee? Does anything I do matter? If I knew I had only four months to live, what would I do differently now? What pleasures have I been putting off “until later”? Why am I not doing them now?

Finally, my tired thoughts turn to that unhappy but necessary ritual, the funeral. Why is it, I wonder, that we tend to learn more about people after they’re dead? We could know someone for years and only find out at their funeral that they once pulled someone from a burning building. In our relationships, we seem to be busy with the here and now and forget that the other person had a life before we came into it. Do we spend too little time on the surface instead of delving into the depths of other’s souls? Do we spend too much time bringing the conversation around to ourselves? What are we doing when we’re with others that we can’t even notice or recall something as basic as their eye colour? If a two-hour funeral or memorial service can reveal details that we never knew about someone, what does that say about the quality of the time we spent together?

I have more questions than answers. But one thing I do know: the time for life is when we’re living. We’ll regret the things we didn’t do more than the things we did. Life is short and often shorter than we think.

If we can make time to attend someone’s funeral, we can make time to visit them when they need it. If we can send a sympathy card after death, we can send an encouraging note in life. The funeral is our final chance to connect with someone, but how useless it is to arrive there and think, “If only I’d done/said/learned something when I had the chance.”

It is perhaps death that teaches us about life. So while I say farewell to a dear friend, I will learn the lessons her life?and death?are trying to teach me.

Barbara Lehtiniemi is a writer, photographer, and AU student. She lives on a windswept rural road in Eastern Ontario