Death: A Meditation for the Living
story | Professor Rajeev Patke
photo | Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni
In the midst of life there is death: sudden, and final, grinding our daily routines to a halt. We react with shock, disquiet, and grief. Shock, that it can come upon us so suddenly. Disquiet at how something can be broken, which might have been mended. Grief at what is taken from us. Grief especially for one claimed in youth. From such loss comes a question without an answer. Wilfred Owen asked it at a time of war—but when is it not a time of war?—and so we ask, “was it for this the clay grew tall?” We struggle with our own helplessness; the futility of everything once death has done its work with us; the overwhelming sense that everything is unavailing in all we do, feel or think, once death has been amidst us.
But perhaps, it is not just so. Perhaps, this event, which we did not seek or want, this happening that we would unmake if we could, might bring us to reckon with what we almost manage to forget most of the time. Maybe we might look it in the face instead, rather than avert our eyes from it, or pretend that it does not exist. We might meet it not just as an abstraction, or as an event in someone else’s life, but as our own death, the one unique event in our lives that will bring each of us to a closure with little or no hope of disclosure (except through the compelling but difficult to ascertain notion of an afterlife). Why not meet it here and now, amidst a whole community that can share not only the shock, and the disquiet and the grief, but also an effort at a reconcilement with our own mortality without which our lives are awry, however busy we think we are, or fit, or happy.
That is how what others have thought and felt and said in situations like this can serve as “a momentary stay against confusion,” Robert Frost’s phrase for the work of poetry, which is but one among the ways that help us make sense of our lives and our losses a little better through a concord between perception and expression, as an exorcism of grief. Then we might be able to grapple with why a poem should declare that “Death is the Mother of Beauty.” We might also then try to make sense of another utterance, titled, “A Refusal to Mourn the Death by Fire of a Child in London,” which arrived at a conclusion that should make us pause: “After the first death, there is no other.” What might that mean? For each of us in our own lives? If we are helpless when death occurs amidst us, we can make of our helplessness a means to a fresh approach, a renewed understanding, to be shared among a community, of how death is both singular and universal, unique each time it visits the living, and yet also, and always, our only familiar companion, a shadow that never leaves us. Samuel Beckett once ventriloquized wryly through the mouth of one of his characters, “one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” A bleak vista, but one that asks to be recognized as a limit condition to the existence we cherish, not as a way of displacing or diminishing our mourning, but as its companion and its ungentle amelioration.
This is no easy matter. It is what brings us closer: a community of the bereft, where to be human is to be bereft, except for how we choose to deal with the limit condition of being human: our mortality. We might then touch hands in the recognition that binds us across all our differences and our separateness as individuals. That is what is done, laconically, by a poem called “Ambulances,” which reminds us, starkly, that “every curb in time is visited.” And indeed, as a poet and priest from another era put it, we must not ask for whom the bell tolls, for it tolls for each of us. Therefore, this side of the membrane that is death, might be the time to think, feel and sense our way to some form of understanding, so that we touch some part of loss with the need to understand how we might cope with the kind of blankness that meets us when we think the thought of Death. A membrane is permeable, porous. We could, together, infiltrate this barrier, even if only in shared thought. And then bring ourselves to hold and then disperse the pathos that surrounds such a happening. Of the pathos, as with another death, in another time and place, but clothed in the same bereftness, a poet said then, what we can repeat now:
Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashion’d so slenderly,
Young, and so fair!
The leaving should not make us forget what the living was like. We may find ourselves inconsolable at the loss, but we can — strange though this may sound — make reconciliation with loss and shock and grief, in the hope that thus it might become less difficult to accept our own mortality, and thereby make us appreciate more all that which will not last. That may not seem enough; but it is not nothing. The life that was lived should be cherished, in the moment of its going, for what made it precious, in itself, and for all of us, not merely because we must all die one day — no — but because we value what life brings as precious, and some part of that value resides in the fact that it can all come to an end. In that recognition, grief could be leavened with a steadying element, that might give us the conviction to say, with John Donne:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
But what if we cannot muster the conviction Donne simulates with such force? What if that which we need most is something altogether different: an affirmation of the afterlife, and the proffering of a prayer that the soul of the departed might have rest and peace. Certainly, that is something we all wish and pray for. But that is not enough. Because we must now attend to the living. And the only way of coping with grief then is a motto that a novelist once appended to a novel: “only connect.” Human life is frail and fragile, regardless of how fit and happy we think we are. The fiction called “normalcy” can quickly prove to be an illusion, with any of us, with all of us. Then, there is only one stay against confusion: the cherishing of connections; the making of the strands that tie us and bind us together in a sustaining web of belonging, not just as a College community, and not just tied by our loss, but as a community of the mortal and the mutable, who make of our lives something more precious for valuing how we relate and connect to one another. It will not make death go away; but it will make it live with us better.