I’m told that everyone grieves in their own way, and I think this is true. The moment someone you care about dies is the moment you feel compelled to do something — whether it be cry, talk about it with friends and family, chat about it on Facebook, light a candle, or try desperately to pretend it didn’t happen.
I never really expected me to be at a loss of what to do, however. I remember back when I was much younger — back when I was about 11 — my grandpa died. I loved him a lot, but I was still to young to really grapple with or fundamentally understand what it is to lose someone. Since then, I’ve heard of the deaths of many, whether it be in wars or car accidents, but never have I lost someone I cared about. Until now.
It turns out that my answer to a friend dying is to talk to no-one, but to retreat inward and think about it, as well as pretend it didn’t happen. But now I want to use my blog to write about it, to keep the memory alive. So here it goes:
One of my friends at Denison University, Sarah “Neelu” Jose, died on July 10, 2011. How she died was heroic: she jumped into a lake to try to save her drowning cousin. The end result, however, was not heroic — both she and her cousin drowned. It was the situation we all have nightmares about facing, where we think about putting our life at risk for the safety of others. Not many of us would be as brave as Sarah was; losing her life trying to save someone she loves.
She will be missed greatly by all those who knew her, including me. I always remembered her smiling face, and how she would teach me the metric system, and struggle to play badminton. I would continually try to accuse me of being from Chicago, when I really live in Cincinnati. I was sure I would come back and see her next year and have her ask me how my summer in Chicago was. Now, I suppose, I’ll never hear that again.
I think it goes without saying that death is a bad thing. Deep down, I think everyone knows this, but it is such a bad thing that people try to lie to themselves. Death is often rationalized. I’ve heard it mentioned that death is good as a clarifier; when someone you know dies, it makes you pause and stop, and reflect on the qualities of a life worth living, and strive to work to make sure all those living can ensure the best quality of life possible.
I’ve also heard it mentioned that death is necessary to make life worth living, because it gives everything a fleeting nature — if you lived forever, you would have no drive or need to satisfy any goal, because you would have an infinite amount of time to complete it in. For those who die forever, there would be no rush or any motivation at all, because you would never truly lose out on anything. In an infinite amount of time, there are infinite opportunities. An infinite life is pointless.
I’ve also heard that death is necessary as a means to control the population, for we can’t have everyone living forever because we would run out of space. I’m told it is necessary for people to die to make room for those who have yet to be born. There is only so much space on our planet for everyone.
Rejecting the Clarifications
To these three philosophies of death, I reject them wholeheartedly. Certainly they are true, but do the benefits of death really need someone to die in order to get them? Isn’t it horrible to suggest that we need people to die in order to rethink our lives — can’t we just clarify our lives on our own because we think it is a good idea, without needing death? These are people’s lives we are talking about here.
And certainly I wouldn’t want to live forever, but I definitely would still want to live for a few thousand years, if not longer. And I certainly wouldn’t want to die at my current age of 19, or see anyone I care about die at 19, like my friend Sarah. I would want everyone I care about to live the most fulfilling lives for as long as possible, and only die when they want to.
Also, if necessary, I would move to colonize other planets before I admit that I need people to die so I can live. I would rather expand humanity outward and keep everyone alive, then end up in a vicious circle where death is rationalized as a means to fight population.
Truly, all these excuses for death are just that — excuses to make you feel better in the loss of a loved one. Death is truly a horrible and unnecessary thing that we would be better off without. Death is not necessary by any stretch of the imagination, and I find it repugnant to suggest otherwise. While I do tearfully admire the death of someone who sacrifices herself to save others, in an ideal world, all those would be saved without anyone needing to die.
A Better Place
Many people have attempted to reassure me by saying that Sarah is in a better place now. But I know this is truly just wishful thinking. I know that Sarah is now nowhere at all, experiencing nothing because she no longer lives. She has returned to how she was before she was born.
But this is no time or mood to play twenty questions on the abstract theologies of “why a just God allows suffering”, or to pull punches on the concept of Heaven. This is a time when people need to heal, and if they need to invoke wishful thinking to do so, then this is not the time for me to judge. Everyone grieves in their own way.
I do know that Sarah no longer feels pain. She no longer has anything to worry about or anything to fear, because she can no longer have feelings. I also know that Sarah will live on in our memories, and it is up to us to take up her mantle and keep it this way. Sarah may have died, but she left a lasting impact — she positively changed the lives of everyone she met and knew.
Sarah has altered history, and there is nothing anyone can do to take this away from her — it is something not even death can change. While Sarah may not be in a better place, Sarah created a better place. Sarah offered an ultimate and selfless sacrifice or her life so that we could live in a happier and more joyful world — the one she helped create.
Sarah’s life and actions are something to celebrate — Sarah’s past could not be possibly lost in her death; only her future. Sarah lives on in us.
As it has been said, death is a terrible thing. But how do we find peace with death? How does the idea of death not terrify us?
The answer lies in the great literary works of Camus and others — the only way to find peace with death is to fight it. To look death in the eyes and scare it away. But how can we do such a thing?
The first answer lies within ourselves — we can only stop being afraid of death if we stop being afraid of life. For what is there to fear about death itself? After we die, we will no longer feel any pain or experience any worry. The only thing death brings is the lost opportunities to have done more, to have experienced more, to have loved more, to have kept on living. Death deprives us of our future.
So we fight this by living the good life — the life of compassion and curiosity. We live to love and care for others, to travel and see cool things, to read and learn about how the world works. If we live the best life possible, then we don’t have lost opportunities, and we deprive the best thing death can take from us.
The second answer lies within our relationship to each other — if we recognize we’re all in this together, we can make our current lives worth living even more. We can stop having petty fights and forgive each other when forgiveness is deserved. We can spend our moments as friends rather than enemies. We can do what Sarah did, and spread joy to everyone we meet.
There are some big changes we can do to realize this. Consider all the loving messages Sarah is receiving on Facebook now that she is dead. What if these messages had been given to her when she was alive? What if she had known how much people loved and appreciated her before she died?
It seems very counterproductive to only tell people how much you love them until after they’re dead and no longer able to receive messages. Therefore, I suggest the following project that I will also be taking part of: telling people how much you value them before they die. Simply say “Hi” to people you know or don’t know rather than avoiding eye contact while walking bye. Definitely don’t ignore people by fiddling with your cell phone.
Life is too precious for this. I only wish I was able to tell Sarah how good of a friend she was, sooner.
The third answer lies within death itself — death can be literally fought and perhaps even defeated, with technology and knowledge. This may be seen as wishful thinking, and perhaps rightly so. But at least this is wishful thinking with a purpose — developing technology to improve the quality of life surely couldn’t be a bad thing, even if death is never defeated.
However, this is also wishful thinking that has a trend of evidence showing that it isn’t quite so wishful. We have seen the quality of life and length of life for the average person expand extensively over the past millennia. Back in 1010, people were lucky if they lived to be fifty and lucky to be barely literate by death. Now people, on average, are very healthy, literate, and capable of living long lives to about age eighty or longer.
Unfortunately, there are some people in other countries where this isn’t so, and it is our moral duty to use our abilities to help them where they see fit. Add even when everyone lives to be eighty and is able to attain a high school education, we could make sure that everyone lives to be one hundred and is able to attain a college education. There is a trend of progress and we can climb it even further upward.
In Memory of Sarah
Despite knowing Sarah for only a year, her joy made my life a life more worth living. And despite knowing that I will never see her again in person, I will make sure to see her again in my memories, and make sure that her life is never forgotten in myself or others.
I will make sure to take her memory and rededicate my efforts to live a better life, spread joy to others, and find new ways to make the world a better place.
Sarah may have died, but she didn’t die for nothing.
Followed up in: A Second Personal Essay on Death
I now blog at EverydayUtilitarian.com. I hope you'll join me at my new blog! This page has been left as an archive.