Our Relationship to Death is Broken
Modern medical science has succeeded in forestalling death, to great effect. In the process, our traditional relationship to end of life has broken, and our actions have undermined the natural order of things, at a cost.
When my brother, Jordan, died at the age of 38, leaving his only sibling, our parents and three grandparents—each approaching 100, at the time—behind, it understandably destroyed the family. Within three short years, all three elders had slipped away, following Jordan into whatever it is that ensues a life.
“It’s the wrong order of things,” is how our grandfather put it tersely, shortly before he, too, passed away.
“I want to see Jordan again,” is how one grandmother put it—the last words she ever uttered, before falling asleep for a final time.
While our father hollowed out, overcome by what he still has yet to reconcile nearly nineteen years on, and our mother sought solace in her personal brand of spiritual sense-making, I also struggled to accept the disappearance of a young man (and my best friend) who was “just getting started”, as I summarized at the end of the book I wrote and published shortly after he died. Genius Lost: A Brother’s Lament was my own route to catharsis.
Cheating Death (of its Beauty)
Nearly two decades on, my view of Western cultures’ relationship to death—centered as it is on prevention, regulation and mourning—is that it is unhealthy, insofar as it is disempowering.
There are at least three reasons this is so.
First, by focusing on personal and collective loss rather than a loved one’s impact on the people around them—however modest it may have been—we are cheating ourselves and others out of an appreciation of a person’s true legacy. It is in the influence we exert (or have exerted) on one another through our acts that a life is truly measured, not the fact that they are gone. By contrast, a societal shift to living impact over dying limitation could conceivably influence our behaviors to focus on contribution, to the benefit of all.