Life Lessons From Death

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on finding the meaning of life in death. You can read the post here. I received a lot of feedback on that post. People reached out to me, saying they were touched by what I had written. Some even went on to say it changed their perspective of death. One person wrote to me saying it served as a salve with the passing of a loved one.

Thought the topic of death is disturbing and unsettling to a majority of society, it is something that continues to captivate me. It has reigned over me since I was a kid. Society has decreed anything it does not understand as something to brush under the carpet. You can follow this approach with many subjects, but not death – because it is inevitable. Burying your head in the sand like an Ostrich in the face of danger will not stop death from occurring. In certain quarters of the society, to speak of death is evil. Such instances remind me of Zeno – “No evil is honourable, but death is honourable; therefore, death is not evil.” For me, death was never the end, but another vital part of the journey of life. Death seems to be a temporary state we are yet to understand completely.

It has been 20 years since my mother passed away. In the moments, weeks, months, years and decades of my mother’s passing away, I have learnt a few valuable lessons. These have served as maxims for me ever since, and I’d like to share them with you.

  • Death is the only truth out there. There is nothing in life which you can paint in shades of black and white. In life, one has to see everything relative, with a perspective. Nothing is absolute. Amongst all these, death stands victorious as the complete truth. There is nothing relative when it comes to death and it is as absolute as life itself. You will do better by embracing its surety.
  • Death is unavoidable. It is inevitable. There is nothing to fear about death. If you fear death, then you fear your existence and reality itself. Can you fear life? I’m sure you cannot. Then how can you fear death? Do you know what death entails? If you do not, then what is the point worrying about it? Well, if you do know what it involves, you definitely need not worry about it. Epictetus once said, “I cannot escape death, but at least I can escape the fear of it.” Instead of fearing your death and trying to waste your time avoiding it, spend every available moment living a useful life.
  • Death is unexpected. So always be prepared. You are never going to find the Grim Reaper knock at your door a few years before your death and issue a reminder. (This Twitter handle is an exception.) After battling cancer for a year and completing her chemo and radiation, death appeared at my mother’s doorstep without any warning. “The life of a man is like a flower, blooming so gaily in a field. Then, along comes a goat, he eats it and the flower is gone!” – Anton Chekov. I am yet to come across any other quote which has resonated with me as well as this has about the unexpectedness of life. You may assume life to be predictable and mundane, but death could be looming around any corner. When and where you least expect him to.
  • Grieve at the death of a loved one, but do not sink because of it. Even now, I can vividly recall the last few minutes of my life before the news of my mother’s death reached me. After returning from a hospital visit when my mother had trouble breathing, I called my Dad to find out how she was doing. This was his answer – “Your mother’s story is over.” (This was in my mother tongue, Tamil.) I was 15 years old then. When my father returned from the hospital with my mother’s dead body, I was shocked. I could not digest the events which had transpired. On the previous day, I’d seen her in the hospital and had spoken to her. I never expected it would be the last few words we exchanged. I never expected it to be the last time I saw her smile. It never crossed my mind that it would be the last time I reached out and held her warm hands. Now, here she was, lying in front of us, still and motionless, calm and serene, her hands cold. My father, my younger brother and I huddled together and wept for a long time. It seemed impossible for me to stop grieving. I felt I couldn’t take it anymore when I lit her pyre. Amidst all the torment, a question arose within me – “Would my Mother like to see me grieve this way? Would my mother like to see my spirit broken? Is this what she worked on for 15 years?” And there it was, the answer to my grief, crystal clear – a North Star. What had to happen had to happen, it was not within my control. But how I chose to react to it and how I would come out of the desperate situation was definitely under my control. I had to celebrate life, I had to cherish every moment of it. I had to live my life to the fullest extent to honour my mother. Little did I know I was going to adopt one of Stoicism’s oldest and wisest maxims by doing this. “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” ~ Marcus Aurelius. It is impossible to not grieve for a loved one, but always remember that it does not do justice to the memory of the loved one to continue to suffer. Instead, to honour and respect them, celebrate your life and consequently celebrate their life as well.
  • Cherish people when they are alive. There are more praises and paeans sung about a person while they are inside their grave than when they were outside it. This needs to change. To what effect does it matter if you sang glories of a person when they were no longer with you? It would make a wealth of difference if you took time out to shower the same praises while they were alive. You can let the person opposite to you know they added meaning to your life. In doing so they will be assured that they added meaning to their own lives as well. You mustn’t let people go with empty hearts, with a feeling they haven’t done enough – for it is not true. You have to tell people that their lives mattered, they contributed to your life in some meaningful way, and it is because of them your life is better today.
  • Harsh as it may sound, but remember this – people will forget you. The Buddhists have a saying – “Don’t cling to things, because everything is impermanent.” Everyone makes up ‘everything’. You are not spared by change. Once a person is dead, their memory slowly fades into oblivion. If you are worried about a mistake you have committed or a legacy you want to leave behind, rest assured they will not survive for long. Once you realize this, you can live an authentic life and embrace everything life throws at you. But, at the same time, another quote from Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie comes to mind – “Death ends a life, not a relationship.” I try to keep this in mind carefully weighing the balance not to tip the scales on either side like walking a tight rope.

Some of these lessons I learnt in the few days and weeks after my mother’s death. A few others I learnt while meditating on the certainty of death and its purpose. There will be others that I will discover throughout my life, and I will add them to this list as and when I learn them.

"Dying is only one thing to be sad over. Living unhappily is something else." - Morrie Schwartz

Finally, I will leave you with this crucial lesson that I have learnt – Death exists to bring meaning to life.

Cover Photo by Grant Whitty on Unsplash

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