“Everyone you know someday will die,” Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips proclaims during the chorus of the official state rock song of Oklahoma (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lPXWt2ESxVY). These lyrics are an example one of the various musical or poetic attempts to quantify an understanding of death.
Having recently experienced the death of a loved one, I am now more certain that I can have a complete conscious understanding of the unavoidable reality of death and still be emotionally affected and permanently changed every time someone I care about passes away.
Someone in my immediate family and two grandparents died before I was 12. I knew a few others who passed away before they reached old age. I am incalculably fortunate to have been associated with solid people for my entire life, but have faced losing loved ones at a greater frequency than a lot of people I know in my age range.
What has this done for me? Have I improved at dealing with death? Do I experience less pain when it happens? What have these experiences taught me?
Articulating the answers to these questions is impossible, but is worth attempting. I try below.
First, I am certain that losing loved ones has made me appreciate the ones I have left. Some people I know are scared to face the reality that all the people around them will all be gone someday. Denying this is to do yourself a massive disservice and miss out on the immeasurable value of authentic relationships. Gaining an understanding about this made me more careful about how I treat those I care about and, importantly, how my actions affect them. My closest relationships are better because I lost loved ones.
Second, it is tough to say whether going through the loss of loved ones lightens the impact of any future deaths. Does it get easier? I don’t think it does. I am not a cryer, but I lost count of the number of times I cried for the most recent death of a loved one that I experienced. It was less confusing, but it was not less emotional or gripping.
In fact, I noticed that I became emotional much faster and more intensely after learning about the most recent death of one of my loved ones than any of the previous ones I have experienced. This showed me that my previous experiences with death made me more comfortable with my emotional responses to it. So, having experienced previous deaths helped me begin the grieving process faster. The denial phase was shorter. The pain was as real as ever, and I clearly accepted it. I am no master of grieving, but I am most certain that it is supposed to be hard when people you care about pass away. You cannot go around it being impacted by it.
Most importantly, this most recent death experience taught me not to run from death. It can make you a stronger, more loving and happier person, but you have to face it and let it do its work on you. You have to let it kick your ass for a while. Then, you will come out with a bigger heart, better relationships with the ones you have left, AND a fuller richer life. Death almost always leaves its survivors with a new advantage even if that advantage is perspective and strength. They just have to be bold enough to push forward.
Death is the unavoidable outcome we all share. It is undefeated. Everyone you know, someday, will die. That is the truest thing I know.