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Haunted by Death
Making sense of all the losses in my life

Regina Spektor sang, No one laughs at God in a hospital, no one laughs at God in a war…No one’s laughing at God when they’re saying their goodbyes.

It’s true, painfully so. I’m not really a believer—at least, not in any one religion—but there’s something about sitting at the funerals of people who were close to me that makes me want to kill God. Each time, it made me want to send God hate mail.

Dear God,

What the hell are you doing? You’re supposed to help people, not kill them! The majority of the Earth’s population must believe in you for a reason—but if you can’t save people’s lives, then what’s the point of believing?

In my head I’d yell these things. Though I didn’t really believe in God, I didn’t fully not believe in God either, and the idea of God gave me something, someone, to get mad at. It wasn’t my godmother’s fault she’d gotten cancer, for example, and I couldn’t even really blame her doctors for not being able to cure it—but I needed someone to be responsible. I was furious at that someone.

But then all the anger would drain away like a receding tide, because of the thought that crept into my head every time I stared at the polished dark wood of the coffin: the thought that this will happen to me some day.

Dear God,

What will happen to me when I die?

No Escape

My parents never shielded me from death. The first time I encountered it was when my grandfather died. I was 5, and my parents did their best to explain what it meant. Later came the deaths of my best friend’s father, my uncle, my grandmother, my mom’s best friend. By the time I was 13, six people close to me had died, which was many more deaths than most of my friends had experienced.

None of the people who died were in my immediate family, so there was a degree of separation between me and each death. But I visited most of these people when they were terminally ill—all of them except my grandfather died of cancer—and I went to their funerals. All of it made life seem less concrete, like one of those dandelions children make wishes on—just three puffs and the feathery, clinging seeds float away.

It made me feel powerless: I will die. There is nothing I can do to change that. But interestingly enough, that powerlessness gave me a sense of urgency: I couldn’t change that I was going to die, so I might as well get started on the things I wanted to do while I was alive.

Sensing Presence

Yet despite its finality, death has never yet seemed completely real to me. I still feel like the people I’ve known who are dead are just on vacation somewhere, that they’ll be coming home any time now. If they were really gone, I’d be able to sense it, wouldn’t I? They all had such a feel about them, such presence, that you should be able to tell something important has disappeared. They should leave an empty grandmother- or godmother-shaped space behind, an emptiness that never heals and that you can’t fill with anything.

Instead, I don’t always remember that they’re gone. I still feel that strong sense of personality and presence. If they were really gone, the world should stop, or the sun should explode, or some other catastrophic thing should happen. A human life is so important to the person who’s living it and to those who love that person that it doesn’t seem possible that it could just stop, suddenly and completely, while the world goes on like nothing has happened.

Some might say that they’re actually not gone—that they’re in an afterlife, so we’ll see them again. I don’t know if that’s true, but I sort of hope it is. I hope that they still exist, just not here and now.

Washed Away

Then again, it might just be that I’m human, and the human mind can’t—or fiercely doesn’t want to—conceive of the idea of non-existence, and so we create the concept of afterlives to comfort ourselves. We’re afraid to imagine that when the people who know us die, and the people they know die, eventually our connection to the living world will disappear. We will be forgotten.

That’s what scares me the most, certainly more than public speaking (which is said to be Americans’ number one fear), and even more than death: being forgotten; being here and then not being here, and having no one remember; leaving only a few simple footprints that will soon be washed away with the tide.

Dear God,

What’s the point? If I’m going to die—and then be forgotten, not making any real difference in the world—what’s the point?

This is one of the darker questions, the ones that haunt me late at night when I’m too tired to sleep. I don’t know when it first occurred to me; I was 5 when I first encountered death, and I doubt I was pondering philosophical questions by the illumination of my Chinese-character nightlight. But over time the thought came to me, as if it had always been lurking at the back of my mind. Maybe that’s why I push myself so much. If I can achieve something, if I’m successful, I won’t have to ask “What’s the point?” because I’ll have made a difference, and I won’t be forgotten.

image by YC-Art Dept

Meaning in Memory

Then again, there are certainly people who’ve made an enormous difference in the world who faded into the mists of time thousands of years ago. And even if someone knows for sure they’ll be remembered, there’s no guarantee that person will suddenly feel peace or freedom from fear. So maybe the question haunts people at all ranks and levels of achievement.

If we can’t be sure there’s anything after this, what gives life meaning? What is the point of a life that’s passed?

The answer I’ve come up with is memories. I can’t stop a person from dying, but if I remember them, they won’t ever really be gone as long as I live. And someday I might pass along, not my specific memories of those people, but the advice and lessons and love that came from them.

It’s true that not all memories are ones you want to dwell on. I want to remember those I’ve lost in their happiest times, but the memories that crowd to the front of the line are the sad ones, the ones I’d almost rather not remember. I say “almost” because in fact I do want to remember even the painful memories. Those sad memories are the ones that most taught me to value my loved ones, my memories of them, and every day of own life.

And so: I am 12, about to enter the viewing in the funeral home. Before we go in, my mother tells my brother and me that we don’t have to and shouldn’t look in the coffin. I don’t, for almost the entire time, but I glance at it near the end, just for a moment.

I see a man on his back, still as though he’s sleeping, his nose jutting proudly into the air. He is dressed in black, shocking against his white skin. I can tell that his flesh is cold just by looking at it. He doesn’t look like my uncle at all.

I remember feeling numb, helpless, useless. Less than a year later, the numbness sets in again when my grandmother says her last words to me: “Goodbye, my darling. I love you.”

The next time I see my grandmother, she is lying in the nursing home’s hospital bed, unable to really speak or move. She squeezes my hand lightly when I say hello, but stays silent. “Can this really be my grandmother?” I think as I watch her struggle to lift her finger. She has always been so alive and vibrant, with such a presence and voice. The next day, Mother’s Day, she dies, the mother of three children. It doesn’t seem real as the coffin is lowered down into the grave, and I am standing beside my father. We toss roses in, and he says softly, “Goodbye, Ma.”

Dear God,

I hate you.

It is later the same year, and my mom and I have come back from our vacation in Fire Island to see my best friend Isaiah and his mother, my godmother Adina.

I walk up the familiar creaking stairs and open the door. It is strange, almost scary, when I see Adina lying there. My strong godmother, the one with the deadly cancer that never seemed to affect her, is just…there, her body uneven. Her legs and feet are slightly swollen, the skin on the top half of her body stretched tight. Her face has a hollow, gaunt look, eyes closed.

Two days later, I wake up to a dove-gray sky and rain trickling against the windows. When I walk upstairs, my mother is hanging up the phone.

“She died, didn’t she.” It is not a question.

My mother nods. “When?” I ask.

“Late last night. She was in a coma for two days and then woke up, sort of. She didn’t open her eyes, but she said her children’s names. ‘Isaiah, Gabriel.’ Not like she was calling for them, more like she was worried that she’d be leaving them behind. And then she said, ‘OK. OK. OK.’ ”

At Adina’s funeral, her son Gabe shovels dirt into the grave, and the rhythmic sound of the rocky earth spattering on the coffin is the only thing in the world. Gabe’s brother Isaiah, only 11 years old, doesn’t once take his eyes off his mother’s grave.

They Are Part of Me

Something dawned on me then that had been creeping a few steps forward with each person’s “passing on.” What I know, what I am—it’s due, in part, to these people. They won’t die, because they’re now a part of me. I don’t think we ever really find answers to the questions we ask the world and whatever gods exist. All we can do is remember the lives, smiles, and tears of our loved ones as we forge our way through our own lives.

So I remember the good memories, too, just letting them wash over me now and then: Grandpa telling all my cousins and me a story while playing his ukulele; Gary ordering our ice cream while Hannah and I run around playing tag; Adina reading K’tonton (a Jewish children’s tale about an inch-high boy) to Isaiah and me at every Jewish holiday; and the light glinting off Grandma’s close-cropped silvery curls as together we push through the hedge in her backyard, into the field beyond.

Dear God,

I guess there’s only one way to say this. It’s not really your fault, because you probably don’t actually exist. I’m probably just typing letters on a page. But just in case, I’m glad I got to know them before they died. So—if you exist—thanks.

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