Bumping and bruising us

A very special woman passed away the other day.  She was a close friend.  Karen and I got to know her several years ago when she was taking lessons from the LDS missionaries.  She fell in love with both of us (but mostly with Karen, which is perfectly understandable).  She was devastated when Karen died, but she always wanted to remain friends with me.  She loved me like one of her own sons.  She was happy to meet Conrad when he moved in with me and became a part of my life.  She was always very friendly, loving, and accepting.

She was important to me because I was important to her.  She was always so happy to see me or hear from me.  I loved dropping by and bringing her meals or just chatting and watching television with her.  I feel like I was closer to her than any of my other Knoxville friends.  She was special.  She was kind and compassionate.

I got a phone call from her cell phone the other day, and answered it very cheerily.  When I heard someone else's voice come through, my heart sank and I knew it wasn't going to be good news.  Her granddaughter informed me of her passing.  It was sad.  It was not entirely unexpected, because she had been having many health complications for years, but it was so early.  She was 65.  I hurt.  I felt sorrow and grief.  I started having regrets.  I should have called her more often or made more effort to visit her.

We are a fascinating species.  We have the ability to think, to reason, to communicate with complex language.  We have incredible linguistic skills.  We have incredible thinking skills.  And one of the uses we put our thinking skills toward is making sense of the universe we find ourselves in. We want to know explanations for things.  Why are things the way they are?  What causes things to work?  What rules govern the universe?  And how can we make sense of our emotions?  How can we make sense of poignant events such as death?

There are many ways we cope with difficult things in our lives.  We feel grief at the loss of a loved one because we are social animals and, as such, we develop emotional attachments to others like us.  We have friends and family members for whom we feel affection and intimacy.  We use words such as "bond" to describe these relationships that we feel emotionally.  And when a bond is cut, there is pain involved very similar to how pain is felt when a limb is cut.  There is a hole in our lives.  There is a gap, a wound.  So we develop mechanisms to cope with this pain.

One way we have developed to deal with this pain is by telling stories about what happens to people after they die.  By establishing permanence of the person's identity, we can alleviate the pain.  When an infant sees an object and then the object leaves the baby's line of sight, that object effectively ceases to exist in the baby's mind, until the baby develops the cognitive ability that we call "object permanence".  This is one way to think of beliefs about the afterlife.  We can't accept the thought that the person no longer exists in any meaningful way, so we believe that the person does still exist but is now outside of our field of perception.  We can feel a lesser degree of grief and loss because we deny that the loss is complete.  One day we will be reunited with the person who passed away, so it is not goodbye forever.

I have heard of some (not many, but some) people who were believers and admit that death scares them when they become atheist.  Why does it scare us?  Is it just an irrational fear?  I don't think that it is.  We are biologically programmed to want to survive.  We have the will to live, to prolong our own lives and to perpetuate the species as a whole.  Thus we are naturally afraid of death.  If we were not scared of death, we would engage in dangerous behaviors that would harm us and possibly kill us, thus shortening our life span.

When I was young I was taught that evolution was impossible and ridiculous.  That species did not change from one species to another.  Part of this is because it seemingly contradicts the doctrine of most Christian churches.  It was only in the last few years that I came to realize that there is overwhelming evidence for the theory of evolution, and that is why it is called a theory.  Since then I've started realizing how much sense things make when seen through the lens of evolution.

Seeing the world through the Mormon lens, I believed that the teachings about the afterlife were revealed as eternal truth from God to his prophets.  I believed that we have a spirit which continues on after our physical body dies, and that we will be reunited with friends and family after we die.  To me these teachings were incontrovertible truths.  They were confirmed to me through the burning in my bosom that I felt and believed to be the whisperings of the Holy Ghost.

Seeing the world through the lens of modern science, the teachings of an afterlife are the coping mechanisms we have developed to help us handle the intense pain we feel in connection with the death of a loved one.  But more can be explained.  We can understand why we feel pain when a loved one dies.  It's because we have a biological tendency to socialize with other people and form emotional bonds with them.  The reason for the pain at the loss of a friend or family member is because our survival chances are lower when we have fewer people on our team and greater when we have more.

I've had many loved ones die throughout my life.  My maternal grandfather was the first family member to die that I felt close to.  That was when I was a teenager.  I had a cousin die shortly after I met him for the first time.  That was sad because I thought he was cool and fun to hang out with.  Another cousin died while I was a missionary in Japan.  Both of my grandmothers died.  My wife died.  That was by far the most difficult death to cope with.  I think I was in shock for a week or more after it happened.

It hurts when people die.  It hurts when people leave my life for any other reason.  It hurts when people don't want to be my friend anymore, or don't want to talk to me for one reason or another.  It hurts to feel a bond with another person dissolve.  It's painful.  It's unpleasant.

I feel that the best way to cope with the loss of a loved one is to accept it and embrace it.  This is not to dismiss the pain and the grief that is felt.  That is part of the process, and is important.  I think it's important to acknowledge the death and admit that the person is dead.  I think that one way to cope with the pain is to recall fond memories of the person who has died, to celebrate eir life with nostalgia.  I have many happy, joyous memories with my wife, my grandparents, my cousins, and Janis.  These memories cannot replace the people I have lost.  But they can help me cope with the pain of losing these people that meant so much to me.  And they can help me pass on the legacy that these people left.  They are dead, but they can live on through the memories of those who are still alive.