It is a rare moment in my life when I can enjoy making a sincere, honest, compassionate contribution to the human experience. I realize this sounds depressing, but I’ll bet that upon careful examination, most people can relate. Doesn’t mean it’s any less depressing, just that we’re all more or less the same.
One area in which I have accumulated experience, and thus feel empowered to give advice, is impending death. Death, according to Marcus Aurelius, is not to be feared, barely to be noticed, the mere dissolution of one collection of atoms in preparation for another. And yet, whole religions have been founded and expanded on the fear of death, on the need for there to be something more beyond the end. Surely this existence, comprised mostly of failure and unmet expectations, does not simply… stop. There must be some sort of triumph for the daily and yearly drudgery to which we, and countless previous billions of our type, submit.
While I am not prepared to speak with certainty of events beyond death, I live my own life without expectation of any transmutation beyond the dispersal forecast by Marcus. I often fantasize about alternatives, but only recreationally, and often with substantial liquid assistance. From observable experience, I can only report a struggle of a length determined by character and circumstance, followed by a switch being thrown. There is often some residual electrical activity which may move muscle, intensely uncomfortable to observe, but a dead body is unmistakable as a cold, leaden wasteland; indeed, the notion of a soul may have been developed not from observing the living, but rather the recently dead.
As a side note, biological and environmental processes, when not regulated by the brain (and if you prefer, the soul) can quickly turn a corpse into a horror show. Life after death, it seems, is a matter of perspective.
When death is imminent among those close to us, we tend to project our own needs upon the dying. One of the finest examples ever recorded in English is Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do not go gentle into that good night”. The title, with the refrain “rage, rage against the dying of the light” implores the dying to hold on to every little scrap of breath they can, to realize that there is so much left to do, to see, to experience… and though this may be appropriate to read to a young woman about to leap from a bridge, for someone in pain and seeing the writing on the wall, the proper response may be Fuck You Dylan Thomas.
Rage is not an obligation, it is a choice. When impending survivors demand a fight, they are asking to be spared dealing with the concept of death before they’re ready. More importantly, they are being challenged to look at their lives, and decide if they’ve done enough living. It’s a hard question, and we would all rather put it off until it’s too late.
I have known my share of death. I have spent weeks dwelling on nothing else. I believe sincerely it is nothing to be feared, only something to be faced. In the Hagekure, the way is often described as moving through life as one already dead, and while I can’t advocate the pure death-cult approach of the samurai, there is much to be said for the idea of living passionately while realizing every day is in the face of death.
The dying have their own way of living, right to the end. It’s up to them to set the conversation, decide their course, know what makes them happy or sad. If someone wants to give up, that is their right. They don’t want to hear your theories, your religion, or your objections. They just want to know they did okay.