Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The fragility of life, the permanence of death, and the importance of memory

Life, at times, can take you so far out of your comfort zone that there is nothing you can do or say to make things better. It's personally difficult for me, as I'm socially awkward at the best of times, so when a dreadful calamity befalls someone near to you, there is no personal experience to fall back on, and no right thing to say.

I'm writing this in the days and weeks after our neighbours' two-year-old son died suddenly over Christmas. Tommie, a happy and healthy toddler taken ill one day and laid low by illness. It is something that no parent should ever experience, but life can be fragile and cruel and even the best people are visited by the kind of tragedy that is beyond most of our imaginations.

Just about everybody experiences loss at some time or other. The only real grief I can fall upon is that from when my mother died suddenly 15 years ago, and even though that knocked me sideways for years, it's no equal to the absolute devastation that Maria and Luke are facing right now. It's something that I want to convey to them, but all I've managed is an awkward, lop-sided "I'm with you" smile and equally awkward small-talk. One cannot even say "I know how you feel", because there is no way I can come even close to that. So, I remain silent, and it tears me up.

Does not saying anything ever get mistaken for not caring?

Life is fragile, and worse, life is not fair. That's exactly what I thought as I watched weeping funeral directors place a tiny white coffin on the dais. Even people who see death on every day of their working lives know it's not fair. But the world still turns, people are born, live, die.

I am torn, too, between knowing in my rational mind that death is a permanent state from which there is no return; and the comfort that people get by saying "I'll see you one day soon" as some way of diluting their grief. Belief is an important thing at the lowest points in people's lives, and it's not my place to criticise or ridicule anybody who live in the hope that their departed are out there, somewhere, waiting for them. Even the grey-haired chap outside the chapel who re-assured me of the "certainly and the joy of the resurrection", a Jesus-fish lapel badge sparkling in the sun, has his place. That's his coping mechanism, and I dare say it is more effective than mine.

But I'm drawn to an exchange I remember from a 12-Step Meeting I attended a few years ago on the importance and fragility of life, as we discussed "Question 20" in the members' handbook on whether addiction had driven you to thoughts or actions toward self-destruction:

"You're a long time dead, and do we have any idea what it's like? I'll tell you... Remember those six billion years before you were born?"


"Exactly like that, only longer."
Without sounding like I'm pointing out the bloody obvious, an eternity is a damn long time for you to be forgotten. And you will be forgotten.

That's why memory is so important. People die, billions of them, and the vast majority are eventually forgotten about, vanishing completely, nothing but an entry in the birth registry, and the inevitable death certificate. And one day, if you're lucky, somebody might even care enough to research you for the family tree, and even find a story to tell that proves you were once a living, breathing person full of hopes, fears and dreams about scoring the winning goal in the FA Cup final.

But while the body and the life are gone, the memory remains alive as long as you and others will it to be so. It's never going to bring anyone back from Death's icy grip, but mourning, eventually replaced by remembrance and celebration are crucial for those left behind, and help you somehow blank out the fear that one day it will be you.

I have incredible trouble blanking out that fear.

So, while there's nothing I can say or do for my neighbours in these dreadful days except to be there for them when they ask, I hope that the sad tunes will be replaced with happy ones, and that Tommie's short life will be remembered with happiness rather than tears.

They played the Pingu theme tune at his funeral. All the way through. Twice. Goodbye, little man.


Anonymous said...

I'm sorry that I'm posting this as "anonymous," but I can't seem to post under my wordpress account.

That little intro might suggest that I am more than a bit thick (well, yes !)

However, I hold the opinion that there IS something after death. I don't know what that something may be, but the idea that we're born, live a life frought with problems and anxiety, experiencing only the occasional moments of joy, and all for nothing is, to me, nonsense.

Being here is like an apprenticeship, preparing us for the next unknown stage of our 'existence.'

I should add that I am not a believer of a God, but do believe that we are here for a purpose.

The unimagineable pain that your neighbours are suffering at this time, is not for nothing.

Anonymous said...

Posting this is the best you can do, and while that might feel futile to you, I think you've done it better than most could have.