Death is all around us. It dwells both within the shadows and within the light. It is an essential part of life, and it is our final destination: it is where all paths eventually lead and all roads eventually converge. The dying always go through a struggle before they finally and inevitably return to the nothingness from which they had come. Their consciousness is not preserved, much to the contrary of what many people hope – a questionable hope, for that matter, but let us not delve into this aspect now –, but simply ceases to exist. That which remains is a dead body, nothing else. And the body decomposes till it ceases to be a body.
A person’s death is, however, a problem for the living, not for the dead. For although we know that we and everybody around us is destined to die at some point, nobody ever teaches us how to cope with the inevitable. And the reason for this is that no one knows how to cope with it. It just happens, the same way it has always happened. One cannot be prepared for it, even if a person has suffered from a dignosed terminal illness for some time.
I myself have witnessed more than one death, where in all cases it used to be clear to everyone that the person would die, rather sooner than later – and yet there was no way to be prepared for the final moment, the struggle against death, the final breath, the broken stare of the deceased.
I witnessed the first death of this kind when I was five years old, just shy of turning six. It was 1989, a few months before the end of the German Democratic Republic, when my maternal grandfather had a heart attack. He and I were very close, close as can be at the age of five years. My grandparents used to live upstairs in my parents’ house at the time, and as usual, I would go upstairs to see my grandfather. When I opened the door, both of my grandparents were in the bathroom, my grandfather sitting on the toilet pan, while my grandmother stood in front of him, not realizing that he was having a heart attack. Neither did I realize this, of course, at the time, I did not even know what a heart attack was, but my grandmother told me to notify my mother. From then on, the house kept filling with people. An ambulance came, my father’s working colleagues actually, since my father used to be an ambulance man. Then the local pastor was called, since everybody already knew that my grandfather was going to die. The pastor arrived just in time, almost at the same time as my uncle and his wife. I cannot quite recall whether the latter also brought my cousins then. They were only four, so I suppose they did not bring them. Be that as it may, even though I was only five years old, even I knew what was going on. I could not comprehend it, I did not have a fleshed-out concept of death, but I knew that my grandfather was leaving, so I said, ’Goodbye, grandpa!’, and closed his eyes which had remained open, staring into nothingness. Back then, it took some time for me to realize that this meant he would not be around any more.
My grandmother, whose death I would also witness several years later, could not cope with her husband’s death at all. The ground had been removed beneath her very feet, and she kept falling deeper and deeper into apathy until senile dementia devoured what was left of her personality. Then one day, she had to be taken to the hospital because the main functions of her body had stopped working. She could neither eat nor drink nor defaecate nor urinate. All these natural body functions had to be provided artificially thenceforth, and everyone knew that it was only a question of time till she, too, would die. Again, I was not prepared, even though I had seen it coming. That night, my mother, my brother, and I were visiting my grandmother; her ability to react to us had already shrunken to a barely noticable change of the look in her eyes. She was obviously suffering greatly, as her breathing was heavy and every breath equalled the lifting of a mountain. Intermittances became longer and longer, until she finally stopped breathing altogether. I saw the look in her eyes disappear and give way to the broken stare into nothingness that all dead people share. Once more, only this time in the hospital, the room began to fill with people. This time, my uncle and his wife brought my cousins. And once more, although we all had seen it coming, we were not prepared at all. It had just happened.
I have witnessed more deaths, but it would not serve any purpose to relate them all. Many more people I had known since my early childhood have died these past couple of years, and each time, no one was prepared for it. In some cases we had seen it coming, in others, we were struck by surprise, but we have never been prepared, let alone been able to cope with it.
The point is that everyone may be gone within an instant, the next minute, the next hour, the next day, the next week, the next month, the next year without our ever being able to say goodbye. Instead of setting our hopes on an elusive afterlife where we would be reunited with our deceased beloved ones, I suggest we should rather cherish every moment we have and can share in the here and now. Do not postpone spending time with someone you love thinking, ’We can do it some other time’, for there may not be another time. People may be gone, just like that, and you will have no means of reversing things, filled with regret for ever – or at least till it is your turn to cease to exist.
With this in mind, we often make things far more complicated than they need be. Try being a little less pedantic about someone’s faults and instead concentrating on their merits.