The death of a friend

A second is all it takes to go from living to dead. Getting there may be a journey of years of suffering. Other times a person remains healthy up until one dies.

This week I attended the funeral of a good friend. A few weeks before that my friend was diagnosed with acute liver cancer and told she had weeks left to live. By the time I found out, she had less than four days left of her life. Death held no fears for my friend. For her, this was a long-awaited moment. Just shy of eight years previously, her husband died (also from cancer). She missed him quite a bit and believed that she would join him in the spirit world. They were both Mormons, and Mormons believe in eternal marriage and families.

She and her husband were two of the kindest people I have ever known. Both were quietly engaged in making the world a better place for their families and others. I had gotten to know her well some years before, back when I was an active Mormon. She was one of my Visiting Teachers, i.e. two women who are responsible for the well-being of the female members in their district. We enjoyed getting to know each other. When her husband was going through his long and painful dying I was able to “be there” for her. Once I dropped out of the church, she/we kept in contact, and I had last heard from her a short while before she died.

At her funeral, a grandchild described my friend as one of the invisible ones. One of those who is kind without expecting acknowledgement or praise. I wept at her funeral and will miss this woman who lived her life according to the Golden rule:

“One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.” and “One should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated.” (Anthony Flew)

Nonsensical thinking about death, revenge and punishment

Gone Wild has posted an article about some of the many baffling ways of thinking non-ASDs seem to do. I completely agree with her words. So many ways of thinking and doing things in the non-ASD world make no sense at all.

“More Mind Boggling Neurotypical Beliefs

I want to be frank about neurotypical beliefs that I find shocking. I attribute my reactions to having a “real world” factual and concrete Asperger brain, although I can’t say that every person diagnosed Asperger would share my reactions. We are individuals, with our own ways of seeing and interpreting the environment.

These strange beliefs have to do with death, revenge and punishment.

An jetliner vanishes over an ocean. Exhaustive searches take place long past the time interval that any passenger could survive under the best of conditions; the possibility is zero. Speculation goes on and on for months. Miracles are deemed possible: soon the airplane with everyone alive will materialize “out of the blue” due to  supernatural intervention caused by prayer. The families cannot accept that their loved ones have died. They become angry if they don’t receive a body; they must have a body to prove that the person is dead, otherwise they can’t achieve “closure.”

I’m not indifferent to suffering; I’ve lost family members and it has taken years to reexamine my relationships – this process toward understanding will continue until I die. “Closure” is a strange idea.

The quantum state of undetermined reality seems to be a factor in human thinking.
The quantum state of undetermined reality seems to be a factor in human thinking.

What baffles me is the state of limbo in which dead people remain for an extended time, that is, in the mind of the survivors; as if the person is in limbo in a quantum state: is he or she dead or alive? Only Schrodinger’s cat knows. It’s as if the person doesn’t die until the wreckage is found and bodies are identified, despite the overwhelming evidence that all on board died weeks or months ago. These traditions and beliefs run deep. The “quantum dead” effect is simply strange. 

A closely related belief is that “the remains” of a person contain an “essence” that can be recovered if the bones can be located and returned to descendants, or to a specific location. The act of placing the remains in a designated cemetery where “the person” can be visited, is believed to “honor” the dead and to confirm an event that happened decades before. This is an old tradition based in magic: bones are believed to possess contagious magical power. The Middle Ages were awash in the relics of saints, Kings, Queens and other powerful folk, and existing shrines are mobbed by pilgrims to this day. This tradition as deeply human, but I think it is healthy to accept that when the body dies, the person dies. What remains are memories.

What shocks me the most is that nations make a great display of “honoring” dead soldiers, but fail to honor living soldiers who have paid an enormous price in physical and mental trauma. 

Any person who dies unexpectedly, due to an accident or a crime, immediately becomes the “best person who ever lived.” This story-making is repeated over and over again, and I think much of the blame goes to the media’s intent on ambushing the victim’s family just as they receive the tragic news.

Regardless of circumstance, according to family and friends, the dead person was a great humanitarian who loved the world, was kind, helpful, generous, and if religious, a dedicated member of the faith. Pretty remarkable life history for anyone, and in some cases attributable to expected social exaggeration, but by repetition these fictions become true in the minds of many. What if a long history of drug abuse, criminal activity, domestic abuse or a willingness to “con” family members emerges? The person remains a saint: is this denial, face-saving, shame? Does a social “law” exist that says only “good people” can be mourned (only good people count.) Why must people lie about loved ones?

As an Asperger, I believe that everyone counts; each human life ought to be acknowledged and absorbed into the pageant that is humanity. 

Revenge and punishment = justice. This is a tough one; revenge is an impulse that can destroy a fair legal system, and needs to be recognized for what it is: magical thinking. The American system is highly variable, with laws, criminal prosecution and periods of incarceration in a “correctional institution” determined state by state. Other crime and punishment is controlled by the Federal courts. It is not these idiosyncratic systems that I can address.

Revenge as a driver of human behavior is familiar, and is a major cause of wars large and small, and drives conflict between ethnic, cultural and religious groups; between families, businesses etc. The resolution of conflict in many cultures was/is a matter of payment in kind: your uncle looses control and kills a man he suspects of cheating him. That man’s family vows revenge – kill the uncle! But an arrangement is made to “pay for” the death. This may seem cold or unfair to the victim, but the victim is already dead. Nothing will bring him back. Why should the living be dragged into an endless cycle of violence?”

The rest of the article may be found on Gone Wild

Death fascinates me

This post has been moved from my book-blog and edited.

"Of Life and Death" by Scott Davidson
“Of Life and Death” by Scott Davidson

This has been a summer and autumn of death. Four people I cared about have died and their ages have been from nine to eighty-five. These past couple of days there have been three attacks: Paris, Beirut and Baghdad. Every year about 55 million people die per year. Yet very few of these deaths are deaths I care or worry about because I do not know anything about the people behind these numbers. But some people’s deaths do affect me.

In Norway, when a person dies, no matter how that death occurred, those who are left behind are expected to deal with the death stoically. Nary a tear is to be shed publicly and if you do shed one it is to be discreetly. Perhaps this has something to do with the distance we have created between ourselves and dead people here in the West. Or maybe not.

The first death I remember was father’s father. I was around seven years old. Back then children were not allowed to attend funerals. The reasoning behind this was to protect us children (I think). Personally, I thought my grand-father was wonderful. He played the harmonica, smoked a pipe and loved his grand-children to bits. I knew he did. But I cannot remember if I missed him.

My next death came with the death of a friend’s father. The only reason I remember that death is because I used my friend’s grief in a fit of anger. My mom made me apologize, something I salute her for.

Some time passed and then a grand-aunt (something I have myself become) died. For some strange reason she loved me a whole lot. I thought she was really nice to let me practice on her piano. Other than that, she was my grandmother’s old sister. But I still felt a bit odd about her disappearing from my life.

Harder to deal with was when a friend in high school died. He was a really nice kid who happened to contract leukemia. We weren’t close at all but I was still weirded out about a person my own age dying. It just did not seem possible that a person that young should die.

I had a spontaneous abortion (one that I knew about). This was to be our first child, but that was not to be. The loss of that expectation hit me hard. My husband was not having fun either.

When an ex-uncle and the rest of my grand-parents died I felt conflicted. When it came to some of them my main feeling was relief and almost joy along with a bit of guilt. With the others there was more a sense of “this was how life was supposed to be” along with some sadness. But my family had moved around a lot and I struggle with social relationships so grief as I see others go through it wasn’t really what I felt.

Then came my cousin. He had not yet turned 40. One day he just died unexpectedly. Both lungs had a clot and that was that. I had really loved that cousin. As a child I had been infatuated with him. Once again I was weirded out, confused even. Life became unpredictable.

Suicides also became part of my death experiences. For some reason society (that diffuse unknowable entity) frowns upon self-killing. At least we, here in Europe, do. My personal feeling is that this only places an additional burden upon shoulders that are already bowed down by grief. To me, the suicides made sense. With what these people had to bear emotionally I could understand their need to stop that emotional pain. I was still sad to see them die, but I could understand their choice.

A friend of mine died. She was about my age (49) and it was not expected. She and her husband had recently had a baby. Behind were left children (one a recent baby) and a husband who missed that friend dreadfully.

At some point I realized that people were dying by the millions every year through war and hunger. Millions and millions and millions. Even divided into days the numbers are staggering. Then we add various forms of killing – be it through oneself or others – disease and age to that number and we are looking at .

Death fascinates me. Yes, there is grief when I know the person or the person who loved them. Along with the grief I have an interest in how we treat death and the dead. I enjoy talking about death, but most people seem to hate talking about the most normal thing we humans do. Only birth equals it. Inside my head it only seems logical that we talk about such an important event more. Trying to understand the taboos surrounding natural subjects is challenging to the point of impossibility.

Does death end all about us?

Artist: Skirtos (Dmitry)
Artist: Skirtos (Dmitry): This is one of my favorite fan-art illustrations of Death from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.

Many people feel there must be a purpose to being human, a meaning to all the suffering in the world. There has to be an after that rights all the wrongs and keeps our identities eternal. I hold no such beliefs. Once our lives are over, what makes us who we are disappears.

For some that happens sooner, rather than later. Terry Pratchett is one of the many examples of losing oneself before death through Alzheimer. Other diseases may cause a change of identity. Various forms of damage to the brain brings about dysfunctions we did not previously have.

If I had to dig up one meaning to life, it would be the instinct to spread our genetic material as far and wide as possible. Humans seem to excel at that to an extent that makes war a regular occurrence in a struggle for resources. For a species that prides itself on its development away from instincts (yes, some of my professors actually thought that was the case), we have remarkably low instinct-control.

Rant: Prevention people! It has been around for quite some time. Perhaps lowering birth numbers would help so the interval between wars might increase. I doubt Death would miss the work.

Sometimes I hear the argument that death cannot be the end of all. In a sense, such arguments are correct. Energy is as old as our universe and it certainly does not disappear into empty air once we die. What happens after death is a fascinating and gross process that changes the way our energy expresses itself. This quote gives a great description of the transformation of energy that happens upon death:

In terms of physical energy, the difference between a living body and a very recently dead body is just a question of how that energy is being organized.  Living critters in general are very good at using chemical energy for things like moving, growing, etc.  Newly dead critters have about the same amount of chemical energy, it’s just that they don’t use it.  Instead, whatever comes along to consume the body uses it (whether that’s fire or decomposition or whatever). (The Physicist)

Knowing that I, metaphorically speaking, have existed since the Big Poof and shall continue to do so in ever changing forms until nothing is left of the universe is freaking amazing.