Death is Always Different

Death is Always Different

By Julia Perry 

I want to talk about death, but I’m not exactly sure how to do it. I want to talk about religious takes on death, but I don’t know nearly enough about any religion to speak on their behalf. In my first essay of this series, I talked about time; something I spend unreasonable amounts of time thinking about. But this essay is about something I’ve always avoided thinking too much about.

You know that feeling you get in your chest when you are freaking out, the tight strain that feels like something is weighing your breath down in the bottom of your lungs. That is the feeling I get when I think about death for too long. Well, it’s more what happens after death. Thinking is by far my favorite thing to do. I lose track of time because I get buried in an endless thought chain. I like movies, books, art, and other mediums of entertainment that challenge my brain. The atheist idea of absolutely nothing happening after death is horrifying to me. I’ve tried to put my mind there. In silence. But it wouldn’t just be silent it would be nonexistent. All of your ideas, opinions, feelings, memories…wiped. Tell me it doesn’t stress you out just a little bit, imagining that all the years you’ve spent developing yourself don’t lead anywhere and it all gets erased in the end. To doubters, this is why religion exists, to distract us from the truth that we have no purpose in this ecosystem except to keep it moving. We are all just natural machines that shut down at some point.

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Personally, I’d have to identify myself as Agnostic. That’s the one where you don’t know and don’t pretend to know. But I do think about what death would be like if different religions were correct in their beliefs. If reincarnation is the reality we await, I’m excited. I would love to keep being remade to live a different life. I don’t know the rules that go into it, like how many times a soul can reincarnate before it moves on, but I would be totally okay with infinite tries. The Heaven and Hell idea is a bit too judgmental for my liking. I know a lot of people who are genuinely kind, but they would probably end up in Hell. I can tell you one thing, if we await that judgement I’m certainly going to Hell.

Recently, it was pointed out to me that energy never goes away, it just goes somewhere else. This is something that gave me a lot of hope that maybe there is something that comes after this. This doesn’t mean that you will always be you, because your personality is based off of life experiences and the memories are held in your brain. Your brain dies with your body. But I find comfort in the wild idea that there is a possibility I’ll find myself awake again one day, unaware that I’ve been conscious before, but still having a consciousness.

Death is an incredibly difficult thing to think about, not just my own death but death in general. The idea that everyone I know will not always be here. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: We tend to see everyone around us as characters in our story. We are the narrator/protagonist, and everyone else is just there to interact with you. The truth is we are all living our own stories and our stories can end at any point. The difficult thing is learning that someone else’s story has ended and trying to remember that it doesn’t mean your book is closing, too.

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The process of grieving sounds like it’s something that only happens one way depending on who you are as a person. That’s false. Every time I have ever had to grieve in my life, it has felt vastly different from the grieving I’d dealt with before. Death was something I learned  about very early on. My grandmother died a day or two before my first birthday, which is when they held the funeral. I obviously didn’t understand it at that point because I wasn’t even at the point of conversation. It was at about 3 that I asked about it and got a magical answer meant to put off the dark mystery of what death really is. It was at 6 years old that I found out she died in a car accident and that is when I had a real discussion about what death was. My parents are not very religious, so I got more of a realistic definition of what it was. This was a death I carried with my all my life, but never really grieved. On a grief scale, it would probably be a 1 out of 10. I didn’t really know what it felt like to lose someone you had emotional attachment to until the first pet death I encountered. That is a life changing feeling the first time its felt. I watched my dog suddenly decline and need emergency attention because we did not know he had a basketball sized tumor in his belly. After that I knew I never wanted to feel that way again, because at that point I didn’t really understand that it was never going to stop happening. In fact, I didn’t fully understand that until the most recent death in my life. The first few times it happens, it feels like these are just some horrible events that happened to occur in your life, but after it becomes more like 7 or 8 times you’ve dealt with the feeling of losing someone, it hits you that everyone you know who is alive is going to have to die at some point and you are inevitably going to be there for some of those deaths.

Commonly, we expect that the deaths we will deal with most often in our lives are the deaths of old and sick people. I always knew that the first people I would have to part ways with would be my grandparents. I could see the physical changes in their health as age got the best of them. After my grandmother died, I spent the rest of my grandfathers life witnessing a body age from grief. A man who once built a cabin in Maine was tucked under a quilt sitting in a chair that he needed help to get out of. And then suddenly, after an uncommonly relaxed and peaceful Christmas, he was gone. It’s as if each death that hurts takes a part of your life away. The closer you are to the person, the more of your life they take with them when they go. At least that’s how it feels. The distant relatives you have to pay respects to at a funeral certainly don’t feel like they’re taking more than the grandparents who helped raised you or the friends you never thought you’d lose. If you need an example, take the contrast between my great grandmother’s funeral and my grandfather’s.

I don’t like to cry, especially in front of other people, but even when I’m alone I feel stupid crying. (I’m wrong, don’t suppress crying it’s unhealthy.) At every funeral I have ever been to, I focus all my energy on keeping my eyes dry, even if it means that my throat will burn from the strain and my body will be shaky from the build up. I remember sitting at my great grandmother’s service, watching the slow slide show that they had playing on the screen in front of me and the music they had chosen to play at this point was the usual music that is designed to make you sad. You know, “In the arms of the angel, fly away from here.” So of course I held back tears, but it was more of a dull tightness in my throat that I could swallow away while forcing myself to imagine things like unicorns and what would happen if I just climbed out the window. At my Grandfather’s service it was much harder. There’s always a slideshow, which I hate because I hate confronting the image of the one’s I will never see again, and like I said, the music is designed to make you feel like you might start bawling uncontrollably. The difference is that this slideshow featured images of my childhood memories. There were frozen moments that I remember being in with this person who I cannot share the memories with. It felt like my throat was trying to pass a brick. My teeth were clenching so hard I could feel each tooth pushing into the gums and you could see the tension in my cheek. And even with all of that effort, the tears still found their way out. I still had to reach over and pull a tissue out of my moms purse. I still had to run to the car to muffle my incredibly loud sobs. I still had to hurt and he still wasn’t coming back.

My family is one that desperately searches for meaning. After he was gone, my family was (and still is) convinced that my grandfather from my dad’s side checks in on us through heads up dimes. It sounds insane, I know, but the purpose of it was more for my family to cope than to really believe in a spiritual realm. I really didn’t want to participate in this, maybe because I’m cynical, but after the shocking number of dimes that have shown up at exactly the right time it was too much to ignore. It would be one thing if these dimes showed up randomly when it didn’t make sense, but my family was finding dimes where he would be or when you’d want his comfort. The first dime was at his calling hours. One thing you have to know about my grandfather is that he was a talker. It sounds disturbing to say he liked going to calling hours and funerals, but it was because he could position himself in the comfiest chair available and wait for people to come shoot the shit with him. Of course he didn’t care for the whole death part, but he was always looking to reconnect with old friends or make new ones. And so, as we stood in that uncomfortable line shaking hands with people and braving their sympathetic eyes, my grieving grandmother caught sight of a shiny dime placed almost exactly in the center of the floor under the biggest, softest armchair in the room.

I didn’t believe it at that point. Coincidences happen, but the next dimes I found were at events I was going to speak at or moments when I wasn’t sure what to do. It was at the Stratham Fair that I was convinced. We found two dimes there. My dad runs a fundraising food stand at the fair and my whole family volunteers with us. My dad and I are the ones who get “the shack” ready for serving food. The first one I found at the first fair after he died. It was lodged in between the window pane and the wooden insert that kept the window shut over the winter. It was standing on its edge, like someone had come into the shack and slid it through the crack between the wood planks. Even then, I was a little doubtful and thought one of my family members was setting this up. Then the next year there was another dime propped up on the menu board, almost defying gravity. I still have doubtful thoughts, but when I interrogated every member of my family, no one knew where the dime came from.

This is the kind of thing that gives me hope for a next level. I am such a doubtful person when it comes to all of this afterlife stuff, but the little inexplicable things are what keep me from losing my mind. I try to believe in ghosts for that reason. I like the idea that a soul could be trapped in this dimension because that means there are souls and dimensions. I’ve come across more non-believers than believers when it comes to the supernatural, but the stories I’ve heard from the believers are enough to keep my belief going. My father once told me that we lived in a haunted house in the first three years of my life. Apparently an oven timer that they had never used and did not work turned on the one night my father had fallen asleep while making a midnight snack. In that same house, he insists that he watched me slide a few inches across the floor as if I was being pulled while I laughed and enjoyed it. I thought he was trying to trick me, but after he showed me the obituary for a child about the same age as I was who had died at that house, I was startled to find I recognized the child. I thought this was a child I grew up with, but he died long before I was born. He was hit by a garbage truck right in front of the house.

This was also one of the first times that the idea of people dying young solidified in my mind. I knew it was a possibility, but I don’t think I believed it fully until I started seeing examples. The school system that I grew up in saw a lot of young deaths. Not so much in elementary years, but in middle school we lost a student to a car crash and not long after, another student to suicide. And then the number of suicides and crashes that occurred in high school is too high to go into each individually. We also had one student per year fall off a mountain and barely make it. Maybe it was because of the high population my schools had, or maybe this is saying something about a problem with safety (both physical and mental) in the community. Either way, it was a very dark eight years when we couldn’t even go one without seeing more death.

Almost as if planned, college seemed to pick up right where high school left off, but now it’s people I know and love. My first two years in college were the ones when I lost both of my grandfathers. My junior year I lost my dog of 13 years. That doesn’t sound like much in comparison to human deaths, but I put all of my love into her. Even in my senior year I couldn’t get a break. When all of the stress of trying to graduate was weighing on my shoulders, I lost one of the best friends I have ever had. There are no words that can accurately explain the connection we had. This was the most recent death I have had to deal with, and it is unlike any other grieving process I had prepared for in the past.

Like I said, grieving is never the same. People have different levels of connection with each other and each relationship is unique. Even two very similar deaths in my life felt so different because the people meant something different in my mind. I’ve never lost a friend before now. Specifically, I’ve never lost a friend to suicide before now and I really never thought I would. It is not like losing someone who’s health is clearly declining. It is not even like losing someone in a crash. It was a process of letting it sink in that he decided nothing on this planet was worth it anymore. Not me or any of our friends. It was also the process of searching for the signs I had ignored before, brushing them off as “just being him.” Along with the common grieving process of remembering things like the time he thought it was hilarious to rub his hand all over my face, crying over objects that he gave me, and talking to the ceiling as if he could hear me; there was anger. There is anger. Not rage, but deflating anger. The feeling that you have lost a part of yourself and it is your own fault. I was angry because he made the decision, but I was angrier because there were so many opportunities where I could have made a difference, but didn’t. I’d like to say I’ve found the other side of this grieving process, but I haven’t. I don’t think I will be able to until I leave the town in which our friendship began and ended.

I have a habit of running from death while running toward it. My mind won’t let me think about it for too long. Even this essay had to be written in short increments because I can’t stand more than five minutes of thinking about it. But, at the same time, I am subconsciously running toward it because of the things I do. I put myself in reckless and dangerous situations often. I didn’t know why until this very moment. It’s because the longer I live, the less I want to grow older. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to die and I hope for many more years of experiences, but I truly do not care when I die as long as I can feel I’ve lived a good life, because once I get to a certain point, I could outlive everything worth living for. I used to question how my father could smoke more than a pack a day for over 40 years, but I’m starting to get it. Cigarettes are little promises that your life will be a slightly shorter. My father lost his biological father at 9 years old. From there it did not get better. He lost a friend in high school and then he was part of a team in the navy that had to go onto an attacked vessel and search for bodies. He saw more gruesome death than I will probably ever see. At age 50, he has seen many friends and family members pass away. That is why he smokes. After seeing that much, you start to understand that it is never going to stop and you don’t want to end up being the last one.

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