Grief, Angst & Humanity

Credit. Grief, Figurative oil painting. Gene Gould, Artist

by Edward Reid

 My father passed away from multiple illnesses when I was forty-three, and my mother passed away from pancreatic cancer when I was forty-seven; I am forty-eight now.  

I suppose my parents died when I was beyond middle age, but their absence leaves a deep void that I grapple with…why…losing one parent is impactful but the absence of both signifies the end of an era. 

Eras emotionally touch us. It’s the new Reid family with my daughter, and me.  The memory of the old family has faded. Legacies provide their own pressures within me and my sibling.

What I am going through is an unavoidable aspect of living – that’s dying, and we all will face it at some point.  I try to find gratitude that I had my parents that long, knowing many children did not and never had parents or even loving parents at all. 

My family was not perfect, and we certainly were dysfunctional like most, but we are fiercely loyal and loving, and these things make it more challenging to deal with now that they’re absent from your life.  

My father was wise, worldly, well-traveled, respected, and educated. The absence of such guidance and unwavering encouragement is a profound loss for a son.

My mother was always there for me when I needed her, and looking back, there are regrets that I didn’t do enough or listen enough; there is never enough one could have done – this is common with grief, though that loved ones wish they had behaved differently. 

I have listened to and read about grief, and I just started seeing a grief counselor and joined a grief recovery group. Like with other conditions, such as depression or anxiety, when people suffer from those, they often know certain coping strategies, but putting them into practice is not always that easy.  That can be a situation with bereavement, I have found.

To me, it’s the bittersweet memories of my parents and my upbringing that often surface. Recently, I connected a VCR to a modern TV, allowing me to watch old videos. However, when I invited my sister to join me, I didn’t anticipate the emotional impact of seeing our parents again – it was overwhelming.

For me, though, as a historian, it’s easier to put things in perspective on a grand scale.  Just contemplating that merely a century ago, the average lifespan was fifty-three years. Eight years before that, a devastating world war ravaged the globe, leaving millions dead and scarred, with a pandemic that claimed millions more lives as well.

Just over two decades later, another global conflict shattered the illusion that the preceding war would bring an end to all conflicts, resulting in even greater casualties. Presently, we witness mindsets akin to those precipitating that war resurfacing across our nation and the world as increasing polarization once again dividing us.

Before all this, in the nineteenth century, death was even more frequent, and individuals encountered it from a young age. However, modern medicine has shielded us from this reality. 

In her book “The Living,” Annie Dillard dedicated an entire page to illustrating the myriad ways death abruptly seized individuals from the heart of their homes and families without a moment’s warning.

“Women took fever and died from having babies, and babies died from puniness or the harshness of the air. Men died from … rivers and horses, bulls, steam saws, mill gears, quarried rock, or falling trees or rolling logs… Children lost their lives as … hard things smashed them, like trees and the ground when horses threw them, or they fell; they drowned in water; they sickened, and earaches wormed into their brains or fever from measles burned them up or pneumonia eased them out overnight.” 

Consider another case: the renowned British minister and theologian John Owen (1616-1683), who endured the passing of each of his eleven children and his first wife. Given that people passed away in their homes during those times, Owen witnessed nearly every cherished person in his life succumb to death in his presence.

In the colonial-era United States, the average family tragically lost one in every three children before they reached adulthood. Moreover, with the life expectancy hovering around forty years for everyone during that era, a significant portion of the population experienced the loss of their parents during childhood. Nearly everyone grew up amidst deceased individuals, witnessing the passing of relatives, both young and old.

In the Western world, many individuals don’t encounter death, or if they do, it’s vastly different from the past—less immediate and intimate How common is it for people to reach adulthood without witnessing anyone pass away or encountering a corpse, except perhaps for a fleeting glimpse at an open coffin?

The challenges will emerge sooner or later in confronting death, and our society may not have equipped individuals with the tools to handle the enormity of such an occurrence. This is especially evident as our society has drifted towards nihilism, something the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche predicted with his warning that “God is dead, and we killed him.”

Having few resources on how to grapple with the significance or hope regarding life after death exacerbates the challenge of confronting our mortality and the loss of our loved ones. 

Atul Gawande and others have highlighted the modern societal trend of concealing the process of dying, leading individuals across cultures to deny the inevitability of their approaching death. 

Psalm 90:12 urges us to “number our days” to gain wisdom. 

The Stoic philosopher Seneca also reminds us, “As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.”

There’s always been a risk that humans would evade the reality of their mortality. While we grasp intellectually and logically that death is certain, deep down, we suppress it, behaving as though we’ll live forever. According to the psalmist, this isn’t wise—it’s the ultimate certainty, yet we neither plan for it nor live acknowledging its inevitability in modern times. 

Many avoid medical consultations out of fear, refusing to accept our bodies’ mortality, assuming they’ll endure indefinitely. Paradoxically, when faced with imminent death, we demand impractical and extreme medical interventions. 

Discussions about death are often deemed taboo or distasteful in contemporary culture, reminiscent of Geoffrey Gorer’s notion in “The Pornography of Death,” where death has replaced sex as the unmentionable topic. 

Medical advancements foster the illusion that death can be indefinitely postponed. Fewer people than ever seem reconciled to their mortality, unlike the ancients who were more accepting of this reality.

Maybe there’s solace in recognizing that countless people throughout history have not only lost loved ones in similar ways but coped and continued to live fulfilling lives. While it doesn’t diminish my loss, understanding this grants me a deeper, more profound perspective on the universal experience of death, something we will all inevitably encounter, whether it arrives peacefully or not.

Ultimately, it might be beneficial to acquaint ourselves better with the concept of death.  This acquaintance could lead to a more profound and meaningful existence.  Understanding that death may arrive unexpectedly prompts a sense of liberation, openness, and a heightened determination to embrace life at a level unexplored by those who overlook this inevitable truth. 

As a constant reminder, I wear a medallion inscribed with the words “Memento Mori,” Latin for “remember that you must die.” This prompts me to ponder the fleeting nature of life and the futility of human aspirations. It guides my reflections on what is important for me and how I allocate my time on this earth.

Dillard, Annie. The Living. Harper Perennial, 2013

Gorer, G. The Pornography of Death, 1955

Keller, T. On Death, 2020. Penguin Books

Gawande. Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine, and What Matters in the End. 2014. Profile Books