My cousin died seven years ago. Age 31, no warning, just went to sleep and never woke up. She was just gone. No goodbyes, no resolutions, just an empty husk in a bed. My aunt found her; I can’t even imagine what that was like. We lived in different cities and fought a lot as kids — probably because we were too similar — but as adults we had grown closer and found a lot more common ground: board games, nerd shit, rebellion. Then one day I discovered our game of Scrabble on Facebook would forever go unfinished. I don’t think I’ve ever quite come to terms with it.
Today would have been her birthday.
I’ve been thinking about death a lot lately. I don’t think it has anything to do with my cousin, since I didn’t realize it was even her birthday until her sister posted about it, but it’s been on my mind and I’m not sure why. I’m not sick or anything. I’m still relatively young and relatively healthy (although I could stand to improve my exercise regimen and diet, but who couldn’t?). Of course, none of that matters. Death could come at any time in any way. And then that’s it. You’re done. Game over. All your thoughts, experiences, emotions, a lifetime of knowledge — wiped away forever. The worst part? None of it really matters. You’re one of billions of people that have existed. You don’t matter, your thoughts don’t matter, your death doesn’t even matter. Even Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination doesn’t matter in the cosmic scale of things, and his demise sparked an entire world war. No matter how hard you try to leave a legacy, it’s all dust in the end.
It’s certainly a topic that has inspired many philosophers, artists, even entire religions. I have nothing interesting or new to add. I hadn’t even thought it about other than as an abstract concept until this week. We’re surrounded by death, constantly hearing about suicides and shootings and war casualties, watching TV shows and movies centered around the precursor or aftermath to the occurrence. And that’s just the humans — there’s an entire complicated ballet of mortality going on at the insect level. Of course, none of that matters to the actual dead person. They no longer have any skin in the game (and possibly no longer have any skin).
When you die, that’s it. There’s nothing. And nothing isn’t just blackness or a void — it’s a complete cessation of sensation and experience. We can imagine it, but it’s not something anyone can actually picture because it’s such an alien concept to our very way of being. Living is experiencing. Even if it’s clearing the mind for meditation purposes, you’re still there on some level. No wonder the afterlife is such an appealing concept for people to grab onto. You get to keep experiencing things forever without fear of death! In some ways, eternal torment in hell is more comforting than the idea that you just don’t exist any longer. You’ve spent your whole life existing. It’s hard to envision doing anything else. The closest we can come is sleep, and even then your brain is working in the background.
So much of being human revolves around our expiration date. We try to find ways to postpone it, cheat it, come back from it. Certainly a lot of literature explores those angles. It’s difficult not to wonder about it. After all, as long as you can wonder about it, that means you’re still alive. Maybe that means life is about collecting experiences and cramming as much into your skull as you can? Hell if I know. I’m not endorsing hedonism here, but it does seem like you may as well use it while you got it. No matter how shitty things get, there’s no way back from death. You only have this one body, this one brain, this one chance to absorb as much as you can from the universe. This is it.
The idea of dying is scary. But everyone dies. I’m starting to think the idea of not living — of wasting this precious time — may be worse.