My great grandparents, Ruth & Arthur.

The Fragility and Audacity of Life

Everything exists in contrast to something. In the resilience of life there is vulnerability, and in its boldness, fragility.

I’ve been no stranger to funerals in my life, and I’ve been teaching about the psychology of death and dying for over a decade now, but the truth is, death still terrifies me. And the loss of life around me (human or otherwise) always digs deep, leaving me with an emptiness that I have little choice but to accept, no matter how hard I try to resist it. (What else can we do, in this life or any other?)

We all know the emptiness, in ways big or small. It’s a condition of life, an unavoidable consequence of being born. I’m grateful for the opportunity to exist; and to experience the love that can, at any moment, so quickly turn to sorrow and grief. But it isn’t easy, either, to love and lose.

When my great grandparents passed away, I was too young to understand grief, but I saw it in those around me and I knew its weight despite its unfamiliar complexities. Today I honour their lives in memory as I remain grateful to those who came before me. My great grandparents were kind and humble people, and I carry those traits in me. They give me strength, and I know their worth.

I was 14 when my aunt took her own life, and I knew loss then in a way that I hadn’t before. The unexpectedness, the wicked shock of a life lost too soon. Today I grieve the relationship with Janice that I would have had as an adult; the common interests we would have shared, and the conversations we would have had. I grieve the life that she lost, too, and the pain that brought her to her breaking point. I wish I knew her now.

When I lost my grandpa (my ‘Papa’), the grief ran deeper. He was a constant in my life from the day I was born, and the loss of his joy was the first real experience I had with the emptiness of grief—and the desperate desire to hold onto someone, to pull them back from the other side and resist the very nature of life itself. I still see him in my dreams, as if he’s alive and well, and I wonder about the power of the grieving mind, and the tricks it plays on us. (How desperate is the desire to hold on? How far will our minds reach?)

When my Dad died, I experienced what felt like a continuation of something I had anticipated for years; a kind of grief that was muted by the feelings of loss and disconnect that I felt while he was alive. He was an amazing father, and it is my relationship with him as a child that I still grieve to this day, and that as an adult always felt too far out of reach even while he was alive. Sometimes, I wonder if I’ve allowed myself to feel the weight of his loss, to grieve the life of the man who raised me. I know there were things left unsaid, and feelings left unfelt, and they stir somewhere inside me.

When I lost my cat, Atticus, I experienced a kind of grief that involved more guilt and regret than I had experienced before. He was my ‘little guy,’ and I was his protector. I had known his companionship for my entire adult life, and I’ve still not come to terms with how his life ended (or that it ended at all). I’m not certain I ever will. That’s the cruelty of loss. But I am certain of how much I miss his furry little face, and that I would do anything to feel him lying next to me again.

Our dog, London, died one year after we lost Atticus. He was only two. And I knew those feelings once again—more than I thought I ever could and more than I thought I could bear. London’s death taught me the true nature of grief, however difficult it was, in a way that I hadn’t understood before. It taught me that sometimes, grief doesn’t ever really end, and the worst losses are the ones you carry with you forever. In London’s death, I have resisted grief’s resolution, equating it with a kind of acceptance that I do not wish to reach. It’s as if accepting his loss is the same as moving past it, and I’m not ready to do that. I’m not ready to move past him. Grief is a process, they say, a relearning of the world and everything in it that we’ve come to expect. Perhaps it’s that predictability that we try to hold onto; the expectation of seeing them again. Perhaps some part of my grieving mind is holding onto that expectation.

We’ve had another loss in the family recently, another light put out too early. She was a mother too young to leave her sons, a daughter and granddaughter too special to be taken so soon, a sister and niece too beloved. And it reminds me again of the fragility of life, despite its audacity. We live this life as if we will live forever, waking each day with the assumption in mind that it will turn into the next, and that day into another, and so on and so forth. We live boldly, arrogantly, sometimes even frantically, all the while on the edge, nearing the end but never knowing just how near we really are. Life is just as unpredictable and precarious as ever.

In my day-to-day, I try to hold onto all the life around me. The nurturer in me wants to ensure that everyone is fed, that everyone has what they need, and that everyone is happy, or as close to it as they can be; and healthy, too, if only to improve the odds of this day turning into the next. To nurture life is to protect it, so that it may beat the cold, never know true hunger, and, ultimately, resist death.

But there is an audacity to it all, and a naivety, as if I somehow believe I can beat the very nature of life or exceed the very certainty of death. And therein lies the contrast: that we live so boldly despite the fragility and insecurity of it all; that we keep pushing forward, for this day and the next, despite what is sure to come. And therein lies the meaning, too, and the purpose, for without the fragility the boldness isn’t so bold and the lives we live aren’t so great. The love we have for one another, and all the connections that exist amongst the countless iterations of life, are worth a little less if they’re guaranteed. Though I do not believe that in the absence of death life loses all value, it is undeniably true that death bestows upon life a degree of significance that would otherwise be missing in this world.

Everything exists in contrast to something. My grief exists in contrast to yours and we exist in contrast to this ruthless, beautiful world. And life exists in contrast to death. Without it, the true weight and meaning of life are lost. It is only in life that we are confronted with the reality of death, and in this confrontation we can either find ourselves (and each other), or allow the potential of this mortal life to go unmet. Death brings us together, in mind and in spirit, and it reminds us of who we are, too, should we have the courage to see it. (Should we have the courage to see ourselves.) It’s terrible and confronting and gut-wrenching, but it provides the very contrast that life requires to be lived fully.

Death may forever terrify me. (I’m not sure that it shouldn’t.) But I may come around to the idea that somehow, in some way, it makes life more meaningful.

That it reminds us of what matters most, and compels us to one another in some unspoken bond of the living. (This is, after all, a life better lived in the company of others.)

And that not even death can break that bond.

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