Death, Suicide and Mourning

Keats was aware he was dying. In this revelatory sonnet “To Sleep,” he beautifully immortalizes his own death:

O soft embalmer of the still midnight,
Shutting, with careful fingers and benign,
Our gloom-pleas’d eyes, embower’d from the light,
Enshaded in forgetfulness divine:
O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close
In midst of this thine hymn my willing eyes,
Or wait the “Amen,” ere thy poppy throws
Around my bed its lulling charities.
Then save me, or the passed day will shine
Upon my pillow, breeding many woes,
Save me from curious Conscience, that still lords
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;
Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,
And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul.

David Bowie follows a similar suit in his final album ‘Blackstar’, the song Lazarus, to be precise.

Unlike these aforementioned virtuosos, most of us can’t turn our deaths into a work of art. Majority of us don’t want to die and think it’s a bad thing. I positively don’t want to die any time soon, as much I say I do. You probably don’t either. There are exceptions, of course, who are actively seeking death. Some are unbearably lonely (like, yours truly), or are sliding into doddering dementia that’ll destroy their comprehension without remainder, or in chronic pain. To wake up every day only to be disappointed that they haven’t died in their sleep, especially when there’s no prospect of any improvement, it might be better to die. But most of the time death is an uninvited visitor, and we do all what we can to avoid it.

Whenever someone mentions Suicide as an option, like a broken record Neurotypicals talk about the ones left behind. Death is terrible not only for the ones left behind, as much as I care about my friends and family’s wellbeing, but I also have my own — admittedly selfish — reasons for staying alive. And I know that I’m not unique in feeling this way. When someone dies, we feel sorry not only for ourselves at losing them but also for them — especially if it’s someone young. As the old aphorism goes ‘smallest coffins are the heaviest’.

The fear induced by the process of dying is reasonable, the kind of death that is caused by declining health, for instance, is often painful and undignified. And that arguably is the most preferred way to go, out of all the possible options at hand. But it seems to me that it’s sort of irrational to fear the void and nothingness that is death. When we are dead, we’ll be exactly where we were before being conceived, and we all know that for a fact, it’s not a bad place to be (or not to be) Being dead looks no worse than being in a dreamless sleep.

If dying is really just obliteration of self, the, how bad could it really be? Yes, I agree it is terrible, but why?
We know that death can spare us from the “bad things”, and that leads us to understand that it could, also, may deprive us of good ones. If in that sense, dying is bad, I believe it would be hard to answer how bad it really is. What does death actually deprive us of?

Let’s take the example of my favourite, Janis Joplin, one of the most excellent folk musicians, died of a drug overdose, aged 27. It was a tragedy, not just for me and many other fans who loved her music, but also for her, who must have loved her art more than anyone. I often wonder how bad was it for her to die when she did? The answer seems to rest on what would’ve happened if she had lived longer. How long would she have lived otherwise? And what she would’ve done with those extra years? It’s plausible to think that she would’ve continued being miserable or conversely she could’ve taken the help she needed and gotten over her drug addiction. But she’s dead and no hypothesis matters anymore.

I can’t tell you what is worse, dying young or dying old. Loss is always followed by a loss of language, as relationships give momentum to peculiar vocabularies during shared traumatic experiences. I think it’s because death ends ties and relationships between people, sometimes the whole character of a relationship on which it was founded upon in the first place disintegrates with the body of the departed, along with the unique ways of understanding each other. It’s more prominent when there’s a death of an elder in the family, it’s not only a loss of the body and its memories, it’s also a loss of native heritage, the language in which our world was described in and in that same language we were taught to see the world in. In a way, our tinted glasses through which we experience the world are snatched from us, without any prior warning.

I think about my parents’ death often, it’s a morbid thought, I don’t want them to die (ever) but owing to my habit of overthinking everything, I see it as a way of preparing myself for their eventual death. Like an unwritten norm, we all agree that the aged should pass before the young. Still, we absolutely dread the fact that their departing from this world will bring a host of responsibilities on us. One day we’ll have no one to turn to when we want some seasoned advice, I personally dread the day when I’ll have to look inside myself for an answer to a dilemma. I tried to look for some consolation in western philosophy, but all of them are grounded in the loss of friendship, and the prescription it suggests is that friends may not be replaceable, but they can be multiple.

But that formula, unfortunately, can’t be applied to a loss of a parent or a grandparent. Just to think of a world where my father or mother — albeit, who are always disappointed in me — are not present, is a world set into motion through loss. A life that’ll come after their death is a territory where all my direction of previous experience end. We speak as if the death of an elder deserves less grief or sadness. As though a deteriorating body, a worn-out life doesn’t attach itself to real loss.

But is sadness essential? In any of the circumstances for that matter. If you look at reality objectively, you could say nothing matters. Why? Because we lack eternal souls, there’s no afterlife, and without that, the present is the only thing we’ve got. In Albert Camus’ landmark essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”, this is precisely the kind of the genesis of everyday life that arouses suicidal thinking. (Yikes) “It happens that the stage sets collapse, rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday according to the same rhythm—this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the ‘why’ arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.”, he writes. This dried up the rhythm of life reveals itself to be a façade, a proscenium, if you will. Camus considers this as a justifiable reason to resort to Suicide. What follows this is his investigation on how to overcome a world which lacks consequence.

Camus provides us with a total of three options:

  1. You could kill yourself. Just yanking the curtains close on your performance in this show called life.
  2. You could commit “philosophical suicide” by embracing an ideological system of your choice, although Camus personally thinks it to be somewhat nonsensical (unlike Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky)
  3. And finally, you can take the option that Camus thought to be the best out of the three. You could continue living your “absurd” life, by recognising and acknowledging the futility of existence and finding little morsels of happiness in the struggle (Hemingway agrees), he gives the example of Sisyphus, who’s imprisoned by Gods to push a boulder up a hill only for it to roll back to the bottom. Similarly, we must fall and rise again each day.

That being said, philosophy can’t be the only answer to Suicide. In fact, Camus’ own theory sounds like a philosophical suicide. On average, about 123 suicides occur each day, and that also is just an estimate since most of them are not reported. In most religions, Suicide is seen as a sin. Hence most families don’t or aren’t even allowed to mourn these departed souls, let alone have the permission to give them a funeral.

Length of your life matters only if your actions in life determine our eternal destination. If getting into heaven means performing some set of rituals which would give us a ticket to heaven, then it would be devastating to die before meeting those requirements. And in that case, if I completed all the requirements but slipped up and committed some unforgivable sins during the later years of my life, I would’ve wished to die a little younger so that I could reap the eternal benefits of my hard work.

But I am not a religious person, and I don’t believe, or rather I am sceptical of the whole afterlife theory. I think dying erases our memories, My grandmother, who died isn’t stuck in a limbo fretting over the saris she could’ve bought or the people she could’ve loved more. And similarly, I can’t hurt my dead grandmother or cause her any inconvenience anymore. If this theory is right, then, death brings us nothing but non-existence. We won’t be able to have any perception nor predict anything that would’ve happened if we had lived longer. The only thing that can matter right now is the way our life and death will affect those who survive us.

Epictetus infamously said:
… remind yourself that what you love is mortal … at the very moment, you are taking joy in something, present yourself with the opposite impressions. What harm is it, just when you are kissing your little child, to say: Tomorrow you will die, or to your friend similarly: Tomorrow one of us will go away, and we shall not see one another any more?

If you feel Epictetus sounds unfeeling and harsh, then you’re not alone, but it’s widely misunderstood that way. He is not asking us to not enjoy the presence of our loved ones, nor is he asking to be indifferent to their mortality to protect ourselves from any emotional trauma, in case they die before us. He’s reminding us to be actively conscious of the mortality of the people we love, to appreciate everything precious about their existence. It’s important to greedily enjoy them. And this is especially important because mourning is so hard, of all the deaths I have inspected above I don’t know the right way to mourn any one of them. In fact slept for the whole day when my grandmother died, on my 18th birthday.

So I try to mourn all the people I love while they’re still alive.

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