When a person dies does it matter where? Does it matter who’s around? If they’re in pain or at peace? If they’re ready or not? No, I suppose none of this matters to Death. For Death will come regardless of circumstance. Death, the bridge between our world and the next, will greet the soul as if a friend who’s moved away. Only, Death’s return isn’t so much of a reunion as it is an indication. An indication of a chapter closing, yet another one opening.
I suppose belief in an afterlife is individual- though many institutions try, some successfully, to categorize and idealize it. But only those whose are dead may speak to what it is to be in the afterlife. The word itself, afterlife, suggests more. More to be done. More to experience. But is that not life? So, after life, there is more life? I would argue there’s no way to know. The unknown as a shadow hanging over every human who dares ask questions. The curiosity of those asking questions forever damning them to walk a path between being okay with never knowing and being haunted by never knowing.
I suppose, then, that’s why belief systems are so integral to human beings. For if one believes in nothing, then who are they? Are they even human to believe in nothing? Not even science? But science can only explain what happens to the body in Death — rigor, liver and aldor mortis — therefore, it cannot explain what happens to the soul once it leaves the body. And that, that right there, is an indication of my belief system. Biased, perhaps, for I’ve never witnessed a soul leaving a body. Never watched anyone die. Never had such an inclination, for even my curiosity has its limits. But if I am damned, or blessed, to walk the path of curiosity, always asking How? and Why? then, why not? Why not observe the very end if the very beginning is always so celebrated?
Pain. Humans avoid pain. Correction, humans avoid negative pain. For birthing a child isn’t painless, though the prospect of new life adds value to the pain. What does Death’s pain add value to? Nothing at first that can be tangibly held, loved, or nurtured. Grief, as loneliness, clings to its host as if parasitic by nature. Often reeking havoc and invoking more pain — a cycle only the host can break, but rarely understanding how. And, yet, even parasites have their place, their purpose, in Mother Nature’s world.
My experience with grief has never been fluid, as if I’m standing in a veld with arms wide open awaiting the impact of the lion, leopard, or cheetah bounding towards me; there, I welcome and embrace the pain; I experience and learn from it. And unlike the antelope, I survive, and I survive because the lion, leopard, or cheetah move through me rather than crash into me. They may nick, claw, or bite, drawing blood and, indeed causing pain, but they aren’t interested in killing me for the fight is apart of the fun. If I don’t fight, they’ll move on, metaphorically of course.
Alas, my experience with grief is quite the opposite. I run as the antelope’s instinct screams for it to move its legs, as if I could escape grief, or the lion, the leopard, or cheetah. As if by some inhuman method I could save myself from the inevitable — the death of a piece of my soul with each loved one I lose. And as the lion, leopard, or cheetah sink their teeth into my neck, claiming their prize, I continue to fight, to squirm, only to open the wounds wider.
Everyone experiences loss. For the stages of grief impact us all. Yet, as I stare loss and grief in the face, even if it is anticipatory, my instinct is to survive its impact, its pain, its chaos. To run.
I went to make lunch one afternoon in my grandmother’s kitchen. And it is my grandmother’s kitchen because quite often she spends more time in it than in her own bedroom. She was getting ready to bake — the butter, flour, and eggs all laid out across the counter assembled for use as a painter sets up their easel with paints and brushes.
“How long do you need, honey?”
I would have chosen not to eat to allow her her space if I hadn’t broken that pattern already, so I responded, “I only need to cook these,” I held up the sweet potato and broccoli I planned to stir fry.
“Oh okay, I can wait, then.” My grandmother said with a smile and wandered over to the island adorning her kitchen. Meanwhile, I went to work. I trimmed the ends of the sweet potato, and broke off florets from the broccoli crown. I peeled and washed. I chopped, with my back to my grandmother, who’s silence was comfortable. Her energy was all I needed to know she was there. We chatted, of course, about the weather, my health, her episodic experiences with Walgreens and Walmart. Then, she asked the question I’d, admittedly, been avoiding.
“So, Colorado, huh?”
I winced. I hadn’t yet told her I planned on moving to Colorado in the spring. Though it had come up with my grandfather and my parents. Guilt consumed me as I tried to skirt over the fact that I hadn’t been able to tell her. That I had waited to tell her last.
“Yeah, it’s something I’ve been contemplating, and I think it’s time.” I responded, my back still facing her.
“Even with the pandemic?” I could sense what I would have thought as judgement when I was younger, but now, as love and concern.
“I know it seems scary,” I turned to face her, saw her leaning on the counter her glacial blue eyes watching me with warmth, “But I’ve thought a lot about this. And I’m not moving away because I want to get away, but Maine just isn’t enough for me anymore.” My words came out as one. I always felt I could talk to my grandmother, but never as authentically as I had just done. I turned back to chopping, closing myself to her further responses, for my survival instincts told me to protect myself.
Then, without hesitation, she said, “I totally get it, honey. I left home at 18 and never looked back. What hurts…” Silence choked her and the energy shifted. Half expecting her to scold me for telling her last, I turned back around, and she was covering her face. She was crying. I never saw my grandmother cry. Not even at funerals. Her spirit is stronger than I was ever able to understand. But seeing her, crying at the kitchen’s island, raw and real, my heart opened if not involuntarily.
“What hurts is that I just love you so much, and though I wish I could tie a rope around you and keep you here with me forever, I understand. I, I, just don’t have a lot of time left.” And with that, silence choked her again. And her energy crashed into me as a tidal wave. I couldn’t fight the tears that began to flow. For my grandmother has COPD, and with every day, she loses more and more oxygen; often exclaiming to my grandfather, “I just can’t breathe!”
I stood there; I put the knife down. “I wish I could give you a hug,” sobs had me choking on my words. Hearing her say it only made it real, though it was always real. Moving to Colorado was real. My grandmother nearing the end of her life was real. And it all weighed on my soul as a weighted vest in that moment. For I’d been running. So, as my grandmother and I cried together, I stopped running. And what caught up with me wasn’t just the lion, the leopard, or the cheetah, but all three carrying each with them guilt, sadness, love, anger, fear, heartbreak, and pain — intense, emotional pain.
“But, I believe in an afterlife,” said my grandmother, breaking the deafening silence, “and I believe we will see each other again in that afterlife. ” Was this her goodbye? Already? But we still had time didn’t we? My heart exploded. This must be what it means to be human — to feel in such a way so as to be unable to escape. I witnessed my grandmother come to terms with her own death.
“And I don’t regret a thing,” she added, “so you weigh everything, but I understand. And if you get out there, and it doesn’t work out, this is always here for you.” ‘This’ and ‘here’ needed no clarification. For I knew what she meant. Love swelled my heart and my emotions pushed against my insides, threatening to burst out as the tears I cried flowed. Humans avoid negative pain, but this pain wasn’t negative as I feared it would have been. I couldn’t breathe, and my mind worked feverishly to reestablish equilibrium, but I was feeling it all, and it was beautiful.
I desperately wanted to embrace my dying grandmother, who only stood six feet away, and who very much on the outside looked alive. Alas, we couldn’t be too careful, for we needed to preserve the time we did have. Though I had tested negative for COVID twice, I wouldn’t cut her life even shorter than it already was. So the emotions, the energy, of that moment hung in the air as perfume does after its wearer has walked away.
What else was there to say, anyway? Death hangs around, seemingly, just waiting. And it won’t matter if I’m in Maine or Colorado; my guilt often telling me not to leave just yet. To wait until my grandmother dies to move on. Death will come regardless, for that I am certain. Death answers to no one’s time but its own. And this isn’t grief. This is anticipatory grief, a prequel to the real challenge. For the lion, the leopard, and the cheetah stalk, taunt, and wait for the moment my survivability kicks in.
There’s no perfect process for grief, either. But as I stood in my grandmother’s kitchen, emotions swirling around us, shared energies intertwining, intimacy opened not only my heart but my eyes. For this is my opportunity to prepare for the impact of the lion, leopard, and cheetah. My opportunity to stand arms wide open. No, not to live in anticipation, but in recognition. In admiration. To live inside. Not outside. To allow grief its parasitic purpose, but not to be a blind host. This was my moment to accept that to believe in an afterlife made it real. And that walking the line of curiosity only opens me wider to the possibility of seeing my grandmother again in that afterlife.
When a person dies does it matter where? Does it matter who’s around? If they’re in pain or at peace? If they’re ready or not? No. It doesn’t matter. For the dead have simply moved on to live in another space. Circumstance is futile, as is time. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make the most of that futility. For when we add value to something — pain, actions, words, emotions, time— they are no longer futile but fulfilling. Move to Colorado. Embark on a journey which when complete evokes the same feeling my grandmother expressed to me: no regrets. My grandmother adds value to my life so let Death take her body, a futile thing, but her soul, her soul will always be mine, residing inside me. This time there will be a reunion in Death. A reunion of souls.