Every year without knowing it, I have passed the anniversary of my death.
WHOA THIS SERIES JUST GOT REAL, SON! I know death is a deep thing to talk about, but let’s stop pretending it’s not the most unifying subject of all time and just talk about it, you know?
I read this W.S. Merwin poem (that’s right, I read POETRY), For The Anniversary Of My Death, and that was the opening line. Cut right to the chase, bro! That line has, unwaveringly and horrendously, stuck with me since. How annoying is reading comprehension? How annoying is it that in 1993 when this poem came out, I was 3 years old and didn’t even know death was a thing? How annoying is it that 20 years later, this poem still exists and crept its way into my life? No one asked you, bb. That’s what you get for being, really, really well-read, I guess.
The past month or so I’ve been thinking about death and hearing about death constantly. A series of weird coincidences I guess, or maybe just a more acute awareness that death is a real thing that happens all the time. It’s something no one can stop, no one can change and no one can escape. SCARY TOWN.
I’m not rebellious rebellious, I’m more just stubborn. When someone tells me I have to do something, I refuse it. When someone tells me I can’t do something, I make it happen. I don’t like anyone putting up finite walls around me, or telling me with 100% assurance something will or will not happen. Because how do you know? How do you know for certain that it won’t happen or that it will happen? You don’t! That’s the essence of life yo, that we don’t know what will happen tomorrow. There are no guarantees, YOLO, blah blah blah!
I hate it when people tell me something for certain. Usually I ignore whatever they’re saying because they can’t be totally sure, but death is NOT one of those things. Dying is the opposite of one of those things. It will happen 100% of the time; people die. I’m sweating and nervous just writing about this, so I’m sorry if it’s anxiety-inducing to read.
I think culturally in the United States, death is not something we deal with very well. It’s not addressed, really. I never spoke about it in school. It wasn’t something I was taught to accept or deal with or look at rationally. It’s always been scary and sort of taboo.
Most recently, death has come up because I read some books and saw some comedy shows and honestly, they all ended up being about dying, which means that death is so scary and so sad, you have to make something funny out of it. The sadder and the scary the thing, the funnier it can be, I feel.
I read The Fault In Our Stars – and I know it’s YA fiction and I know a MILLION OTHER REASONS why this is a silly thing to talk about while writing about something as real and personal as death, but it made me weep. You read it and don’t cry! Then I read WAR – the antithesis of YA, and it made me weep some more. Then I saw this iPad commercial that was really haunting and I cried. Mind you, I said I cried, because that’s different from weeping. I didn’t weep at the iPad commercial – I’m not a baby!
THEN I went to a “comedy show” at UCB in LA and what happened? I left with anxiety hives (that’s what I call the anxiety-induced hives I get) because they talked about dying the whole time. This was all this past month. I know that I am not experiencing anything crazy or horribly sad. I’m not reading insanely dark books. I’m not seeking out this conversation, and yet there it is. In a really basic, easy to digest manner. I’m not being smacked in the face with it, just like, gently tapped with a feather that says, “Hey, death is real!”. If I’m seeing it all the time, even in this mild way, I’m assuming it’s on other people’s minds too. What I’ve learned from each character, author, person, comic, is how they see death. And that’s the interesting conversation to have. That’s where I can actually learn from these people and help inform my own way of dealing with it.
The Fault In Our Stars is a story most of you have heard of, if not read already. It’s a beautiful novel written by John Green, about a young girl living with cancer and her romantic experiences. I will not ruin it for you. What I can tell you is that it makes you deal with the thought of death at a young age. It doesn’t associate death with the elderly, but rather with someone who’s either your own age or younger than you, and that’s a freaky thought. It shows you what death really is when you’re faced with it.
It’s not about remembering the long life you’ve lived and the legacy you’ve created if you’re not 98 years old when death comes. It focuses on the person and their character and the wake you leave no matter how large or small your impact was. You don’t have to touch millions to be remembered. You will touch and leave a mark on whoever you knew, whoever you loved and whoever loved you. And that, I think, is important to value and to remember. Of course we want to grow up and have lives that mean something to people. Depending on who you are and what you want to do, the number of people you can reach is different. But it’s less about how to make millions know your name and more about making sure you treat those who really know you kindly and compassionately.
WAR by Sebastian Junger is not fiction. It is not made up – even though we all know how real fiction can feel. WAR is Sebastian Junger’s account of his time spent in the Korangal Valley, the place that experienced the heaviest fire in Afghanistan. It’s not easy to digest. It’s not romantic. It’s fact. It deals with life and death in your face.
There is no tip-toeing around the subject. That’s what I like best about it. There’s nothing you can’t say. The men who are there are aware of the risks; they chose the risk. They’re there in spite of the risk, and they’re not afraid of what might happen to them. They’re concerned with whoever is fighting next to them. They’re concerned with surviving so they can do their job, and so that they can honor the commitment they made to protect and to serve. This story doesn’t start and end in the Korangal, though. It starts and ends with the people who they’re leading up to Afghanistan, what they did while they served there, how they died and how their brothers died next to them. It’s ultimately about how they deal with those deaths. PTSD among the military community is no secret. It’s amazing to read about people who are often so comfortable with their own death. They’ve seem to come to terms with it as a real possibility in their near future, not held off in some distant area.
Then I went to this UCB show. This, I guess, was the most head on experience with death I had but in, like, a really casual way. I was sitting and laughing with my friends, it was totally fine. We were talking about this guy one of us used to date who was now on another date a few rows ahead of us. We were excited to see Moshe. Moshe came out and did this bit and he killed. He was like, death, JOKE, death, JOKE, death… totally fine, I could handle it! Then he brought out Chelsea Peretti and Kumail Nanjiani and this expert mortician, and it got really funny and REALLY REAL.
In addition to being a mortician, the woman was also experienced in helping people accept death. She didn’t really help me accept death as much as she helped me break out in hives, because my anxiety was literally bursting out of my body. This expert mortician asked the audience to address the fear and then follow it all the way through until the end. She said that most people feared “that moment”. They were scared because they feared the moment of the car crash, they heard the crunching sound of metal. Or they feared floating off into space and were scared of that moment when you’re no longer attached to anything earthly. Her suggestion and practice was that we each think three hours into the experience that was scaring us. Are you in the ER? Are you still drifting away? Get through that moment and get to your funeral.
BB, I am way ahead of you. I have thought that part through. I’ve visualized my funeral (you’re all gonna be REALLY sad). Also, I’m not the only one who does this, I checked before I wrote this article because if I was the only narcissist visualizing my own funeral I didn’t want to admit it on HelloGiggles for everyone to read. Anyways, I’ve visualized. I’ve seen the moment, the after, the funeral, post-funeral etc. And it doesn’t stop, even for a brief moment, the fear I have of dying. My fear isn’t about the actual death, it’s about what happens next. There are a million ways to go with this; every religion, every non-religion, has its own version of what happens. They could all be true, they could all be false, WE HAVE NO IDEA. And that is what scares me.
In death, like in life, you really don’t know what’s going to happen. We can’t prove anything either way. We can all hypothesize, we can all believe or choose not to believe, but no one, NO ONE, can really be sure. I have a full body rash from writing that. It’s relentlessly unsettling. And for me, hard to come to terms with.
Now, having just re-read this for typos and like, jokes, a few things stick out to me. One, I’m still really scared and I get hives really easily. Two, I am like, REALLY diverse. I read YA novels and war novels AND watch all the versions of Real Housewives and see comedy shows, I mean whoa, dope! Three, there is no real answer or solution for how to deal with death, not in a universal sense anyways.
So what was the point of writing this? What lesson did I learn? What advice do I have? I don’t know. I don’t have any advice, and to be real with you, I don’t know what I’ve learned, except for one (I think) very cool thing: that no matter what the situation, if you’re a 15-year-old girl in Chicago reading The Fault In Our Stars, a veteran reading WAR, a comedy enthusiast attending a UCB show, a viewer watching this season of The Bachelor and you relate to that girl because of her experience with death or if you’re watching the Olympics and they keep reminding you of all the former athletes who competed and lived and have since died – no matter who you are, where you are or what you’re into, death is something everyone experiences. That can be sad, or that can just be what it is. Accepting its inevitability for everyone, and seeing it as one common, universal experience, makes it a little bit easier to handle. We’re all in this together!
If High School Musical can promote this message and like, accept this message, then I think we’re all ready to.
For some smarter, more practical advice on dealing with death you should probably read this HelloGiggles article. It has a lot more answers (but, like, 1,000 less questions).