Musings on life and death

This is somewhat of a departure from my usual writing style but with John’s death it was something that I needed to think about in detail so that I could have a frank and honest discussion with my children while telling them about Granddad.

Before you read on, these are my musings. I apologise if they upset you; that is not my intent.   Neither is it my intent to get into any religious or philosophical discussion with friend or stranger about anything written here. These are my current thoughts, beliefs if you must, but I am not saying that they will always be my understanding. I may do an about turn next week or indeed in 50 years time (if I am still here in 2065), that is my prerogative and the freedom of not subscribing to a rigid belief structure. I sincerely hope that you take this essay as it is meant to be: one man’s internal discussion about life and death and how it can possibly explain this to his young children.

At times such as these one often turns to their religion for solace.  This is whether you practice or are your denomination in name only.  The belief in a supreme being and an eternal reward are very comforting in times of great loss.

I was born and raised a Roman Catholic, indeed I have been Baptised, taken my First Holy Communion and have been Confirmed; I attended a Catholic Primary School, a Catholic Secondary school, was an Altar Boy, served as an Usher and rarely missed mass in over 20 years. Despite this impressive C.V., I grew to realise that I did not believe in many of the tenets of the religion and simply did not have Faith. This was not solely the fault of Roman Catholicism but my years of questioning and investigations reading Catholic doctrine, secular essays and everything in between drew me to become areligious. This is not necessarily the same as atheistic; I think that there can be a huge gulf between not believing in religion and not believing in God.

The way that I see religion is that they all start off with good intent. They tend to be the teachings of a wise man (I am not being sexist here, but the World’s current domination religions are broadly misogynistic and have very few teachings by women) about setting rules for a fair and just society. Most can be distilled into one phrase: ‘Be nice to each other’. However this message is corrupted by those in power in a bid to make their religion dominant and thus increase their own individual power.  This power struggle leads to this fundamental message becoming marginalised in their teachings and thus somewhat ironically, it becomes the one thing that most religions are not, especially to someone who doesn’t believe in exactly the same thing as them. Unbelievers are labelled Pagans, Infidels and denigrated to the point of sub-human. There are examples throughout history, throughout the world; indeed it is still going on today, whether subtly through media manipulation or blatantly as is evident in the Middle-East. This is not just inter-religious but intra-religious with denominations of the same religion having a tendency of dislike through to full blown hatred towards each other.

So religion, per se is not the issue but moreover the way it is used by those in power. Religion is a powerful control mechanism. If people believe, or are afraid, then you can manipulate them to your will and that is what those in power do, to ensure that they remain in power. The reward that is Heaven or the punishment that is Hell, are abstract notions that can never be proved nor disproved but can help mould a society build on social inequalities. How can one justify a child dying of starvation while its Lord dies of surfeit? By offering the dividend that is eternal life. If one disagrees then it can be arranged for you to find out, a lot sooner than you would prefer, the reality of an existence of an afterlife, lest you start a murmuration in the populace.

Thus, you can see my dilemma of how to broach these deep metaphysical discussions with a seven and a five year old (Ezra is too young). I do not believe in religion; I do not believe in an infinitely merciful, benevolent supreme being and neither do I being in Heaven and Hell; something that someone who lost their father at 14 years old can not, and should not, take lightly.

So what do I say to my children?

My scientific mind sees the beauty all around without resorting to a creator. I revel in the fact that the only place that heavy elements are created (and from an astrophysical point of view heavy elements are elements above Lithium in the periodic table, i.e. not Hydrogen or Helium) is in the death throes of a star. Indeed the abundance of heavy elements in our neighbourhood can only have come from one, if not a number, of supernovae. You are literally stardust. A star has to have been born, ‘lived’ and died in an astronomical explosion to create the building blocks of matter that allow you to exist. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.

Even more mind-blowing than that, is the fact that you are immortal. Not strictly you, but the energy that is currently in the form of matter that forms you, has always been and will always be. Many of you may have heard of Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2 without truly understanding what it means. Effectively, it states that matter is energy – and an awfully large amount of it. To put this in some perspective the annual world consumption of energy is somewhere in the region of 6 x 1020 Joules, this is the equivalent to the energy held a little over 6.7 tonnes of matter (at rest, for the pedants).

In addition to this, there is the first law of thermodynamics. The law of the conservation of energy states that the energy of a closed system must remain constant – it can neither increase nor decrease without interference from outside. Therefore, by definition the universe is a closed system so the total amount of energy must be the same throughout time. The form that energy takes may change and matter is one of those forms.  I’ve lost you, haven’t I?

The above merely states that the energy that was once a star was converted into the matter that formed you. It may have been a trilobite, a dinosaur, a tree or the heat from a fire warming the hands of a child before it was you; it may be a table, a lamp post, the sound of heavy-metal concert or the heart of a star sometime in the future, but that energy will always be.

This is without any discussion on the goldilocks zone, evolution or even just the odds of your birth.

So how do I disseminate these complex notions to my children and explain the fact that their grandfather had died. Then field their questions of what happens to you when you die and what comes next. Then, do I go a little further and try to explain the innate injustice that is life?

When discussing death with children it is important to use the definitive, they are dead. Do not use euphemisms like ‘they have passed’ or ‘they have gone to sleep’ or ‘gone to their rest’. Children will not understand these nuances and take the meanings literally, leading them to be frightened to pass things, or go to sleep or lie down for a rest for fear that they might die.

This was the approach that I took with the girls. I explained that Granddad had died and asked them if they understood and whether they wanted to ask any questions and we sat in a huddle and hugged each other while crying. I thought it was important for the girls to see that I was upset too and thus there was no shame in crying.

Questions ranged from the scientific from Éowyn, (‘How do you catch cancer?’, ‘What happens to your body?’ etc.) to the practical from Amélie (‘Who is going to cook me pancakes? ‘Who is going to fix my toys when I break them?’). I answered them as honestly as I could, without going into any dark details. Then came the question ‘Is Granddad in heaven?’ ‘Can we go and visit him?

Now, I may not believe in Heaven, but then again neither do I believe in Father Christmas. Like Father Christmas I am not going to crush the girls’ belief with my adult logic (flawed or otherwise), it is more important for them to believe in the magic. In the same way that the belief in the magic of Christmas is embodied in the personification of Father Christmas then Heaven is a belief in the enduring love of those we have lost.

I took this opportunity to introduce the girls to imagery that I use to help explain love and loss. My vision is that whenever you have a relationship with someone you both exchange a piece of your soul, your heart if you will. These pieces are connected by a silver thread binding the pair together. The deeper the love you share the larger the pieces that you exchange, and the thicker and brighter the thread shines.

Sometimes the relationship fizzles out, you grow apart. In these cases the thread, dulls and withers and eventually the link is broken without too much pain. You still have, however, a piece of their heart (and they yours) that you can nurture or ignore at your want.

However, when that relationship ends suddenly, in the case of a death, the thread is severed and you feel the pain of that loss. Nevertheless, you can perhaps take comfort in the notion that although they are gone, and with a part of your heart (hence the hurt), you have been entrusted with a part of theirs. You, therefore, have a responsibility to nurture that heart and in that nurturing you should take comfort that they have not gone. Not entirely.

I like this imagery on so many levels and it shows that we are the sum of our experiences and our relationships shape and hone us, not just in the big ways but subtly and even the smallest of relationships are kept in our hearts. It also shows that are loved ones are never too far away. Even death can not separate you because they are an innate part of you.

This is not a complete theory in any sense. I have not discussed the good that religion brings to the world and have completely avoided the question of conscientiousness to wit: the soul.

Regardless of my stance on religion the basic underlining tenet of love thy neighbour is something that we should aspire to. To quote Adam Hills and place it in more contemporary language: ‘Don’t be a dick!

When someone dies of cancer (indeed whatever reason), it is perfectly natural to feel anger; to somehow, personify cancer (the cause) and vent vitriol upon it. We bemoan the fairness of life. To paraphrase the man in black (the Dread Pirate Roberts – not Johnny Cash) ‘Life isn’t fair; anyone who says differently is selling something.’ Death even more so.

There are traditionally five stages of grief that have been identified that those who have lost someone typically go through. They are not linear steps neither does one have to go through them in order, or indeed even experience them at all. When one realises that Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and finally Acceptance are all perfectly natural stages it somehow helps to guide you through the rocky road of grief, giving you the tools to better cope with the loss. It is important to realise, however that everyone experiences grief differently and one should respect another’s grief journey, regardless of how it compares to yours or indeed the stages outlined above. Again I refer you to Adam Hills.

So what is it that I want to impart to my children?

Life is precious, everyone’s life is precious. If you consider the events that need to have occurred for you to be sitting there reading this and can manage to stop considering this before your head explodes, you should realise how special you are and how precious your life really is. You are only dancing on this earth for a short while. This is not, however, a reason for you to ‘do what thou wilt’ and again I refer you to Adam Hills.

Life is not a race. Sometimes you seem to be ahead and sometimes you know that you are definitely behind, but in the end the only race that you have is in your mind, with yourself.  So don’t race, just enjoy the journey.

Life is not fair. It is not meant to be, and you have no right to believe that it should be. It does not mean that you should not strive for fairness but remember that the one great leveller, the one thing that will unite us all, is death.

Keep dreaming. Never give anyone the power to destroy your dreams. If you have a dream, keep it safe, keep it in your heart, live it; for you will still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not.

Keeping learning. Never think that you know everything, about anything. Never be afraid to put your hand up and say I don’t understand. There are no stupid questions but fear of looking stupid will leave you wallowing in ignorance. Don’t be ignorant.

But above all: Love. Love your parents; they love you more than ever imagine and you never know when they’ll be gone for good. Love your siblings; they are your link to your past and most likely to be there for you in the future. Love your friends. You cannot choose your relatives but you can choose your friends. Choose wisely. A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow; no man (or woman) is a failure that has friends.

As I said at the beginning of this essay I said these are my current musings. I have tried to avoid internet memes but there are a number of film quotes and song lyrics (try to find them if you can). This is not a definitive and it certainly isn’t my entire belief system but just the ramblings of a man who is trying to explain to his small children the sad news that their Grandfather has died.

Peace and Love