As we get older we experience death in an entirely different way. I can recall the deaths of my grandparents and certainly my parents. I can recall the wrenching loss of a young friend while in my late teens, but those were different. Statistically, I was far from death’s claim. Death was close but faraway—personal yet impersonal.
More recently impending deaths, in particular, have arrived in a whole new context. I have friends across a wide age spectrum; predictably the older ones are more vulnerable. The pandemic warnings have been like a two note instrument; age and infirmities have you on a down elevator. One thing is certain, the pandemic has caused all of us to think more about death and maybe, the possibility of a timeless existence.
In the post-pandemic period, suicides are up and suicidal living has also trended. One assumes that each story is different even though the statisticians dutifully measure and report. But, what do the statisticians know about death?
Perhaps the younger, those statistically few who seem self-destructive simply accept the likelihood of an infinite slumber—a non-existence—and conclude it will be more enjoyable than their present state of despair. They choose termination while others suffer through the long goodbye, clinging to a painful life perpetuated by chemistry.
Why do we fight death? If it is merely infinite slumber, why do we endure the sufferings of drugs and severe anxieties to hold on for a few more seconds of infinity? Doubt, perhaps.
Merle Haggard the country lyricist/poet asked that question in his song “How Long”:
“……………….You live and learn just to die and forget it all. / But as I take these shallow breaths, / And this strong, old heart slows in my chest, / I look back on life with no regrets. / I’m just ready. // How long, Lord, must I lay here / While this old body slowly dies?……………………”
Okay, I understand, Merle introduced a transcendent being but in a sense that is all too human. We can’t be sure what comes next so ultimate questions crowd in.
In recent years we don’t talk about “death,” we call it “passing.” It must sound better, but then it begs the question passing to what? The question will not go away. We don’t know, we can’t know, so question we must.
You will note that I reach for questions not answers—while I can note ironies, I cannot provide eternal verities. And questions like these are in a personal context, inevitably. Even if I disagree, and I do, that truth is relative, the final truth will come from a deeper place. We can wade in the shallows not confronting eternal questions, or go deep, but only the last breath, our last breath, will be determinative.
Having been at bedsides, so to speak, of those whose lives are slipping away in a blur of pain and pills I know one thing for sure. If ultimate questions need to be asked and answered, do it earlier. If death is now passing, passing to what?
One last thought. If God made us distinctive—gave us a mind—how can using it on the ultimate questions be anything but God-affirming?
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.