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Clinical psychologist Dr. Kim Bateman wrote an article for TED Ideas in October of 2017 detailing her fractured journey toward acceptance of the death of her 21 year old brother in a skiing accident in 1990. In her article, she proposes that those who have died may be immortalized through ritualistic reverence; that is, by setting aside your late brother's favorite glass of wine at Christmas, or by visiting your aunt's favourite beach once a year, you bring them back to life in the very process of allowing them to impact your physical behavior. In physics we understand that every movement on earth is catalyzed by a cause; if you visit that beach, or set aside the glass, your lost loved one has in a way reached across the veil and engendered something in the living world.
Dr. Bateman's understanding of loss presents a wonderful defiance of how we structure and understand life and death. It is not only true that we perceive death as our physical end, but also as the end of our agency, narrative and story. Surely, if someone is dead, they can no longer interact with the world and accrue experiences or memories in a measurable way.
In 2016 my father passed away unexpectedly and tragically, and my last memory I have of that time is the sight of him lying in an unzipped body-bag with lilac veins etched on his skin, still frozen from the steel refrigerator out of which he was halfway pulled. For someone once full of vibrancy, and who felt so deeply the highs and the lows of life in such a painfully complex and human way, the most harrowing awakening was the realization that he was over. He was here, sipping dark merlots, winning hearts and minds, stepping on toes, and then he was gone. His story is seemingly cut short, and it ends with no true feeling of justice or finality.
When I entered his bedroom for the first time after he passed and collected some of his things, this realization came roaring back and took my breath away a little bit. Over the subsequent months, I would feel stunned at relatively trite moments of my life—while brushing my teeth, or starting my car—with this overwhelming and surreal feeling of confusion. The best way to describe the experience is when a character is killed off in a TV show or movie without any explanation, before his/her story was finished, and you are left staring at the screen after it goes black. It was this, but messy, and leavened with the nebulous thoughts and turgid emotions that come with the personal stake, love, and resentment you have stored in another human being.
As I worked through grief in a capacity that was private and personal to me, my life also went on. I had to graduate college. I moved to a different city. I took up a new job. I fell in love and out of love; made new friends, and held old ones closer. Of all the listed stages of grief, denial was the one I never suffered; in its place I felt raw discontent over the injustice in the abrupt ending to my father's story. For the hundreds of religions that teach a divine order to the aggregate of human history and anthropology, his death felt so uncharacteristic of his bigger picture. He had more story to tell, and yet a box was drawn around the continuation of his life in July of 2016.
In 2018, I began reading the tragic and breathtaking book One of Us by Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad documenting the shooting of 69 people on the island of Utøya, Norway, in 2011. After finishing, I began to read about the author and her consolidation of the content of the book. She describes where she was when the shooting occurred, and that she received a call from the prolific American investigative reporter Marie Colvin asking her to cover as much as possible on the ground in Oslo to feed back to US news companies, thus setting her off on a path of information procurement regarding the shooting. A year later, Marie Colvin would be assassinated in Syria by the Assad regime for her coverage of the diffuse human rights abuses carried out outside Homs. Seierstad would go on to write One of Us while Colvin's life would end. Yet it was that phone call from Colvin that pitted Seierstad on the path to write the book that defined her career and gave voice to an entire country as it not only clawed its way back from tragedy, but also realized the importance of bringing political extremism, bureaucracy, and refugee integration into common discourse.
So even if Colvin died in Syria, her story is not over. Her time on earth is still shaping the realities of those still on it. We are conditioned to see life and death as binary: two ends of a piece of string. But a more realistic understanding is to see them as we do birthdays, job promotions, graduations or any other watershed moment in life that changes a little bit of who we are. In the way I became twenty four, Colvin became deceased, but both our stories are ongoing. Our narratives are not dead, and we are inciting change in different ways and certainly in different capacities.
When I took this concept of death being a part of the story and not the end of it, I applied it to my father. And like a firework, I could suddenly see his thumb-marks and fingerprints all over the clays of my life: his oversized pajama pants that I wear to bed; my friends employing his inventive one-liners, and the closeness I now have with his confidants back in Ireland. Interestingly, these are realities that he caused to burst into existence only after he had passed away. My life had been recalibrated around his death, but in that reconfiguration, he came back to life. His story was still being told, but in congruence and contemporariness to my own.
To put it in more practical terms, a child employs simple words and phrases to construct his/her own narrative. A teenager or young adult is more likely to use texting or social media when interacting with/shaping reality. An elderly person, weak and withdrawn from passing years, may prefer to write a letter or speak over the phone. A deceased person utilizes those he/she leaves behind to continue interacting and communicating with the world. The engagement with the world is still there, as it is for Marie Colvin and it is for my Dad, but the type of interaction is changed, and the deceased must now rely on us to move the chess pieces for them. This form of story-telling is indeed different, but no less valid than green is to orange.
While Dr. Bateman correctly states that rituals breathe life back into those we have lost, it is important to understand also that death does not end the experience of living in the way a full-stop ends a sentence; it simply provides a new context to story-telling. Instead of being the character in the forefront, we have our agency and our onus reassigned by death to a supporting character in our novel; from Jupiter to one of its moons, or from the nucleus to the cytoplasm.
Yet it is quite easy, when the family gets together, to notice the empty chair at the table and really, really simmer in the sadness of that absence. But it helps to focus on the responsibility you hold in continuing that person's story, since you are now the leading character in both your own book and in theirs. Then you must see all the ways in which they are still alive, in how their death led to the reconciliation of sparring family, or how you fought harder for a degree in order to do right by them. There are smatterings of those we have loved and lost in virtually all our thoughts and movements in a day; and the evidence of their continued story is weaved into the fabrics of everything. The vowels, consonants, words and sentences become legible whence you turn your channel onto the right frequency.
The biggest lie we've been taught is the existence of binaries. Outside of mathematics, very few things are simple enough to warrant reduction to a convenient X and Y. There is a spectrum of ascent and descent between night and day, and a wide pallet of grey tones between black and white. There are gasses which mark the midway between liquids and solids, and there are solids that are more condensed, more rich with airtight atoms, than others. To dwarf human existence into a simple life-death equation is to erase the influence the dead have over the living world; it is to erase the extant ramifications of the call from Colvin to Seierstad, or to wipe away the ways my father continues to tell his story through me and through those closest to him.
Reconceptualizing death is never an antidote to bereavement, nor will it more quickly heal the wounds we are left with by the passing of those we love and once loved. But to allow for the nascence and growth of projects, ideas, and realities imbued with a stake by our lost loved ones, we extend the parameters of their story and give voice to their agency despite their physical departure.
Death is a reformation in how the story will be told henceforth. It restructures agency and turns the living into the conduits, step-parents, of our posthumous narratives. And whether you know it or not, you are inevitably carrying the voices of those who departed before you in ways that are far larger than you, even if it is as simple as the fact that your heart is still beating.
So death is a watershed. It is a metamorphosis we will all undergo. But it is the end of a chapter, and never, ever, the end of a story.