Dealing With Death
I lost my parents at a fairly early age; my mom when I was only 3 years old and my dad when I was a teenager. These losses were significant but I can say that I was lucky to have other supportive family members which perhaps is the greatest help of all. Although this may sound strange to say, I also truly believe that my study of philosophy has helped greatly in dealing with death and the loss of loved ones (including a sister in 2005) so I'd like to share some of that with you in the sincere hope that you might benefit from it. I am a practicing philosophical counselor and philosophy professor and so speak from both a personal and professional perspective.
The ancient Stoic philosophers recognized that our happiness was largely dependent on what we could control; such as our attitude and will. To the extent that we try to control things we cannot we are unhappy. This is very much like the sentiment expressed in the prayer of serenity. One Stoic philosopher Epictetus said this about facing the death of a loved one:
Never say of anything, "I have lost it"; but, "I have returned it." Is your child dead? It is returned. Is your wife dead? She is returned. Is your estate taken away? Well, and is not that likewise returned? "But he who took it away is a bad man." What difference is it to you who the giver assigns to take it back? While he gives it to you to possess, take care of it; but don't view it as your own, just as travelers view a hotel.
Elsewhere he points out that "when death appears to be an evil, we ought to have this rule in readiness: that it is right to avoid evil things, but death is an unavoidable thing."
The question then is how will you react to this. What attitude will you take towards their deaths. While it is sometimes a struggle I have chosen to remember my parents and my sister in celebratory ways. I often think of how proud they would be to see what I have done with my life. In some sense I have accomplished these things due to their influence. Thinking about them in this way brings me some comfort. Of course, it would be preferable to share this with them in person but this cannot happen. As hard as it might be, I have to accept that this cannot happen. Wishing it could is only making me unhappy.
Another approach is offered by Buddhism. In his book Plato, not Prozac! Lou Marinoff recounts the following Buddhist parable:
A distraught young mother mourning the death of her infant seeks Buddha's counsel. She says she is terribly sad and unable to get over this devastating loss. Buddha tells her to go to every house in her village, collect a mustard seed from each house that has not known death, and bring all the seeds back to him. She diligently goes door-to-door, and as she leaves each one empty-handed, she realizes that there is no home untouched by death. She returns to Buddha with no mustard seeds, and he tells her what she has already seen: she is not alone. Death is something that happens to all of us, to every family. it is only a matter of time. What is inevitable, he tells her, should not be lamented to excess.
A difficult sentiment to take to heart and remember but I think very helpful to recovering from a loss. You are not alone.
The biologist Richard Dawkins offers an interesting, and perhaps helpful, perspective in his book Unweaving the Rainbow: "We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born." Your parents were immensely lucky to have lived the lives they did and you are lucky as well. This is simply another way of embracing the Stoic advice to control our attitude towards what we cannot control. Death is out of our control but how we think about death and how we react to the deaths of our loved ones is something we can control. It can be difficult and may take meditation and reflection. But it can lead to a unique perspective on life, death, and the value of cultivating positive loving memories of your parents.
It may never be possible for academic thoughts to provide true counsel in a time of grief. But, once the grief begins to subside reflecting on these ideas may be immensely helpful. I sincerely hope so.