Chapter 5 of Six Times a Survivor
by James C. Ash
The certainty of Death is hugely upsetting. It typically combines fear and sadness as it challenges our understanding of the purposes of life. Living gives us access to hope for the future, but Death makes that future finite. When a life ends we grieve the void that remains, and it reminds us that a time will come when the void will inevitably overtake each of us.
It appears to me we share the burden of the knowledge of death with some other animals. Survival of the fittest establishes a food chain that requires premature deaths in other species. If an antelope isn’t somehow aware of death, why does it run for its life in abject terror from the lioness in pursuit?
I don’t know where the certainty of my mortality resides among the synapses in my brain, but I try my best to isolate it as far as I can from the rest of my knowledge. I work hard to limit my awareness of my mortality. Were it to become an obsession it would darken all my days.
Nonetheless, I always know I am going to die somewhere, somehow, at a time it becomes the will of the specter.
Each of my adulthood encounters with the Grim Reaper was followed by involuntary soul-searching. I examined my mortality to try to better understand why I am here and what, if anything, may happen to “me” when I am gone.
It was not until late in my trauma management therapy after 9/11 that I began to more clearly define what matters to me and how I want to navigate the rest of my days. During take stock of life exercises, I realized I needed to be more confident in my living and let that confidence, that faith, inform how I should manage the rest of my life. I broadened the scope of my concern for other people and raised the respect I automatically give to anyone until and unless he or she proves unworthy of it. My self-serving goals made room for more random acts of caring, and my wife continued to teach me about unexpected generosity.
While I’m not a fan of the notion that a near-death experience will transform “a life taken for granted,” I don’t deny that a refreshed perspective on life can be among the takeaways of survivors. Certainly one does not need to face death to realize the value of eating dessert first, but few bona-fide survivors fail to get the message.
What surprises me about my death-proximity experiences is they’ve made me appreciably less discomforted by the certainty of dying. Perhaps, after pondering so much about it, I’m getting fatalistically calmer about the certainty that I will die one day. Like anybody, I cannot know for sure what will become of me when I die. My concern now is to avoid the deep hole that I might dig while obsessing over the inevitable.
I fear death because it is beyond my knowing. All that I really know comes from life. Ultimately I consider what’s the worst that can happen at death? If every last vestige of me simply evaporates at death, what is there to fear? My absence here won’t matter to me when I die. I will either be in another place or truly gone.
My world, the only place and time I know at the moment, could vanish with me.
This brings me to ask, “Am “I” my life? Is my life the sum total of all that I am and have been, or am I something more?” Do I have a soul with an after-life future, or will death be my total apocalyptic end? If I am truly more than my life, if I am a soul-survivor, I can be more than what I now am. In this context a purpose of a soul’s life may be to grow into something better.
I don’t know what to expect when the Grim Reaper grabs me on the shoulder but until then I have a life to complete. I don’t want to stop growing in preparation that “I” may be more than I know. If whatever this life is has no purpose-filled future: so what. I can’t change that. I might as well play the hand I’ve been dealt. If “I” will continue to exist in some fashion, I may as well prepare myself to “keep on keeping on” in a meaningful way.
Most people first encounter death in the third-person long before worrying about it in the first-person.
What does it mean to mourn the death of someone you loved or liked? For whom do we grieve? Do we feel sorry for the dead person’s loss because he or she liked being alive? Do we feel sorry for ourselves because we feel the absence of someone we loved?
Answers to these last two questions are not mutually exclusive. Both can be true.
At times obituary writers trot out the phrase: “the departed suffered death on…” Perhaps they are drawing on a phrase in Christianity’s Nicene Creed that says that Jesus “suffered death and was buried.” Certainly crucifixion was a suffering, but is the transition from life to death necessarily a suffering? While a painfully slow death surely must be, suffering might not be present when someone dies while sleeping.
How can we know whether or how someone suffers death pain? I’ve not heard of anyone revived from death who reported a painful transition into the beyond or back.
If and when I am on the brink of the unknown, I expect I will be terrified if I am aware that I am dying, despite my faith. The life and death moment of transition is not a uniform experience among us. Hopefully, a sudden death, as in an accident, might involve at most only a flickering moment of awareness fear, if any. Knowing that one’s time is near, I expect one likely deals with the inescapable. In that time, I would not be surprised to learn that the pain of fear is present.
Certainly the loving survivors of a dear departed soul suffer the death. The living can grieve; the dead – ambivalent.
Although I’m not anxious to meet Him or Her face to face yet, I do believe God is. A universe and its souls don’t just spontaneously occur. Beyond that prime mover premise, however, the nature of my belief was sorely challenged during my efforts to piece together some kind of understanding of 9/11.
That complex and costly day produced thousands of contrasting stories of the lucky and the lost. There was no earthly calculus of any kind that differentiated those who survived from those who didn’t. Accepting this realization became a large part of the foundation of my recovery from the spiritual, emotional, and physical wounds I suffered from that day. It took a long time and skilled help before I assembled a credible idea of how God may operate in our lives or leaves us to our own designs.
I never lost my faith in a loving and beneficent God, but my beliefs about the degree to which He/She operates in our lives fundamentally changed.
One’s “Time to Die”
God may have created and set the universe in motion, but I do not believe that any death, whether by accident, disease, old age, or human mayhem, happens because God makes a conscious decision to “take” someone at a specified time, in a specified way, at a specified place. God has no destiny strategy for each of us to fulfill. The time and manner of one’s death can only be labeled as his/her “destiny” in the past tense.
I think God made all life on our planet subject to death for several good reasons. But it need not follow that God, having made us mortal, has or wants a plan for when, where and how any one of us will live or die.
God created our chaotic and random environment. With the gift of free will, how we conduct our selves (our souls) with others and our surroundings is certainly among God’s concerns, but God is not responsible for anything we do with our Free Will.
The date, place, or time of a death is no indication of God’s Will. God feels the pain of loss suffered by those left behind, but God is not a puppeteer or a pied piper leading us to the pre-scheduled moment and manner of our deaths.
The idea that Saint Peter has an ironclad arrival date for each soul as part of a universal forever game plan drawn up and administered by God is ludicrous.
I’m sorry sir, I know you came a long way here,
but I see no reservation in the Book under your name.
We were aware that you might come here today,
but we have a full house now and no space for walk-ins.
Perhaps you should join the crowd at the bar downstairs.
Most of us know The Holy Platitudes:
- “He’s in a better place,” is said to comfort us as much as the griever.
- “It simply wasn’t his time,” means it’s a miracle the guy’s still alive.
- “It was just his time,” means face it, he was supposed to die when he did.
Believing that everybody has an unknown “time” puts all the blame for every death squarely on God. It’s simply not fair. Equally unfair is the notion that God has the macabre sense of humor necessary to coordinate all the conditions needed to lead Homer to the exact spot when and where the next lightning bolt will obliterate the poor sod.
Our free will allows us or condemns us to make or own good or bad decisions. It’s a double-edge sword that makes us responsible and accountable for ourselves and actions. That which we are deep inside, at our souls, is revealed in what we freely think, do, believe, create, destroy, preserve, ignore, love, and hate. Our souls grow or diminish according to how we deal with our environment, including our fellow human and other living beings. I believe that in life we have an opportunity to grow or damage the only vestige of our selves – our souls – that remains eternal.
No, the “it was just her time” and the “it just wasn’t his time” rationales simply do not hold water in our chaotic environment. There is no other way I can reconcile surviving 9/11 while too many good people I knew, liked, respected and admired did not. I know unequivocally that survivor’s guilt is real and relentless, even after one recognizes that he or she could in no way be responsible for the death of others.
Either their deaths were random, or God has some serious explaining to do.
I know in my bones that God did not send the hijackers of the planes on a Holy Mission. God did not plan anyone’s death on 9/11.
Free will and God’s will are not often the same.