For most of our history, death has been a frequent visitor. Women died in childbirth. Infant and childhood mortality was high. Before modern medicine, a simple infection could kill. My grandfather became a physician "pre-penicillin", he liked to say, when washing his hands was one of his greatest weapons in keeping a patient healthy. (As an aside, his admonition to wash my hands frequently and his habit of cleaning doorknobs and light switches with rubbing alcohol has stuck with me.)
Funeral homes are a new industry. For hundreds- thousands- of years, the women in a family nursed a sick family member, cleaned the body after death, prepared it for burial, and held vigil in the main room of the house before burying their loved one wrapped in a shroud, or in a homemade coffin.
Death was a part of life. Not welcomed- never that- but not strange or unexpected.
Our world has changed so much in the past 200 years that death is no longer a close companion to our daily lives. Immunizations, antibiotics, modern surgical techniques and technology- as well as improved worker safety laws- have pushed the fear of dying aside. A crushed limb isn't an almost certain death sentence, and stepping on a rusty nail means a tetanus shot- not suffering an agonizing death. We expect for mothers and babies to survive childbirth- and childhood.
Now, it seems as if we alternately shocked or jaded by news of death. For those of us in the quiet, comfortable suburbs, the constant news of violent killings of inner city youth is almost background noise. 150 killed overnight in unrest in a middle eastern country we can hardly place on a map? Oh, that's a shame, we say. Hope they get it together soon, we might add, shaking our heads, and then move on to the box scores in the sports section.
Until something happens.
Until death comes unexpectently to someone we love.
In the past two years, I've lost three people who were very dear to me. Two were my contemporaries- one my best friend of 12 years- and one my father. In the past three days, I've learned of the death of two young people whose lives were entwined with loved ones.
There have been times, these past twenty-four months, when I have felt overwhelmed with loss. I know I have pulled away, distancing myself from those I care about, hoping to mitigate the pain if something happened to them.
That doesn't work, by the way.
I have learned something along this journey, and I have changed as a person. I've come to realize that the reason our ancestors were able to survive and flourish was because they understood how it important it is to appreciate life.
Cherish this moment. Live now. Not in the past, or the future, but right now.
That's how we face death: by knowing it is always there, waiting.
And then choosing to live until it comes.
Filed under: Opinion