Death is one of the existential realities that the pandemic of the coronavirus is slowly but surely facing us these days. How can certain existential traditions help us?
These days I am slowly, imperceptibly but resolutely, surrounded by news of death. Death is here and there. It is constantly present on the small screens, in life. News comes to us of people who have died of the coronavirus even though they were still among us yesterday. The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated dealing with those things we don’t want to face while drinking our morning coffee. This is what the philosophy of existentialism calls givens. Sickness, death, loneliness, meaning – what we will all inevitably have to face in life. The greatest of these givens is death. The final one, the greatest one. The one before which there still exists a possible choice literally every day, and after which there are no more subsequent possibilities, as Jean-Paul Sartre noted.
In talking to a neighbor whose husband had recently passed away, though also suddenly and unrelated to the corona. I was touched by the amount of normalcy with which she described the moment. Her husband was already in his old age, but it all happened suddenly. She described a process that sounded so abnormally normal. Sometimes when people die I am shocked by the amount of “normalcy” in it.
I remember watching my grandma’s calm body after death. She looked so normal, calm, as if asleep. And then I was shocked that her lack of breath. But she is not breathing, was that painful realization after which the pain came flooding in. Today one is here – and tomorrow, just like that – one is no more. What is left to say after that understanding, except that in such context it seems irrelevant to bother with little banalities of life when there is this grandiose fact that we will all die hovering above our heads. And these days, indeed, the corona pandemic does radically not allow us to lose it anymore.
The second death that has touched me these days is within a close environment of a friend. That death was sudden and happened in the hospital without the presence of family members. I can’t even imagine such a death, nor the feelings of family members going through it, without being able to see the person for the last time. How can it possibly feel in someone’s head and body when the person who put them to sleep when they were little or held their hand when they needed it becomes just a statistic on screen? I remember when the person in question came to tell my friend the good news, I remember the zeal, the vitality with which he helped. And now he’s gone.
It is precisely this elusiveness of death that is difficult to fathom from our human perspective. It reminded me of how I had failed to see my own grandmother before their deaths, neither one nor the other. They both died so suddenly. It reminded me of how every time I go to the cemetery I talk to them because I’m trying to make up for time I didn’t have then. It reminded me of my dog with whom I had the strongest bond. From my privileged position of not witnessing much death in life, I could not comprehend that just like that, one day, those beings that meant so much to me were gone.
Death is what now creeps into our lives on a social level. Our society, which is collectively accustomed to denial of death, is suddenly forced to face death everywhere. We are forcibly brought back from digital screens into the body, where we marvel at the fact that we are still equally fragile and powerless in the face of the givens of life, despite all the technology we possess.
If there is one approach that is crucial these days, it is existentialism and its various traditions. Lot of them have long ago realized that in order to live well, we must face death. As Irvin Yalom says, leaning on Heidegger: “Although the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death can save us.”
The time constraint we are all thrown into is something worth considering.
We may further ask; what can we learn from this encounter with death? How did we spend today? Have we done what makes us feel meaningful? Have we told our loved ones how much we love them?
The coronavirus is ruthless not only because of the shape and the way it strikes, randomly, suddenly. It is also ruthless because it forces us to face all those existential realities that we do not like to face: death, loneliness, physical limitations, absurdity, or the meaning of life.
If we stop resisting, then it can truly be our teacher. In the manner of the harshest zen teacher, though. The one who beats us with a stick, while asking us gently: And you, how have you spent your day? Because you never know how many of them you have.
We can then take this as an invitation to reconsider the things we spend our precious time on.