At some point in everyone’s life, there comes a time we are faced with the reality of death. With this notion of an inevitable end to life in general, we simultaneously learn about our own mortality. It’s a personal matter if someone is prone to giving this much thought, or to avoid it at all costs. I personally have been thinking about death all my life. Sparked by curiosity rather than morbidity, the subject has always intrigued me. And bit by bit, throughout the years, as time left clues in the shape of experiences along the way, I started piecing together what it means to me. I started to see how death gives meaning to life.
The first time I was faced with my own mortality was when I was 7 years old. My grandmother had passed away. I remember asking my mom what that meant, where she went. My mother replied, “Well, we all die – we all go to God. Your grandmother is in heaven now.”
With those simple words she had suddenly made me aware of the fact that I too, would some day come to die. And that there was something waiting for me there, a whole other world after death.
My father was Jewish and my mother Catholic. Although both of them were non-practicing, they did decide to raise me Catholic. I was baptized as a little baby, did my first communion and went to bible study once a week, until I was around 11 and rather played with my friends than sit inside a dull church room making coloring pages of the crucifixion.
Church might have been my first symbolic introduction to death. The stories of Jesus Christ – his birth, his death, his resurrection – as well as the deaths of many other biblical figures, both fascinated and haunted me. The depictions of these events that were painted on the church walls and in the stained glass windows, as well as the huge imposing space of the church building itself and the smell of incense and ancient worship, were all overwhelmingly impressive to little me. And a bit scary too, at times. Although I could not quite grasp the meaning of it yet, I knew death was intense and important.
So according to my mom, grandma was in heaven. She was somewhere up there, hanging out with God. That seemed like an alright scenario to me. But I missed her. I wondered how she was doing. What it was like over there.
I decided to try and reach out to her and started writing her little notes. They would say things like, “Dear grandma, how are you? We had a performance at school today and I played the part of a cat. It was very exciting. I miss you. Kisses, Claudia.” I would fold the piece of paper up into a tiny square and place it inside an envelope that hung on my bedroom wall. The envelope said ‘Letters to Grandma‘.
For a couple of weeks I kept inserting notes into the envelope. As time passed, I noticed two remarkable things.
Firstly, the number of notes inside the envelope kept growing as I wrote more. Which is totally logical of course, but to me it seemed very strange at the time. Why was grandma not taking them out? Was she not reading them? I thought this envelope was my magical gateway to heaven, a means of communicating between two worlds. A paper portal. But as the notes remained untouched, I began doubting its effectiveness.
The second thing I discovered was even more disappointing. She never wrote back.
Eventually, I took the envelope off the wall and threw it away. Somehow what I tried to do had not worked out. Death was a concept and a place I could not reach nor fathom.
Not long after this, my grandfather passed away. I remember being very aware of the contrast of seeing him alive for the last time, and saying a final goodbye to his corpse at the funeral. Beyond my sadness, it made sense to me that death was the end of life after you lived to be old. It was what eventually happened to all grandparents.
Around this time my father started getting health issues. He had a cardiac arrest when I was 11, during which I literally watched him die. He was resuscitated in time, but this event resulted in a series of serious conditions, although he did thankfully manage to live for another decade and a half. By going through this with him, I slowly started to understand how our bodies are these amazingly complicated and sometimes unpredictable machines that can, and eventually will, some day stop functioning.
And although we all hope to live to be old, and postpone worrying about death until then, we don’t always have such luck. Better yet, I believe worrying about death can be transformed into getting a healthy relationship with it. We can change it from giving us a sense of impending doom, to trying to understand it as best as we can and giving it its rightful place, right here in our very lives.
My grandmother might not have answered my notes, but I do feel she is alright. I do not conform myself to any specific religion, but I have learned from them and shaped my own beliefs. Death is a natural part of life. If we become aware of it and embrace it, it can inspire us to live a beautiful and meaningful life, regardless of how old we are and when our final moment will come. It will come. It is here, it is now. And it is okay.