On Death and My Grandpa

My Grandpa Guido passed away on 25th July 2021

My Grandpa continued to live his life after Granny died. He spent time with his friends, went to church, visited family abroad. But it was never quite the same. She’d been gone almost a decade and Grandpa was in his mid-eighties when he decided he, too, was ready to go. Not that he was suicidal or wanted to expedite the process in any way. Just that he was ready for it.

As far as dying goes, my Grandpa died well. He believed in the Bible — in God, creation, life after death. He drew strength from knowing he’d see Granny again. Death to him wasn’t final so much as a transition to somewhere else, a place where he knew she’d be. I think it was for this reason that when I heard the news that he’d gone, my overriding feeling was not sadness but admiration. I’ve always been afraid of death. When I first found out that people die, I went crying to my parents. I’m going to die! I said. They wondered if I’d drunk a bottle of Listerine and then read the “do not drink” sign on the label. I told them I meant die, like, in general. Oh, they said. Well of course. Everyone dies. I had this horrible feeling of being betrayed, like there was this big secret going around and my parents were in on it. 

I avoided the thought of death for years. But when I was about 16 it started coming back. For the next decade or so there’d be nights when I’d be in bed and I’d listen to the wind and the rain and imagine lying in the cold ground and time moving on without me. I’d think about the Earth being obliterated by the sun and the universe caving in on itself. I’d think about the nothingness that would follow all of this and suddenly find it hard to breathe. Then I would turn the lamp on and watch cartoons to get my mind off it. When I was too tired to think about death anymore, I’d fall asleep.

Unlike my Grandpa, I’m not a Christian. I gave up my faith soon after it dawned on me that you don’t need to be religious to be a good person. So I decided to become an atheist. We’d been taught in school to see belief as a binary issue: you were either a theist or an atheist or, if you hadn’t yet picked a side, an agnostic. Agnosticism was badly misunderstood. It was seen as a sort of temporary, undecided state rather than the idea that God is by nature unknowable. A shame because within the narrow Christian view that I grew up with, agnosticism would have been the best platform to explore the idea of a higher power without revolving it around the idea of God. That might be why it was never promoted.

After a few years, atheism proved itself to be as unfulfilling, as lacking in answers, as believing in God had been. I had this constant, niggling feeling that I believed in something, but didn’t have words to express it since whatever it was didn’t fit into the paradigm on which I’d been schooled. I’d rejected the Christian version of things and so atheism was the logical choice. I didn’t necessarily believe it. It was just the best thing that was going at the time.

Then, when I was 20, I came across Taoism and on a whim ordered some books. That led me to Buddhism, Confucianism, Shinto. It was partly the fear of death that made me broaden out; I wanted to hear what the East had to say. That was the first time I started to think about energy, the infinite, Tao — all the stuff that I’d been led to believe was either dangerous heresy or new-age bullshit. I didn’t buy into everything I read, but it was refreshing to finally get a new perspective on things.

The late-night anxiety attacks still come, but much less frequently. Taoism has become a source of guidance and calm. I’ve read widely on the topic of death and opened my mind to new ways of looking at it. I’m getting into the opinion that we don’t just disappear when we die. Where we go, I’m yet to decide. Another realm outside time and space? Reincarnated back on Earth? Living on vicariously in our loved ones?

Part of me wonders if this is all just wishful thinking, my fear of death pushing me to embrace whatever alternative explanation brings me comfort. I envy my Grandpa’s certainty about where he was going. It’s something I often feel about deeply religious people. They seem so sure. I will probably be searching for answers the rest of my life. I can’t help but want a slice of that contentedness that religious people carry around with them. I think that’s what made my Grandpa accept his death, even welcome it. Death to him was peace, a union with God, a reunion with his wife. He wasn’t crossing into the deep dark unknown. He was leaving it.

I hope that, when my time comes, I’ll be as ready as he was.

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