Creative Nonfiction

Janis Harper

Knowing Death

Dear One,

            And what of death, you ask? There is too much of it now, you say. I know you are scared, my dear. Afraid of getting sick, afraid of dying, afraid of those you love getting sick and dying. We are now indeed being forced to live in death’s constant presence as this pandemic’s human toll rises inexorably. Death is on everyone’s minds.      

            But, dear one, here’s what I say. Being forced to acknowledge death every day is the biggest gift we could receive. Death is the meaning of life.

            By this I don’t mean that it is the ultimate conclusion to life, the end. We already know that’s true. Or most people see that as true, anyway. I mean that death is the secret to life, the answer to the big life questions. “What’s it all for?” is one. What’s the point of living if all we do at the end is die?

            Well, that’s it. It’s all about knowing death—not life. That’s the point. It’s to keep death with us in every moment, to live with it. To give us a sense, a whiff, of the bigger picture, to stretch our senses, to go where thought can’t reach. Yes, I know it’s a paradox. Everything true is, my dear—or haven’t you noticed? When you get right down to the bones of it.

            I don’t mean that knowing death should remind us to “appreciate the time we’ve got” and “make full use of it.” Though of course, death can do that. I don’t even mean that death can heighten our own experience of life when we defy it, take risks—you know, when the world becomes hyper-real and astoundingly beautiful after that freebase climb up the mountain, until the exhilaration subsides. Death’s fun that way, too. But the former is only a teaching you’re supposed to learn like a good student: Time is short; make the most of it. The latter is like a drug you take to shoot some magic and adrenaline into your everyday life and break out of yourself. Jump from an airplane, speak in front of an auditorium full of people. Get a rush. Glimpse God.

            I’m aware, dear one, that some people like death because it helps to “put things in perspective.” Problems disappear when you realize you could die and they wouldn’t matter anymore. Or only the most important stuff matters. This is what people are learning now, among other things! Such a teacher is death.

            People often change their life course radically after coming close to death. You’ve heard that thing people say: when you’re on your death bed and reflecting on how you lived your life, you’re not going to wish you spent more time working and making money. You’ll wish you spent more time with your family, loved ones, that kind of thing. That’s another kind of “putting it in perspective.” Which is indeed one of the benefits of death, to be sure. Death gives life meaning.

            When you survive a serious illness or accident, the world becomes shiny and new after, too. More precious. But that’s a bit different—the process of the body breaking down is indeed a way to keep death close in the way I’m getting at: when your body is failing you can’t help but be present in each moment. And being fully present means not thinking—because thought is always about a past or it’s projecting into a future. Thinking takes you out of where you are now. Being present is more like listening. Being open and listening with all of you, so that who you are is lost. And it’s all about the other. The unknown and unknowable.

            And this comes closer to knowing death. The knowing isn’t something you do with your mind. How can you? You can’t conceive of what death is. It is the other.

            Can you think about death, dear one? When you do, what happens?

            You perhaps think of someone you loved tenderly who was once a living, breathing person in your life, and then not there anymore. We speak of experiencing “loss”—grieving, mourning the loss of someone close to you. I confess I’ve always been suspicious of this mourning thing. It seems to me that it’s rather self-indulgent. Poor me. I don’t get to see this person anymore. How will I get by without her in my life? But what I can understand more is the shock of it. There is no transition between life and death: your loved one is here one moment, gone the next. The separation between life and death seems too harsh, too pronounced. It takes some adjusting to, which is really what the grieving process is good for.

            Can you see how all this is not really thinking about death? It’s thinking about just before it or after it happens to someone you know. We can’t think about death because it’s outside of time. It doesn’t occur in time, in life. That’s why it’s such a shock. It shows us that time isn’t real, for starters. It shows us that we don’t know anything. It makes us feel “small,” as an acquaintance of mine put it at a friend’s funeral. That stuck with me. “I feel so . . . small,” she said.

            Death makes life, life. Without death, there would be no impermanence, no transitoriness—and that’s what defines life: everything in life is fleeting, transient. Here one moment, gone the next. Everything changes. This too shall pass. If we lived forever, we would be eternal, and that’s a whole different ball game, my dear!

            Before he died, a beloved English professor of mine used to say that what’s bracketed by death is what we hold dear. He spoke of how a rose is only beautiful because it dies. An artificial rose, even one so like its natural counterpart that it’s nearly impossible to distinguish it from the other, is just not as beautiful. It’s not alive. It can’t die. I was always intrigued by the seeming paradox in my professor’s statement: we hold it dear. We hold onto what slips away. We grasp, we clutch at each other, our children. We build houses, accumulate stuff, make money, make art, for posterity, trying to make the impermanent permanent. (Isn’t that why we do most things? To maintain the illusion of security? To make our mark on the world? To live forever?)

            And so we dislike death. It ruins everything. And more than that, we fear it. We don’t want to talk about it. We avoid it like the plague. Like death itself.

            But therein lies the secret, my dear. The secret to life.

            Death is the Great Unknown, to be sure. That’s why most people fear it. But what if we stop being afraid? What if we stop trying our hardest to avoid it and instead start acknowledging how it gives us life, lets us live? What if instead we embraced it—the Great Unknown? The Ultimate Other? Walked right up to it now and said hello? It does seem that lately Death has been trying hard to get our attention!

            Close your eyes, dearest. Imagine what it’s like to feel your life falling away. Feel into it. You, the “you” you’ve always known, the you in the world of people and activity, relationships and roles, thoughts and dreams, is disappearing. You as your body, the one that’s gone through many changes, is slowing down, soon to stop. Feel into it all the way. Feel past the fear. Disappear into it.


            If you have trouble doing this—and some do, those who are married to a particular idea of themselves, those who can’t put their thinking on pause—try this next little activity.

            Bring someone you know who has died into your consciousness. Don’t think about who they were or what they meant to you; just be aware of that person being dead. That’s all. Don’t think of them in relation to you; don’t feel sad that they’re not in your life anymore. Don’t “miss” them. Take you out of the equation altogether, and just sense this other space of death, of not-being.

            Yes, that’s right. Don’t be, for a change.

            If you do one or both of these exercises often or sometimes—or even just once—something will shift. You’ll catch a glimpse, even if out of the corner of your eye, on your way back to yourself. Or just on your way.

            These exercises don’t depend on what your beliefs are—and I don’t pretend to know what you believe, my dear, since we rarely speak on such matters: whether you believe in a non-physical “soul” that survives the death of the body or that you are your body and when you die you die, consciousness is extinguished. It doesn’t matter. You’ll still be let in on the secret. The secret to life. That it’s really all about death. That’s the answer, the meaning of life. The ending has a twist, doesn’t it?

            I really hope you get it now, dear one. I hope I’ve answered your question satisfactorily. Let me know.