A close friend died two weeks ago.  It was unexpected.  He was 49 years old and in excellent health.  A blood clot went to his heart, and despite the best efforts of doctors and nurses, he was dead within hours.  The family was not religious, but the woman in his life was and organized a “celebration of life” to honor him.  I should admit right off that I found it hard to get through this event.  A minister had been flown in from another state for the occasion, and he had a particular interest using the event to evangelize.  The persons attending were told that the deceased was in heaven, and if they wanted to see their dead friend again, they should accept Jesus as their personal savior.  Again right off, I’ll acknowledge that I have no expectations in this regard.  I had been asked to read a poem at the event and agreed to participate before I was told that it would be a religious event.  If I had known, I would not have agreed to read.  The poem I had written and read at the outset had as its first line: “I don’t believe in God, souls, or ghosts.”[1]  The minister thanked me “for sharing.”

What struck me most at this event was that the participants, including me, found it almost impossible to accept the irrationality of our friend’s death.  Tomas Tranströmer has a phrase in one of his poems: “the axe blow from inside.”[2]  I kept thinking about that line.  Because most of the attendees were Christians, they had to find providential intent in this unexpected death.  I should mention that my friend had been an exceptionally good man who helped many people and sacrificed his own interests continually.  So, any idea of transcendent purpose or justice in his death should be dismissed immediately.  He did not get what he deserved.  Similarly, this was not someone who neglected his physical health.  He had not ignored warning signs or failed to get medical treatment.  He exercised every day and was in excellent shape.  It is not surprising that none of us could understand this sudden violence inflicted on him by his own body.

Despite anthropomorphic religious beliefs and superstitions, human beings are essentially rational.  The thousands of decisions we make daily are usually directed toward achieving one goal or another.  We praise abilities like intelligence and good judgment because people possessing those abilities are valuable to us as a society, and much of our survival as a species depends on them.  I do not know enough about quantum physics to consider the relevance of sub-atomic particles, but in the world I live in, phenomena are considered to happen for reasons.  If we did not make this assumption, a priori, then the sciences would not exist; they would not produce useful results if this assumption were not correct.  This way of approaching the world is so innate to us as humans that we try to apply it beyond understanding how things happen.  We constantly want to apply reason to why things happen.  Because we are purposeful creatures, we want to find purpose in everything.  We find it hard to accept that the death of someone we love can be meaningless.

The participants at that “celebration of life” were seeking a catharsis that would allow them to go back to their daily lives.  A meaningless death reveals a fact of our world as we experience it.  Yoga classes, exercise, healthy diets, good medical care, university degrees, satisfying work, and loving family don’t stave off such a death.  We are contingent beings who have accidents, get sick, and die.  The emptiness of this realization is devastating.  At least, it is devastating if it occurs not as an abstraction in an essay but as the death of a close friend or family member.  When we encounter this emptiness, the why of our lives becomes a question without an answer.  Anthropomorphic religions generally offer an answer that avoids the question by telling us that the will of the deity is inscrutable.  Certain philosophies deny that humans are created with an essence or a purpose and instead place the burden on individuals to create a purpose in their own lives.  This too can be an avoidance.  To the extent that the grieving person creates by will a purpose out of meaninglessness, the purpose created is at best a functional fiction and at worst something arbitrary and irrational.  To substitute my will for God’s will isn’t terribly useful as a way to confront the reality revealed by such a death.

I’ve never thought of myself as a nihilist, but maybe I am.  The only response I can see to irrational loss is to acknowledge it, as opposed to finding a purpose in it.  This is where we live, and contingency is as much a fact of our lives as gravity or the weather.  The question, when it appears, is always singular: “What does it mean to me to acknowledge this emptiness?  What should I do?”  I wrote a poem, not because that’s any kind of recipe for healing or a preferred response but because it’s who I am and how I think and feel.  Someone else might legitimately say that I put words together to embody a grief merely as a way to distance myself from it, as though the poem were a small box I could place on some mental shelf.  I wouldn’t argue with that person.  I don’t make any claims about my own way of acknowledgement.  The poem may not even have been a particularly good poem.  What matters is to find a way to be present in the emptiness created by that death and at the same time to continue.

[1] I should be clear.  I don’t go around proselytizing non-belief, and if people can find some kind of consolation in this kind of situation, they should do what they think best.  My poem was simply about my own experience of my friend’s death and how hard I find it to accept that he is no longer present.  The person who asked me to read had read the poem beforehand.

[2] I believe this is from Robert Bly’s translation.  I am quoting from memory.

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