Death in Balance

by Paul Goodchild on October 3, 2010

Let’s face it, some of us think we’re ready for it, others of us completely block out all thoughts of it when we can, and some of us just don’t know what to think.  I was the latter and the former until a couple of weeks ago, before I experienced the first loss of a someone that was very close to me.

Sure, I’ve been witness to it, but it’s never been real – i.e. someone with whom I’ve held a close relationship either presently or in the past.  Until now.  And boy does it hurt.  This will explain why my 2 blogs have been silent of late since the drive to write just hasn’t been there.  I felt there was nothing else left just now to discuss other than the topic of death itself.  It’s not a pleasant thing to contemplate, but it is necessary.

What is death?

If I could answer this definitively I’d be a very wealthy individual.  The simple fact, and I think this is what makes it all so difficult, is that we just don’t know.  Is it just a hole in the ground; is there another stage on our journey that this life is just a stepping-stone towards; does heaven await if I’ve been been good, or hell if I’ve been naughty; are there 72 virgins awaiting me on the other side (I find this one quite hard to believe since it’s difficult enough to find 1 while I’m alive, never mind 72 when I’m dead!)?

Who knows?

But what we do know is this: there’s no coming back.  Well, for most of us – I’m not counting stories of miraculous returns and out of body experiences, I’m talking about the final sorts of death where there’s no coming back from.  That individual with whom we have created a bond and connection like none other in our lives is represented physically only by a silent corpse.  All that we have of our relationship with him and her are the memories we hold, those brief mental images and videos that we can replay in our minds of our experiences together.  Sure, we can look at photos and videos of them, but to me they’re never as real as those that are in our head.

For me, it is knowing that this is all that I can ever have of him/her that wrenches at my insides.  I feel cheated by some external force or law which states that we can never again build upon what we have/had.  They are finite and they last as long as your brain can store them.  And that, unfortunately, fills me with a deep sense of foreboding.  What if I forget a memory or have already done so?  Forgetting a memory isn’t like forgetting to put your underwear on in the morning – there are no warnings or signs (or chaffing in this case) that it has happened.  It’s just gone.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, surely…

After Life: until the memories are gone

One Podcast I listen to regularly, and I highly recommend you try it out, is NPR’s Radiolab.  You can subscribe for free using iTunes, or you can stream them from the website.  Last year they did an episode entitled ‘After Life‘ where they explore various different ideas on what the After Life may be.  One that struck me (starts at around the 6minute mark), and has stayed with me ever since, is the idea that we remain in “a lobby”, after we have died, until the last person who remembers us has either passed away or forgotten us.  Once that last connection to us has gone, we are freed to then move on, to wherever it may be.  I’ve liked that idea since I first heard it.

How long we remain there is a measure of our influence on the lives of friends and family.  It’s a miserable thought that our time spent in that waiting area is fleeting, and this spurs you (or at least it does me) to make a bigger difference in peoples’ lives, to be remembered favourably and for a long time.  It’s not about wanting to be missed, it’s about knowing that you did a huge measure of good and you left behind a positive legacy.  For me, it makes sense to say you have truly passed on when those that know you have forgotten you or have passed away themselves.

I spoke at my friend’s funeral and I didn’t relay any stories, but I opted instead to remind those gathered of who he was.  It wasn’t necessary to be said, but it was important to say it.  That is, what made him so remarkable, and that we remember and honour him best by keeping to the lessons he taught us while he was alive.  In that way he lives on in each of us.

He is not unique in this.  It is true for all of us that die – that is, everybody.  You can store up enormous amounts of wealth, you can have a sporty car or 3, you can have 5 houses and a winter villa in Italy, you can be a member of your local ‘We are the wealthy elitists’ club, but at the end of the day if you’re still a selfish prick, then that’s how people will remember you.  And will likely soon try to forget when you’re gone.

If there is a journey that you continue when you leave this life, the only things you can bring with you are … well … nothing.  Think on that for a moment.  Clearly what we leave behind is by far more significant than what we take with us.  I think most of us forget this sometimes, but it’s good to keep this in the fore.  Being remembered favourably for good reason is by far more preferable for me than people trying to forget.

How to better handle death

I don’t fear my own death.  I don’t feel there is a need to handle it and there is nothing in particular to be afraid of.  In all likelihood, I wont know that I’m dead when it happens.  What I do not look forward to, however, and I’m sure the reader is the same, is the death of those nearest and dearest in my life.  But there are things I think we can do to make their passing easier to accept, and this is how I see them, in no particular order:

  • Satisfy yourself that the most quality time that you could have spent with them has been spent with them.  When they pass, or you do, this is the only way you can be free of regrets and a wish for having spent more time with them.  Imagine their passing today, and ask yourself have you prioritised them in your life according to your values now.  If the answer is no, then fix it.  And don’t put it off until tomorrow – make the resolution today.
  • Accept your own death.  When you fully emotionally accept your own eventual passing into wherever, if anywhere, only then can you really accept that of others.  I don’t intend to die with unfinished business and I’m trying to live my life as close to that creed as I can.  Obviously it wont matter when I’m dead, but it matters a whole lot while I’m living.
  • Don’t get caught up on where we’re going after we die.  Surely it’s important?  No, I don’t feel that it is.  If Christianity has the right of it, then I’m going to hell and my closest family aren’t.  But as it currently stands but I know I can’t alter my beliefs to align with Christianity in my lifetime, so why ruin my life trying?  If you believe there is another place we all go to after this life, then you’ll meet them again, given time.

I’m no spiritual guru, but I firmly believe in trying to find answers from suffering, learning why we suffer, and where the pain stems from.  This meeting with death, so-to-speak, of recent weeks has given rise to many questions and pain, most of which I accept I don’t have answers to or least they’re never going to be accessible to me.  But life is a terminal disease, and until we face into this fact and the questions it raises, we live in ignorance and fear, and that for me is just not an option.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jo Rowkins October 3, 2010 at 16:35

Hi Paulie,
Thanks for this post. Your words always ring true… you have the ability to write in a way that provokes questions in your readers’ minds, allowing them to ponder on the concepts raised, without preaching your “opinion” to them. As a friend of yours, I also value this quality in you as a person. You are so full of knowledge, wisdom and experience, yet are humble and quietly observant of everything around you. An angel. x


Paul Goodchild February 22, 2011 at 13:06

Hey Jo,
I only noticed this comment today as I was coming back to re-read some a couple of my posts. Sorry!
Thank you… it’s good to know I’m not coming across as “preachy” – it’s the last thing I’d want. As for me being full of knowledge, wisdom etc., I don’t know if I’m reached that stage just yet, but we can but try. And if anything, I’d say you have the edge over me 😉
Looking forward to catching up with you sometime in 2011 🙂


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