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Thoughts on death

I’ve learned a lot about death this summer.

Growing up, I was taught that death is not real. I was taught that what we see as reality is not actually real. I was taught that life is eternal. These were difficult concepts for me to accept (not to mention that I rarely ever believed what I was told without any proof).

As I’ve grown older, these ideas have started to make more sense to me. Or, maybe I’ve found comfort in having faith that these ideas are true. I don’t believe that there is a heaven that we go to after we die, but others do, and that brings them comfort. Maybe they’re right, maybe not, but if believing in heaven is what helps them come to terms with death, then I’m all for it.

I used to wonder if my not believing in a place in the clouds with pearly gates has made it more difficult for me to process death. I don’t anymore, though. I’ve become better than ever before at processing death.

You see, I do believe in something bigger. I believe in a collective consciousness. I believe that we are all expressions of something bigger and that this human experience is only one step in our journey of life. When my friend Luke died 10 years ago, we couldn’t call him or visit him or hug him anymore. But that didn’t stop me from talking with him or seeing him in my memories or holding my own hand and feeling his presence. To me, Luke was light, and when I see a bright star or a beam of light off in the distance, I think of Luke. His life goes on, even if the incarnation of him that we’re used to isn’t here anymore.

When my grandmother--my final grandparent--passed, it hit me harder than anyone else. I was just starting to really get to know her. I didn’t know how to grieve at first; all I wanted was to be numb. Then, one day, I came across a pair of owls, one male and one female, perched near my house. I looked at them in awe. They looked back at me with their intense stares. I felt giddy and strangely at peace. They then, one at a time, flew away, leaving me with a memory and a video. I immediately went online to look up the significance of the owl in Native American culture (the owl totem), discovering that owls represent transition and oftentimes death. This was a powerful metaphor for me—I felt like those owls were my grandma and her late husband telling me that they’re together, they’re happy, and that it’s okay to move on.

Yes, I chose to add meaning to those owls. They were owls who were living in the area and had been for awhile. But they chose to make themselves seen—in the middle of the day—at the exact moment I needed to see them, when I was most receptive to the possibility that their presence might mean more. They provided me with the comfort that I imagine “heaven” gives to others.

The only way I’ve been able to move forward and be okay after the two suicides of close family friends this summer is because of my belief that life still goes on, regardless of what’s happening with our bodies.

Of course I wish they were still here, and I’m sad that I can’t interact with them anymore. I am hopeful that they found the peace they were looking for. And I know that their lives go on, here in this existence through all the lives they touched, and wherever they may be now.

One of them came to my dream, happier than I’ve ever seen him before, and told me, “It’s okay, I’m happy.” That appearance, and talking with a mutual friend who served in the Marines with him, brought me great comfort. It allowed me to stop feeling extreme grief and to focus on the way he blessed my life. It allowed me to open my mind and come up with ways to honor him.

I’m planning on running a half marathon next year and raising money for something he was passionate about. (I’m also going to get my motorcycle license because he strongly encouraged me—by offering to front me the money—to go for that.) For the other friend, I plan on donating books (or money to a nonprofit that gives books to those without access to them) annually in her name, hopefully giving a bookworm, like she was herself, the opportunity to enjoy a variety of different books.

These small steps are a way for me to acknowledge that these two friends' lives are still flowing. Though they can’t run or donate books themselves, their presence and impact will still be felt. In the past, I haven’t focused on finding ways to honor the people who aren’t in my life. But I’m enjoying looking back and thinking about the impact they had on my life and how I can carry them on with me every day. Because death isn’t reality. Life is reality.

I’m so very grateful for the good these amazing people have provided me and the world around them (and beyond). And I’m grateful for my newfound understanding of--or belief in--in the powerlessness of death. It doesn’t mean that I won’t grieve or that it won’t be difficult when the next person passes away; what it does mean, though, is that I have new tools to help me move forward and continue living without those people. I will search for good in the crappy situation (which is something I do, anyway) and will work to find a way to remind the world that those people’s lives were meaningful and won’t stop being meaningful, even after everyone affected is back to their normal routine.

I have no regrets. I have no anger. All I have is love.