Rationality, Community, and Death

by zaph2 min read4th Apr 201121 comments

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Personal Blog

(I was really on the fence about posting this. It's just some thoughts tend to go through around this time of year, plus some current new thinking that resulted from being a LW lurker).

Around this time of year, I tend to start thinking about death a lot. My dad died 12 years ago this month, and it’s still one of the most significant events of my life. Death is something that still seems to be solidly in the hands of religious and spiritual types as a discussion topic. I’m hoping that this post (in addition to not being too rambling) can provide some impetus for people to challenge that in daily life.

I don’t mean this to be an angry screed against religions. There was a priest on hand when my dad died. My mom, sister and aunt were gathered around, and it was in the midst of praying that my dad finally passed away (I apologize for the wording; our language can be so spiritually loaded, I just want to avoid saying died over and over). He told a really nice story about my dad being in heaven. It was comforting at the moment, a kind of way for my family to keep those awful, overwhelming feelings of loss at bay.

But it was after I got home and started calling my relatives that the enormity of the situation hit me. My uncle in particular broke down into angry tears when I told him the news. My dad was his older brother, and meant so much to him. There wasn’t any story that was going to make that loss any better. My uncle really thought there was more that could have been done medically. At the time (I don’t know what the state of the art medicine of today could have done), I really don’t believe that was the case. I remember watching my dad have seizures at the rate of about twice a minute. When he died, I was relieved to see that come to an end. He was going through intensive chemotherapy at the time, and died of sepsis. His body was just facing too much, and finally succumbed. There just wasn’t any way around what the eventual outcome was going to be, sadly.

The bright side in the situation, and what I hope to impart, was the strength I got from being around my friends and family; the community of people that came around to take care of us. We were inundated with food baskets, for instance. I was in such a state of shock in trying to process the situation, not having to worry about basic things like meals was a relief. And so many people who knew my dad or our family came by to share their condolences. The conversations were awkward. People didn’t know what to say. And it meant the world to me that they tried. Friends of mine came out of town to be with me specifically. I was so, so grateful that they took time out of their lives to do that.

I can give you all the standard but true things about death; live everyday like it matters, tell people that you love them today, for examples. But, I wanted to share that I think the best rational response to death is for the community to be there for people. I’ve been reading about the various meetups here on LW, and something that stood out for me was the community aspect of bonding. I really and truly believe that the way to make rationality matter is to keep building these rational communities, just as communities. I think it was the New York meetup that has really emerged into a group with strong bonds. I don’t see this as a condolences arms race, necessarily. But over time, these groups will be able to take care of themselves when these hard times come. We give a lot of power to religious groups, because they’re one of the few who step up when these hard times hit families. Often times, they are the only larger community a person is a part of. It’s really important, in my eyes, to offer alternatives to that.

So, I would encourage the meetups up and the like to emulate what I read about in New York. Sure, talk about rationality and related topics. But please do recognize the impact of just bonding in a group. Eventually, being the group of people that supports someone as they grieve is exemplary work, and I believe that is something that will naturally arise out of these communities. If you can step outside of that group and be there for others, so much the better. Rationally speaking, I think humans would be better off if there were ways to grieve openly and fully, without having to factor in religious stories.

I apologize if this post is a bit rambling; it brings up a lot of emotions for me. It meant so much to me that my dad said he was proud of me while he was still coherent, at a time when I wasn’t very proud of myself, for instance. That and so many other things are going through my head. I just wanted to get this out. Thanks for reading.

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