This post is mostly personal; it may annoy or dismay some readers. I’m leaving it on LessWrong because it does touch on issues relevant to the community, and also because I have nowhere else to go.
content warning: death, grief, and not-so-rational coping mechanisms
My grandfather died in December.
He had a stroke several months ago. The weather was getting chilly, so he and my grandmother visited their countryside cottage to prepare the garden for winter. As they were ready to drive back home, grandpa suddenly staggered and fell over. He was brought to hospital quickly, and the surgery was successful, and all the circumstances seemed so favorable, and I was dumb enough to expect a full recovery. And then he got infected with coronavirus while he was still in the hospital ward.
The last time I saw him was before the pandemic. I was going to tell and ask him so many things “when this is all over”, and now I never will. Everything he was and everything he could be, with all his knowledge and memory, is lost irretrievably. "When an elder dies, a library is burnt to the ground", as the proverb says. Except it wasn't just some stupid library, it was my grandpa who used to play chess with me (he always called the queen "dame") and proudly tell everyone who’d listen how well his granddaughter was doing with her studies. I wanted him to live forever, and instead the universe, in its blind indifference, destroyed him, like it had destroyed billions of others before him.
I can’t remember what his body looked like; the thing that lay in the coffin was incomprehensible. It had nothing in common with my grandfather — a joyous, energetic, kind-hearted man who had survived a bomb exploding in his hands when he was a boy and fought two cancers into remission when he grew old. The morticians had done an exceptional job, and the thing was a perfectly executed imitation of an elderly stranger. The hairline was recognizable; otherwise, I could see nothing but a wax figure that was, for some reason, dressed in my grandfather’s suit. So I remained calm, as I knew grandpa wasn’t really in that coffin — or anywhere else.
I never tried suggesting cryonics when I still could. All of my relatives are, to some extent, religious or spiritual, and my grandfather was no exception. I predicted that he would never take it seriously, that he would laugh it off. Was my prediction correct? Most likely. Does a part of my brain keep telling me that I killed my grandfather through inaction? Why, yes, it does. Even if you are skeptical towards cryonics, like I am, it might be wise to at least discuss this option with your loved ones before it’s too late. You never know whether “too late” is the next year, or the next month, or tomorrow.
My family has been telling me to “move on”. They are devastated too, of course, and yet seem to be coping better than I am, finding some comfort in pictures of afterlife. Most people, even among atheists, have these crutches, narratives meant to support them against death’s impending horror, to convince them that the universe is fair and conceals some Great Plot. “You will meet them in heaven”; “the soul is immortal”; “death is a natural part of life”; “death brings context to life, while an eternal life has no meaning”; “it is pointless to fret over something you cannot change”; "when you are, death is not, when death is, you are not". Those crutch narratives are in abundance for every taste, and it’s easy to mistake their deceit for a real answer. I used to be angry at those-with-crutches, but now it has become much harder. Do I really want my grieving grandma to accept that no, she is never going to see her husband of 57 years again? And yet I wonder what would happen if all crutches suddenly shattered and people realized they had nothing to lean on except their joint intelligence and effort. Would we be finally forced to act, to declare full-scale war on our common enemy, if it became clear to everyone that there was no other choice?
Looking at myself, I am not so sure. I used to think that I myself had no crutch, as I wouldn’t use any specific belief-in-belief system to justify death. “Death is terrible and wrong, thus we must defy it” has always seemed axiomatic. And still, somehow I managed to coexist with the knowledge of my mortality while staying sane, getting something done in life, and even occasionally having fun. I did struggle with anxiety and depression, as death’s shadow constantly loomed in my field of vision, but it was mostly tolerable. Why, then, was I doing so little for the immortalist cause? Of course, I knew I wasn’t immune to death and was totally going to die, but it seems I never truly expected it to, you know. Actually happen. It’s now apparent that I did in fact have a crutch, and it was my hope that, for some reason, death wouldn’t touch me or those I love. And that’s the strangest thing, come to think of it. I had already faced death, losing three of my pets, and it nearly crushed me, yet each time, the hope resurfaced eventually. (...at least my human family might still make it… right?)
But exactly two weeks after the day my grandfather died, he would have — and should have — turned 83. So, in retrospect, I can’t explain exactly what I had hoped to happen, being 23 and having elderly family members. That I still had time (wouldn’t ultimately change anything)? That I’d have the privilege of dying before having to see any of my loved ones die (was vastly unlikely)? That a wizard would emerge from the sky on a sparkling unicorn and miraculously fix everything (the world doesn’t work like that)? I know I should have done better. Apparently, all my rationality self-training had bumped into the wall of defense mechanisms built by the tiny idiot monkey living in my head.
Well, the monkey has finally got a reality check; whatever tricks it was using, they are no longer working. Over the last several years, there were few days when my brain wouldn’t picture someone close dying, and it still didn’t prepare me for how much it would hurt. I’ve lost what I absolutely couldn’t afford to lose, and nothing can ever make up for my loss, regardless of what might happen later on. There was only one single test that actually mattered, and I failed it; there will be no second chances, there is nothing to be done, and it’s never going to get better. I no longer remember what it felt like to have hope.
When you truly realize that neither you nor those you’re supposed to protect are actually going to survive, something in your head gets seriously broken. The distance between “now” and “death” becomes evanescent; and it doesn’t really matter all that much how you spend your life if, in a certain sense, it is already over. Imagine an empty room without doors or windows, where you and your loved ones are locked in; a clock is ticking in the background. Whenever it becomes silent, a monster emerges in the room, swallows one person at its choice, and disappears; the ticking resumes. You can neither stop the monster nor reason with it; you can only watch, or you can press the built-in red button and instantly get a lethal electric shock. And this is how I started having suicidal thoughts. But when rejection of death used to be at the core of your personality and suddenly it’s gone, the poison of despair fills the space, spreading everywhere. The ticking clock makes everything but the monster meaningless, since only the monster itself is not doomed. I see an elderly woman playing with her dog, and it’s like I’m seeing double, one universe where they are happy and together and another one, only a second away, where they are both dead; and the first reality is fading away right before my eyes, while the other one is imminent and everlasting. So I think I understand now why most people stop fighting death as they age. Charging at a dragon when you have nothing to lose only requires strength of will; fighting the dragon for decades to defend your family also requires hope. And when you see your defenses failing, hope fails as well.
Perhaps the rational thing for people like me is to trust in science and contribute to its progress in a reasonable, not-too-burdensome way? After all, death is not actually invincible, of that I’m certain; one day, humanity will destroy death, unless it destroys itself first. And even before that, smaller yet landmark victories might be won, pushing the average human life expectancy to, say, 250 years. It seems very improbable, however, that anything like this will happen in my lifetime. Death itself is an absurdly complex problem; all sorts of slowdowns set by bureaucrats and retrogrades, including those within academia, don’t make the situation any better. Cryonics is a revolutionary project that must be praised and developed further; but I’ve assessed the evidence to the best of my ability, and I don’t believe that people cryopreserved with modern-day technology will ever be revived, no matter how much I want it to happen. No one is coming to the rescue; I can’t outsource my salvation.
When I was five, I promised my mother that someday I would “invent the anti-death pill”. People usually laugh at this little story, tenderly or condescendingly, as if I was telling them some hilarious joke. Could I ever fulfill my promise, if only I was truly intelligent and tried hard enough? It’s ironic that, despite being able to acknowledge the problem without flinching, I’m nowhere near smart enough to actually solve it. How do you do the impossible when you have no magical powers or plot armor? How do you remain instrumentally rational when your goal is literally unattainable?
There is nothing I can do. My grandfather is dead, and my newborn niece and nephew, his great-grandson and great-granddaughter, will only know him from stories, and photographs, and audio recordings. In the decades that are my remaining lifespan, I will watch others following him, and there is nothing I can do. I could pursue a career in STEM, or become a policy-maker promoting immortality, or donate half of my income to anti-aging research, or smash my head against the nearest wall. Even then I am not getting them back. My grandmother’s heart disease has been aggravated with her recent loss, and my other grandmother has Alzheimer's, so they will probably be next. Eventually, I will be dead as well, but not until I've lost everything I had. This is my punishment for not being smart enough, fair or not.
Therapy has never worked for me; therapists, after all, are only people, and they have crutches of their own. So either I will find a way out of this by myself or I will not. Perhaps my despair stems from ignorance or lack of mental discipline, and perhaps it is the correct way to feel in the face of inevitable and irreversible annihilation. With no irony whatsoever, if anyone knows how to act when you’re a second away from being eaten by a monster, I would greatly appreciate their advice. For now, if there is any conceivable way for me to Defeat Death (or even raise my chances from “totally hopeless” to “almost totally hopeless”), I don’t see it. I am no scientist and unlikely to ever become one, let alone a decent one. I used to think rather highly of myself, but that was probably a mistake. In the end, I am nothing but a soon-to-be law graduate in a country slowly decaying under a murderous dictator, and I have no power or wisdom. Maybe I don’t deserve to live forever after all.
Farewell, Grandpa. I wish I could say it all in a better way. I’m very tired.
My father died about thirty years ago, when I was a teenager. So now I am older than he ever was. It is a weird feeling.
I spent some time thinking about mortality. Things that people tell themselves, it's all bullshit, religious or otherwise. The only thing that makes some sense is that when the moment comes, you should try dying with some dignity -- not because it would make things any different for you (I see no reason to think that the last minute of your life is somehow more significant than any other minute of your life), but because otherwise you would unnecessarily increase the pain of people who loved you. But that's all.
This is my punishment for not being smart enough, fair or not.
That sounds like a good summary of my life, heh. (Including the reverse; there are some good things in my life as a reward for being sufficiently smart in given situation, and there is nothing fair about that either.)
Generally, spending more time with people seems like a good idea. Preferably if that is weighted by how much you love them, not just how convenient it is to meet them. When covid is over, I'll try to follow my own advice (but knowing myself, I wouldn't bet money on it).
Meta: even saying "I know how you feel, you are not alone" is bullshit on some level, because people say these words to appeal to an instinct of safety in numbers. But billions of people can die just like a lonely individual. That said, yeah, I probably know how you feel. It sucks.