The Beauty of Death and a Dogwood Tree

My beautiful picture
Me, my grandfather Finn, and my older brother Matthew

A long time ago, I read Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho, a brilliant read about a girl who tries to commit suicide and fails. She is then sent to a mental hospital, and there in her own freedom, she learns how to appreciate life. It struck me because it had never occurred to me to think about those who had failed at the task, and what that might feel like, yet I found myself empathizing with this girl who was trying to do what we all are trying to do, and that is to navigate our journey. Paulo gives us a rare opportunity to try to understand Veronika, who thrives by failing at her suicide, which is the ultimate example of how failure makes us who we are. At times during the read, my stomach would get sick because I found myself jealous of her, to have that kind of opportunity to learn from such an enormous failure, and at the same, gaining an acute understanding of how to be a survivor of death.

I’ve been thinking about death more often, and not in the scary-Veronika-I-want-to-take-myself-out-way, but more of a ponder. New territory, death has surrounded me more and more lately and I suppose that is what comes with age, but I question how we behave with one another from the lens of dealing with death, and how we learn from the experience. So far, I’m more struck by the suffering and resiliency of the survivors than the deaths themselves. Do we all wonder about what kind of survivor we will become?

My beautiful picture
My grandmother Hilger

Our lives are permeated by death chapters, and similar to the essential of experiencing failure to grow into who you are, like that raw and intense example of Veronika, death is a part of our personal growth. I see beauty in that vulnerability, and yet, at 45, I don’t know what kind of survivor I’ll be. While part of me feels grateful, another part of me feels like I should already know the answer. Survivors of death, whether it’s from their own hand, a disease, or from someone’s death, can result in a strength, unparalleled to other life experiences that I don’t yet have. More of my closest friends are living without their fathers than with them, most of which lost their fathers too soon. One has survived cancer, while also being a survivor of both her dad and brother. In some aspects, I’m just a baby in understanding that part of life.

I remember when my mom told me that divorce was just like death, and how I didn’t get what she meant until I had gone through my own. Next to that one, I’d be lying if I said that having to put one of my cats down wasn’t one of the more traumatic death chapters of my life. I even have a 107 year old aunt who refuses to die; we are beginning to believe that she thinks she is invincible. The only memory I have of my grandfather is sitting on his lap when I was a kid, and honestly, that memory might come from a picture; it’s a shame we can’t remember our early years. I hadn’t spent much quality time with my aunt lately, who recently passed from brain cancer, but I can describe specific conversations where her joy of life touched me. The same is true for my Auntie Ruth, who lived a vivacious life until the very end. I’ve lost both of my grandmothers and sometimes, I can still smell them or hear them and I swear one of my grandmothers is still watching over me. Recently, I attended my cousin’s memorial service, where we planted a tree in memory of him. Standing over the hole in the ground, I remember smiling inside, thinking of all the memories we had together as kids. Simple things really, like when we had sleeping bag slip and slide down the stairs in my house or that time we tried to be Mary Poppins off of his deck. As much as loyalty and consistency means to me, people can also touch our lives in very simplistic ways, without even knowing it. Even though he died unexpectedly, my heart hurts more for my uncle, who is now having to deal with having lost both a child and his wife back to back.

The most profound chapters I’ve had with death aren’t even related to me. I’ve now been to three memorial services resulting from suicide, two of which were my students, and they always bring me back to Veronica in the book. What if they hadn’t succeeded? Still, it makes me wonder if you really ever know anyone. This weekend, I’ll be attending another student’s memorial service, this time from a tragedy.

Based on a terrible movie called Stealing Home, I’ve always had this romantic notion about what I would do with my ashes and my cousin’s service nourished it, but the other day, I was watching Larry King interview Neil deGrasse Tyson, the famous astrophysicist, and he talks about why he doesn’t fear death. His argument for not wanting to live forever is that he believes we would lack motivation for our purpose, if we knew that we had forever to accomplish it. He also talked about why he believes being buried is what should happen after death because your body gives back to the earth from which your from whereas if you choose to be cremated, it’s blown out into space, and forever lost. After watching that, my cousin’s tree meant more to me and I’ll never look at a cemetery the same way again. There is beauty in that too.

My cousin Chukk’s Dogwood Tree with our offerings and memories dangling from the branches
My grandmother Finn and Auntie Ruth living it up


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