Until yesterday, I’d been very lucky in that the only death that hit close to home was my grandmother’s while I was in college. Yesterday, I learned that a friend, Connor Gregory, died in a car wreck. Since learning that, I’ve been trying to figure out where I am on the spectrum of feelings, and thought that, you know, it doesn’t really matter. (I mean, it does, but, well, hold on and I’ll get to it.) The people who are hit hardest by this are going to have a hell of a time, something that I cannot imagine. And, to me, there is nothing you can say that wouldn’t cheapen whatever it is they’re going through. That’s the thing about not having gone through anything like this, you don’t have the emotional toolbox to be able to help someone through the process. The good news is, though, that Connor’s girlfriend, Faye, who was with him at the time, is going to be in very good hands. Mark and Nora, two extremely good people and even better friends, are going to be there for her, and that’s, as far as I can tell, the best thing that can happen right now.
When I’ve told people about this, they’ve asked if Connor was a good friend. Well, of course he was. Connor was an extremely warm and affable guy. One of the messed up rubrics I use to judge a friendship is how many arguments about nothing I can have with a person and still walk away thinking, “Yeah, he’s a good guy.” By that measure, Connor was a fantastic human being and a great friend. If you were to look at his Facebook profile today, you’d see it changed into a memorial wall, with people who he’s affected sharing memories. For my generation, I guess that’s the closest a lot of people will have to a memorial service or a wake for the departed. If nothing else, then, if you’re looking for this sort of thing, it’s an easy way to judge the effect someone had on people’s lives.
Earlier, I mentioned that the only death I’d experienced so far was my grandmother’s while I was in college. After she died, I felt like there was a bit of mercy in it. See, she was a very strong-willed person. She had to have been in order to be a raging left-winger in Smyrna, Tennessee, and remain there for decades both while my grandfather, an officer in the Air Force, was alive, and then afterward. But at the end of her life, she had suffered three strokes and was going through heavy dementia. There were days where she didn’t know her daughters, and that is not who Rose Montgomery was. In that sense, the death was leagues easier—for me, but not for my mother, of course, because holy shit there is nothing like the bond between a child and her mother—than seeing her in that state. So, I went almost ten years without experiencing death, and now am facing this.
Suddenness, as anyone knows, is a harder thing to face than a gradual decline, which allows you to come to terms with what’s coming. Suddenness brings with it shock, disbelief, and an almost subdermal feeling of rage. I didn’t know Connor well enough to get into any metaphysical or philosophical or dharma combat things with him, so I can’t say how he would have liked people to handle it. Thus, I’m left with how to handle the memory of a friend.
One of mainline Judaism’s (simplest) answer(s) is the yearning for the establishment of God’s kingdom on Earth, the appearance of Moshiach, and the true justice and paradise that that would bring. [See the Mourner’s Kaddish. This, of course, is extremely simple, and Judaism is a religion that puts a lot of weight on how to handle things like this, whether that’s sitting shiva or anything else.] However, I’m not a member of mainline Judaism, and haven’t been for a long time now. Christianity would—well, I’m not even going there, because I’m not a Christian, and Christianity is a wide potpourri of theological analyses of Biblical texts, just like Judaism, and I’m an outsider.
However, there’s an approach to death that I like, and it’s found in Zen. Zen emphasizes that we cannot actually make sense of reality, because as we try to do so, we are putting our own desires and interpretations and everything else on top of what is actually reality, thus not actually experiencing it. Buddha, Zen says, is a shit stick. Which means that, simultaneously, enlightenment is everything that is gross and filthy about the world, as well as the relief from the grossness and filth. (Apparently, monks used to wipe their tucheses with sticks.) Living enlightenment is fully feeling loss just as it is enjoying a good coffee or tea.
Further, a guy whose worldview I can really get behind, says that there is an element of all of us in the universe, because, he says, we’re all the universe experiencing itself. It’s not a New Age thing—even though it sounds like it is—and you don’t get that unless you’ve read some of the Patriarch’s writings and sat zazen for a while. But the point is that someone who’s dead is never truly dead. They’re not hovering around like a ghost in The Frighteners, either, but they’re never truly gone. You can’t put what that means into words, but after a while of meditating on it—but not thinking about it—you start to gain understanding of it. That, of course, doesn’t mean that it’s any easier to process.
If you pray, think, or send good vibes, do so for Connor’s family and Faye Norris.