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On Death, Grief And Skepticism

In May of last year, almost a year ago, my dear friend and former roommate Welby died. Cause of death was respiratory failure due to an overdose of heroin. He was 25.

I’ve often felt that one of the more common failings of those of us who value reason and rationality is a denial of our emotions. Our false and untenable aspiration towards Spockhood. We know that emotions can distort our perceptions and lead us into faulty lines of reasoning. That’s true. But where we often make the mistake is when we try to shed them or imagine ourselves as “above” emotions. They are an inextricable part of being human… one of the ways our brains work. You really can’t separate emotional processes from cognitive processes as a whole. Were the achievement of moving beyond our emotions and subjectivity even possible, the best we could accomplish is an impoverishment of our experience of our all too limited time in this world.

What commonly happens in those who fancy themselves above the influence of emotion is, rather than achieving a greater degree of rational objectivity, one becomes beholden to emotional influence instead. One doesn’t develop the necessary skills to recognize, understand and adapt to emotional changes, or even to perceive emotional influence when it is there. “I AM NOT OVERREACTING!!! I AM BEING RATIONAL!!! IT WAS COMPLETELY UNACCEPTABLE AND HORRENDOUS THAT YOU WOULD LOAD THE DISHWASHER AND FORGET TO HIT ‘START’!!!”

So in my efforts as a skeptic, as a person who values truths (as dark as they may be) over falsehoods (as comforting as they may be), I seek not to rid myself of my human fallibility and emotional subjectivity. I seek instead to understand it and learn to cope.

All those of us who have tried to rid ourselves of as many of the comforting falsehoods as we can face particular difficulty when it comes to dealing with death. We can’t tell ourselves that our loved ones are in a better place, or that we will see them again some day. They are gone. They aren’t there any more. They never will be again. And the rest of us simply need to carry on as best we can. This is unimaginably difficult… reconciling oneself with the absence of an afterlife, the fact that those who are gone really are gone and we really won’t ever see them again, that that longing for their company we feel in our hearts will never be resolved, is far more difficult than accepting there’s no creator. The one thing that still gives me those pangs of regret that I’m not still a believer is that; the knowledge that those I’ve lost are truly lost. And the only thing that keeps me hanging on to my resolve in atheism and skepticism in those moments of doubt, sadness and loss is how palpable a reminder that is of the danger of faith- the power of what we want to be true over what we know to be true.

But skepticism is not necessarily useless in the face of these losses, nor is it only a source of pain.

When Welby passed away, I was faced with a tremendous wave of unfamiliar and difficult emotions. Despite the dangerous life I’ve lived in society’s dodgy margins, I’ve been amazingly lucky in avoiding the worst that can come from such an existence.

My first experience with death was my nagy, my grandfather, Zoli, a psychiatrist who specialized, as it happens, with geriatric patients and the confrontation with mortality. But I was young then, when he died and hadn’t nearly the depth to grasp what it meant. I also, at the time, had my faith and the concept of heaven to lean on.

The second experience was my TA Rachel Corrie, who in late 2002 left for Gaza to do protest work on behalf of the Palestinian people. She never came back. In March 2003 she was run over by an Israeli bulldozer as she attempted to act as a human shield protecting a Palestinian home. She was standing upright, wearing an orange vest and speaking through a megaphone. The driver knew she was there, and drove forward anyway.

The subsequent media circus, with its intense surreality, completely distorted and compromised my ability to work through what it meant to lose a peer; a bright, shining, passionate young woman only a couple years my senior, with just as much of her future ahead of her as my own. All these years I’ve lived since, that she should have had too, are what marks the weight of that tragedy.

Since then, there wasn’t much… my grandma, but I didn’t know her very well. And the loss of an acquaintance to an overdose occurred in January 2011, shortly before Welby’s death, but he was nowhere near as close as Welby had been. Despite living my dodgy existence, I had been lucky in avoiding the worst that can come from such an existence. Welby was not so lucky.

There but for the grace of chance rest I?

Welby and I had been roommates and “partners in crime”. We began using together. We had the same hook-ups. We descended into addiction arm in track-scarred arm. We scored for one another. We shared rigs. We helped shoot one another up when we couldn’t find veins. We sabotaged each other’s efforts at sobriety. “I need to make it to Friday clean. If I can do that, I’ll be good” “Come on, man, who are you kidding? You know you can’t make it that far. Fuck it. Let’s go see Nova.”

There’s an intense bond that develops through that process. Something that I don’t think could really ever be articulated to someone who has never been in such a dark, mutually destructive pair-bonding. We were each other’s oblivion, and oblivion is exactly what we were seeking.

But it didn’t last. Though we began down that road together, we didn’t share it to the end. I eventually bolted and made an escape to England where I tried to get clean (and sank into alcoholism instead). He made an escape to Sioux Falls and attempted the same (with similar results). I moved to Vancouver, and relapsed. He headed to Portland, and relapsed. And there our paths became different.

In Vancouver I had access to our safe injection site, Insite, which kept me safe and healthy and ultimately offered me access to the services I required, such as methadone maintenance, to eventually get clean. He did not. He lived in the United States with its absolute prioritization of enforcement-based approaches to “the drug problem” over the science-based model of harm reduction. The United States, where the healthcare system is privatized and the social safety net is being steadily dismantled bit by bit, year by year… where nobody cares if a junkie dies, because hey, they’re just junkies, they made their choice.

I also had my way out. My demons were categorizable, addressable. I could give a name to them (“Gender Identity Disorder”) and find a solution. The pain Welby was trying to numb was abstract, had no name, and had no immediate solutions.

In short, I got lucky.

So there I was, alive, closing the e-mail that carried the news. My heart was beating. Blood cells rushing through my now healing veins. My lungs were breathing.The spring sunshine felt warm against my skin. And Welby was gone. We had begun down the same road, and ended at completely opposite destinations. Had I even ended at all? I was better, I was happy…honestly happier than I had ever been. I don’t think I ever even got the chance to tell him I was transitioning. And he was gone.

Making it worse was that I couldn’t say I deserved any better. It certainly wasn’t because I was stronger. It wasn’t because I’d made better choices. I wasn’t a better person. I had simply been dealt a better hand. Born in the right country. Living in the right city. Having the right tools and access to the right services. More easily resolved inner conflicts. Wounds that could heal.

And what comfort could I draw? What God could I turn to with whom to find consolation or absolution? How could I believe Welby was at rest, that his pain was gone? There was no more pain, sure. But there was no more Welby, either.

But the skepticism wasn’t cynicism. And I don’t scorn my emotions or shirk them. As said, I’ve sought to understand them. I knew what I was feeling and believed myself capable of working through it.

This was survivor’s guilt. This was grief. This was dealing with a foreign emotion, a foreign experience. It was difficult, yes, but it would pass. And while I had no false comforts, I was able to steer away from assigning false blame or engaging in magical thinking.

I knew that nothing that had happened was my responsibility. I knew that there was no real connection between my fate and his. While I was incapable of believing that I deserved to live, I also was incapable of believing that I didn’t. I could sidestep the tempting belief that my survival came at his expense. I had no fear of he or I being punished with damnation for our transgressions. I knew that I needn’t feel any guilt for my survival or the fact that I had overcome our illness.

And mostly I knew what my emotions were… that they were emotions, not reason. They were a rich and beautiful and important aspect of being human, of enjoying the time we do have, but they do not dictate the realities of a given situation. And they are transient. They move through us, and we through them, and when this is over they pass on. The experience remains with us, the grief, the loss… and in a sense binds to those aspects of an individual that stay with us. But we remain. We are alive. We move forward. We go on waking up, making our coffee, getting the paper, taking a shower, having my Frosted Flakes.

This is what life is. A series of transient experiences, a set of perspectives, some emotional responses. They pass, and we may enjoy them or be hurt by them while they’re here, and hopefully we allow ourselves to live them. We needn’t deny them and we needn’t feel they control us or our realities. They just are and then are gone. It’s what we have, and that’s enough.

Welby is gone. I’m alive. I miss him. I’ll remember him.

Goodbye.

Comments

  1. Anders says

    Goddammit woman! At least put up a trigger warning! Nearly made me cry. Why didn’t they get to him earlier? They could have saved him – negating a heroin overdose is not difficult. FUCK!

    Anyway. Never mind the trigger warning; I’d never heed it anyway.

    When I grieve, I turn to poetry. Since Sweden lies far to the north and was dirt poor for most of its history, there’s a lot of beautiful poems written about death. There’s Carl Michael Bellman’s Lullaby for my son Carl, aged 3, where he tells his son that anyone who lives today may be gone tomorrow. CMB knew this well – he had lost three children to cholera the year before. And there’s the bombastic Angel of Death, written by a priest who had survived the great epidemic of 1834 (I think) – cholera, again. And there’s Bo Setterlind’s I thought death was like that, where death is a friendly farmer who finds a frightened hare kid, lifts him up, comforts, puts him in his basket and continues on his journeys. Who knows where he’ll go?

    This is displacement activity, by the way.

    My favorite poem about death was written by Harriet Löwenhjelm the night before she died of tuberculosis. She was 30. I’m no poet, but I’ll try to translate it. And then I’ll go hug the cat. And it will be a little while before I let go. Please don’t laugh.

    Take me. – Hold me. – Softly touch me.
    Embrace me gently a short while.
    Cry a little – for these sad facts.
    Tenderly watch me sleep for a while.

    Do not leave me. – You want to stay,
    Stay until I have to go?
    Lay your beloved hand on my forehead
    For a few hours yet we are two.

    Tonight I die. – There’s a flickering light.
    A friend sits here and holds my hand.
    Tonight I die. – Who, who shall I ask,
    Where shall I go, to what land?
    Tonight I die. – And how shall I dare?

    Tomorrow there’s a pitiful
    And bitterly helpless poor body
    Carried out on it’s last journey
    To be swallowed by the earth.

    • Lucy says

      What a beautiful, sad post Natalie. Thank you for sharing a bit of your life, thoughts and feelings, and for saying it better than I could about dealing with death as a skeptic. Thank you for the poem too, Anders.

  2. Charlesbartley says

    My father in law died right after I separated from my (now ex) wife. I loved him as much as I have ever loved anyone. I still tear up about thinking about that time.

    Like you, all I could say is “Everett is gone. I loved him. I miss him, and I remember him.” it doesn’t seem enough.

    I have faced near suicide of my ex wife 6 times. All when I was a believer. Christianity didn’t add anything but a hope to that situation. But that hope broke down as we faced that over and over again and turned into a form of betrayal. If god loved her, and if she was hurting that badly and would go to heaven, why shouldn’t she kill herself? I will take the reality of your closing statement over a belief in falsehoods anyday. Facing the craziness of grief is a part of life. I feel that I owed him my grief. I think that religions cheapen and twist that grief by trying to doge it. There is no phrase I hate more than “they are in a better place now.” it would be great if it were true, but there is no good reason to believe that it is, which makes it evil.

    Modern western culture doesn’t do a good job about allowing or for dealing with strong emotions–especially grief.

    Grieve for your friend Welby, your other friend and for your grandfather. I will grieve for my father-in-law. Cry those tears and experience that raw shreading of emotion. I think that it is the only way that we can acknowledge the true beauty of life and of love. Hugs. I don’t comment on your blog often, but I really respect you.

  3. donnamccrimmon says

    When I started reading this post I thought it would be a ‘typical’ rest-in-peace post (even though death, for all its commonality, is never just a typical experience) and I almost skipped to the end to leave a comment on what you said about skeptics trying to be uberSpocks. I’ll get to that later, but first I have to say I… don’t regret reading the rest of the post, but for obvious reasons I won’t say I’m particularly glad that I did.

    I know you a little bit better now, warts and all, which, I guess, brings some understanding to your experience. Still, this was not pleasant to read and I don’t want to imagine what it was like to actually go through.

    I’m not going to give any platitudes. They all range from vapid to offensive. So I’ll move onto what I originally wanted to say, that I don’t know of any skeptic who believes rational thought requires a suppression of emotion. Maybe I’m reading the wrong blogs, listening to the wrong podcasts, but every skeptic I know feels just as much as non-skeptics. They all laugh, grieve, get happy or nervous or blah or whatever.

    As you said, it’s part of being human. I first heard this in relation to animation, but it comes from the theater: the best acting is reacting. Filling a role means you have to be part of the world created on the stage/set/cel/whatever. Being human means you’re part of the world, you interact with it and it affects you. You’re not separate from it, and I don’t know any skeptic who believes that.

    It makes me think of how people who understand/accept evolution have a better view of how humans fit into the Earth’s ecosystem then people who think that everything was just created and thus humans are apart/above it all.

    I think on one level they just want to avoid the truth and its implications. We’re not so grand as we think, we’re not so rational and in control of our emotions as we think. There are things beyond our control, and at times even we are beyond our control. The wise thing is just to recognize and accept it.

    • donnamccrimmon says

      You know, after this post and that ’100 Homophobes’ link it just makes it even sadder/weirder that the most upbeat part of my day is watching several episodes of a TV show about meth cookers (even if it wasn’t one of the greatest TV shows ever).

    • donnamccrimmon says

      Going to the Middle East to protest in Gaza? ‘Be careful’ was a reasonable thing to say. She had to know there was some danger, like someone going into an actual warzone.

        • carlie says

          I can see that. But you both knew that “be careful” means “I love you and I want to see you again”. That’s what it always means. And the implied or spoken response of “Ok, I will” means “I love you too”. There aren’t many better last words than that.

  4. triciabertram says

    Thank you for sharing so much of yourself. My only child ended his life almost 13 years ago after a long battle with depression and addiction. He was 26. It was his fourth attempt, he made sure this time by combining a cocktail of prescription medication with heroin.
    Just a few weeks before he died he said “mum I can’t live with it (heroin),and it appears I can’t live without it”. He was captivated and somehow comforted, by the myth of the Fisher King, and referred to his depression as his Fisher King wound. For him heroin initially eased his pain, but of course this doesn’t last and comes at a terrible cost.
    I live in Australia where we are battling to end the “war on drugs” mentality, and to have drug addiction accepted as an illness requiring treatment, not judgement, but we still have a long way to go.
    Almost 3 years ago my husband collapsed suddenly and died in my arms. I too believe that death is the end. I can’t comfort myself with some pretense that we will all be together again.
    You have articulated beautifully so much of what I feel and believe. I hope that whatever the future holds for you, writing will be a part of it. Your words have power and resonance, they bring real comfort, not false hope.
    Take care
    Tricia

    • says

      I’m so sorry to hear about your losses, but thank you so much for sharing. The fact that even people who’ve dealt with tragedies of that level are able to find comfort and strength without turning to falsehoods is an enormously powerful thing to hear, and suggests a lot of hope for human beings. Thank you.

  5. says

    My best friend died a few months ago of what was likely long-term complications of a coke habit she beat a year earlier. It pissed me off to hear her family and friends speculating she was probably on drugs again with the implied tut-tutting.

  6. Anders says

    You had a bunch of alcoholism as well? Does that mean that sending you recipees for Sonic Screwdrivers and stuff like juggling with fireworks in a dynamite factory?

    *hugs*

    • says

      No, I’m fine. My alcholism is completely totally beaten at this point. I am TOTALLY capable of drinking in moderation without any trouble, and without feeling any kind of pull towards relapse. I’m tempted to say that somehow, as theoretically impossible as it is, I’ve actually been cured of alcoholism.

      • donnamccrimmon says

        Thinking out loud here, making some REALLY BIG assumptions that I may be way off on, forgive me if I’m offensively wrong.

        I don’t know your past or your experience confronting/accepting your trans- identiy and actually transitioning, but the general trope is that GLBT teens and young adults go through a fair amount to a lot of depression and other mental health issues. The Religious Right like to tout statistics saying homosexuals are more likely to suffer depression or attempt/commit suicide. They do so with the fallacious idea that “being gay causes depression,” completely detached from outside influences like the bullying and other mistreatment gay teens suffer.

        So when I saw you say that you had a problem with alcoholism and heroin addiction, but now you’re better, my train of thought became “She’s comfortable with her transexualism now, and has beaten her demons. But when she was younger she had her addiction problems. Maybe when she was younger she had problems stemming from her GID and her addictions were manifestations of that.” So maybe your being cured of alcoholism comes from taking hold of your identity as a woman.

        Like I said, I could be completely wrong about this. (I’m hesitant to even post this, but my default mode has always been to hang back in the periphery, afraid to speak up, and I’m trying to overcome that in little ways. So here I am, speaking with something that may backfire on me.)

  7. Sandy says

    Thanks for this. I just lost a friend last week to a freak onset of e. coli during the night and she never woke up; she was 21. We hadn’t seen each other in about a year and a half, but it still stings. As much as it grieves me to know that she’s utterly dead (and at such a young age), I’ve been coping by remembering the good times we shared while she was a part of my life.

    I’m sorry for your loss, Natalie.

      • says

        Looks like it got started by someone with a political bone to pick and then got edited by a few people who didn’t like Uncyclopedia’s rule to be funny and not just stupid.

        • says

          More to the point, that is a human fucking being who I knew. It is not a political issue for me. It’s an interpersonal one, with a lot of significance, as I just finished explaining. Me: “One of my first experiences with death was…” This Idiot: “LULZ IMA TROLL U CUZ SHE HAPPENED TO DIE IN A MEDIA-VISIBLE WAY AND GOT MADE FUN OF BY OTHER IDIOTS LOLZY LULZ”

          • says

            I think filtering anything with an Encyclopedia Dramatica link for moderation would be reasonable. It’s mostly good for people who are empathy-free assholes, but too lazy to write their own troll material.

    • Anders says

      Wow. That’s unbelievably tasteless and insensitive. I very much hope someone pisses on your memories of a friend some day.

    • Anders says

      Found the quote I was looking for.

      “What’s the use of arguing about one single person? Thousands upon thousands are tormented in the same way. That is true. But each and everyone in this army of helpless suffering is still a human being.”

  8. Rilian says

    I’ve only read the first couple of paragraphs so far.

    People say like, if you’re deciding between two jobs, you shouldn’t decide emotionally, you should just take the one that is more money, or whatever. But that IS an emotional choice, because it’s your emotions that cause you to value money over other things. I don’t think there’s really any such thing as being pragmatic. People just have different values.

  9. Gordon says

    That was beautiful and moving. I have lots of thoughts on the topic that I’ll save for a more approriate time.

  10. Anders says

    There’s something I don’t understand. Actually, there are several things I don’t understand about this but we can begin with this one: Why would you sabotage each others’ efforts at sobriety? Was it because you felt heroin was a vital part of your friendship? Because you thought “If he can make it – what does say about me?”? Because ze was spurning the only lover that was always there for you?

    I have a feeling this answer is going to start with “It’s difficult if you haven’t been there”… :)

    • says

      From my friends who had coke problems: If you are doing drugs with someone, it helps you act like you’re fine. If someone who was doing them with you and about the same amount decides they need to clean up, then you need to clean up and to prove you don’t, you need them not to either. People can get these co-dependency things going on pretty strong.

    • Anders says

      Also, here’s another thing that struck me which is terribly off-topic. Shouldn’t you have two birthdays? One being Womb Liberation Day and the other some important milestone in your Rebirth? The decision to be true to yourself? Isn’t that important enough to be comemorated?

      And you can claim twice as many birthday presents! :D

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