I think that when you are a child, you are in a suspended state of blissful ignorance. Naïve in every sense of the word, deep down in every corner of your being. This is why we protect children, we shield them; they are pure and beautiful because they do not yet know any ugliness or evil in the world. But when you’re a teenager, as you become more aware, you drift into a state of invincibility. The distinct mentality that permeates adolescence to its very core. You are learning about the world, about reality; crime, violence, poverty, death, alienation, and you understand it and know that it is there. And yet you don’t think it applies to you. You become idealistic and to a degree you retain the egocentricity of your youth. Not yet knowing you won’t always have a protector, not understanding that to the world at large you are a blip; you are not that special.
But then it becomes a grey area, a spectrum. Looming in the periphery is the inevitable point in your life at which you begin to appreciate your mortality – the utter fragility of your world and existence. Eventually, then, things start to fall apart. This happens to some earlier, or later, than to others. There is no age at which boom, pow, you suddenly get it. Losing a parent is one of those things that, as a teenager you know is a reality but your mind fails to really grasp, its true imminence. You could very well last until you yourself are a parent before you have to grieve the loss of your own, and it is easy to assume that is the norm and will be the case for you. “It’s basically an eternity away,” you’ll deal with it then. And so the denial of reality is always there; we pretend this fate is not the case, not for us at least… We are still special, we can matter, we are not temporary.
For those who lose a loved one earlier, experience any great mind-bending tragedy for that matter, however, they experience a piercing of the protective invincibility layer. Like a pebble to a windshield, the crack starts small and with each life experience it spreads. Your optimism turns into pragmatism. Your pragmatism can turn into pessimism. Yes, some can go decades without ever shattering their invincibility. But no one gets out of life unscathed, wholly unshattered. It is only a matter of time. You lose people you love, you suffer, you have bad luck or pure misfortune, or both or all of the above; no one escapes this aspect of life. Not even you, even in spite of our thorough denial. So eventually we are all on the same page, dealing with our mortality, dealing with our impermanence. Some when they are old, some when they are young. Some experience the loss of a child, some the loss of a spouse, some the loss of a sibling, or cousin, or aunt, or uncle, or best friend; many will experience the loss of friends, and most the loss of parents and grandparents.
So, while some are still living in optimism, in that (relatively) blissful ignorance – there are others living the transition. There are those fighting to understand what that means, or are already on the other side of it. And they are in that right here, right now. And for those it can be hard to watch those around them continue to pretend that nothing is wrong, that there is nothing of concern with all of our shared and fatal fates. This is the existential side of grieving, or really of living. Your mind has shifted in a way that changes your thinking; it changes the questions you ask yourself. You might no longer be consumed by the day-to-day things and your important to-do lists, or you immerse yourself in them as a distraction. But you are no longer truly just living in the now, because the future looms over you, it has shaped you. The old adage, “carpe diem” asphyxiates you. “What if there is no tomorrow? How can I just assume there is a tomorrow? How does everyone just assume this? What really matters to me? What is the purpose of my life? Aren’t we all running out of time?” It’s this pessimism that stunts us, that can drown our ambition and compassion.
To those not yet in, or post, transition this concept is met with harsh skepticism. “Why does it matter, why would you choose to think about those things? It’s completely pointless to think about that stuff.” And to those I can only respond that you most likely haven’t experienced the shatter yet. I know many people, great people, people that I love, that do not understand this aspect of life. I would not blame them if they looked at me with disdain for concerning myself with these thoughts. However, when I look around at these people I see their optimism; their genuine fixation with all things here and now, I envy not having an existential care in the world. It makes me nostalgic for the time that I also did not understand. I want to hug them, and I want to love them, and I want to shield them from ever being shattered. If I could absorb the shatter for them, even if it was the crack that did me in, I would not hesitate. Because there is nothing more admirable than the pure and continued idealism of youth – than this stubborn, untainted, and unadulterated optimism.
But it also makes me feel grateful, in a sense, that I’m on the other side of it. It’s one of those things that you just can’t un-see; you can’t eradicate the experience, the shift. And I wouldn’t even if I could because it shaped me, it helped me grow, it has a part in who I am. It is a natural part of life. Everyone deals with loss and grief differently, but everyone does inevitably deal with loss and grief. Some may well never concern themselves with the “big questions” even after experiencing the death of someone close to them. But death also has a way of shining perspective on your life; it shows you your impermanence, and what’s more – the importance of your time. “Live each day as if it were your last, because someday it will be,” is the reality, no longer inspirational wishful thinking. It is no longer in the shadowy distance of denial, something you will deal with in the future. It is about living in today because you genuinely appreciate the luck, and fortune, of you still being here – of having made it this far. Instead of being immersed in pessimism, you can come out an optimist, and a terribly strong one at that. Don’t get too caught up in the little things, it says. Every time you catch yourself smiling is a victory and every time you can make someone else smile it is a blessing. Maybe you can call it reality, maybe you can call it adulthood, maybe you can just call it whatever you want to call it. But when you are there, you are in it, and you know that it is truly special. Because you are just a blip; because you are temporary.