“You attract what you think” was a warning I heard often.
“Shhh. God forbid” in attempts to quiet the questioning.
Growing up in a superstitious community meant it was difficult not to turn into one. Even today, as I write this down, I pinch my right index with my nail, and I hold my breath a little longer than usual. As a child, I learned very early on that some questions we don’t ask, and some things we just don’t talk about. Some things are left unspoken in fear of what misfortune they would bring. Some things are just too dark, too heavy, and too scary—bad things like illnesses and hospitals and death and dying.
As a kid, I also learnt that death can destroy the living, that it can take away more than a person and that it translates into one thing only: pain. The scary kind of pain that takes away the adult in the adults from whom we sought safety. You witness it sometimes -albeit not that often- like an avalanche that resonates only as pictures that carry with you for a very long time; crowds of the familiar and unfamiliar uniformly dressed in black, tear stains that waver on frozen faces, occasionally broken by sudden collapses or loud shrieks, a silent brokenness that carries for months and years after and a shade of darkness that tenses the air you breathe.
You grow up in fear. Fear of sadness and fear of its aftermath. Fear of getting a phone call and fear of not getting a phone call. Fear of getting stuck in the middle of the avalanche. And you don’t understand. But it is not the kind of something anyone understands anyway, so you don’t even resist the silence. There are no answers, so you keep quiet.
But then one day you’re a doctor and one day you are expected to suddenly undo that; talk about death like you know what it is you’re saying, tell your patients they are dying and apologize for the lack of answers as you practice a brave face in the face of their—your—calamity. One day you are in the middle of a pandemic and death haunts you every day in numbers and graphics that know no age or color. It gets closer the longer it hovers, taking away the familiar, like the colleague or the friend of a friend. You still don’t understand, but you pretend you do. You begin to panic as your feed crowds with condolences on a daily basis. Your own offering of comfort becomes a habit that stings with apathy. All the while, your fear escalates to an almost unnatural level that starts to wake you up at night.
Locked in my panic, it did not take me long to realize I was stuck between two choices: I could either let the fear take over, or I could—cliche as it sounds—face it. And I choose the latter.
So I would like to change the way we talk about death and dying, and in order to do so, we need to change the way we think about death and dying.
I don’t know what is right or wrong. No one knows about death more than their own version of the pain that tracks along, but I know that when science doesn’t have the answers, we can choose what to believe. And I would like to believe that death isn’t as dark and twisted as we may have been led to think. I would like to believe that death does not necessarily equate to loss, because loss is a toxic emotion and a person you love can never ally with that. I believe that the person you love is never lost, no matter how far they go. I choose to believe that death perhaps comes with a bit of magic, perhaps a second chance at a better life that is devoid of cruelty and pain. I would like to believe that the way we commemorate them will keep them alive, like in shades of yellow or white instead of the black that lingers in clouds, or by reiterating their favorite stories and laughing at their jokes as you’re sneaking a peak up there. I know, I know that the pain is inevitable, but I believe we live forever and I believe that they can still hear us and laugh at us, and recognizing this doesn’t always have to come with tears.
Maybe it makes me crazy, but I have always believed that the stronger you believe in something, the more likely it is to be true. I mean, ‘you attract what you think’ can mean anything. So I realized that the fear roots from a false pretense that death and dying is the endgame, and I believe that if we break the stigma, if we catastrophize a little less and if we begin to normalize death and dying, then maybe it is not.
There is a verse in the Quran that is often used to offer condolences: “to him we belong and to him we shall return.” And I would like to focus on the last word: Return. Because I find comfort in knowing that perhaps we do return somewhere better, somewhere less dark than earth, quieter than an avalanche, and safer even than the womb that sheltered you. And I would like to think that this is not as scary as we think and that sometimes, it is okay to talk about it with or without pinching our fingers.