Today may be my most difficult post of the month. September 9th is my dear brother Greg’s birthday. Today he would have been fifty-six years old. But two years ago, he sadly and unexpectedly passed away.
Words can never transcribe with complete accuracy the feelings of those who grieve. The process differs for each of us. Within differing cultures, the entire grieving process as well as the interval of mourning is frequently based upon unique traditions. A few traditions, such as that of the Torajans described in detail in Kelly Swazey’s TED.com video , may even appear shocking or uncomfortable.
Grieving requires closure, and that closure comes through a variety of means. Some bury their dead underground. Some, above ground. Some have large bonfires or cremations. Some celebrate their lives in a loud party atmosphere, while others mourn quietly. It wasn’t so long ago that some families kept the deceased in open caskets in their homes and living rooms for a period of time after death. A few of you, as I do, may have old family photos showing this in practice.
But ultimately, what is death?
That’s certainly not a question I am qualified to answer. Theologians, scientists, philosophers have all attempted to elucidate the transition between life and not-life. As a child, despite being raised in a religious atmosphere, I imagined us as a great experiment being observed inside a massive Erlenmeyer flask by a giant society with a curiosity not at odds with our own. Philosopher Stephen Cave tries to address death in his TED.com video about general narratives told across cultures.
One thing that seems to be the common thread throughout all belief systems and non-belief systems is that death, and the subsequent process of grief, is an act of community. The community may be vast or as small as two people. For without community, there is no real grief. The grief is for the living. The grief is a means by which we build resilience and hope.
The specific details of my brother’s life, his deep passions, his imperfections (yes, we all have our own), his intensities, and the colossal generosity of his heart are all of lesser importance to those who did not know him. Everyone who has suffered losses carries with them their own meaningful memories of the people they loved.
Memories are the essence of what makes us human. Look at an old photograph of a person you do not know. What do you feel? What memories are conjured up by examining the image? We put our own experiences into how we navigate the world and feel emotion. Looking at that old photograph we may place a spark of someone else’s life, someone we do know, into the photo paper or tintype. We feel connected, like a community. Grief comes from this recognition.
Memory is a vital force within us. Perhaps it’s one of the most essential definitions of what makes us who we are. Within memory exists every experience we have had and will have. When we sense a particular smell, such burning wood, some people may be transported to a childhood camp or to a family vacation. All the associated memories of that time are then ignited. Others can be transported to another time by the smell of fresh cut lawn or by a breeze carrying the fragrance of magnolia blossoms or honeysuckle.
Grief is closely intertwined with our memories. We can be transported in the same ways to different aspects of a beloved one’s life through images, words on an old letter and card, or an item that reminds us that person. Recently, I was deleting my old cell phone messages only to find one from my brother that I had saved and forgotten. He was singing Happy Birthday. He never forgot a birthday, even when I was unavailable to take the call. Comparable to shooting stars we make wishes upon, these memory-filled moments bring our loved ones close. Like the magnolia blossom.
But something is still missing in my understanding of death and grieving. Our senses are simply the transport mechanism for our memories. Our memories are data points along a vast cerebral highway. My thoughts now bring me to possibility that what we were all taught about our five senses may be somewhat wrong or incomplete.
It is my theory that there is a sixth and far more powerful sense, through which all the other senses both operate and pale in comparison. This sense may be the command center for how we interact with all our senses. It may be as vital as memory itself, and as key to what makes us human.
This new sense…our HEART.
So Happy Birthday Greg, my beloved brother. From all my heart.
As you all go through your own day, please stop to hug your loved ones. Tell them how much they matter…to YOUR HEARTS.
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