I think about the day a person dies, how the morning is just a morning, a meal is just a meal, a song is just a song. It’s not the last morning, or the last meal, or the last song. It’s all very ordinary, and then it’s all very over.
The space between life and death is a moment.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs, ‘Yahrzeit‘
The internet is curled in on itself with grief, again. Someone loved and admired and puzzled over and copied and with a place in so many hearts through songs we sing in the car and lost times in our own lives, our own gone selves, that someone has gone and died. In a last blurry photograph of an out of the way moment, there he is right in the act of being ordinary, walking back to his car outside the pharmacy. What does he know? Does he know that it’s today?
The best piece I read was Tressie McMillan Cottom getting right to the core of why this death holds our attention, and how even someone beyond the circle of our own kin and people, can still rip into skin.
We took the road most traveled and there are no detours for the foreseeable future. That kind of genius died today and with it went my faith.
Celebrity death fills the space after loss with wild-eyed explanations and suggestions, as one thing gives way to another. The scene of death is explained again and again, events gather together and take on significance. The day that could have begun and ended like every other, ended differently.
And look, there they are, big pharma’s gleaming fishhooks. Percocet. Oxycodone.
Stephanie Wittels Sachs writes about the anniversary of her brother’s death, and the Jewish tradition of lighting a Yahrzeit candle on the memorial day at the end of a year of mourning, that burns for 24 hours. Two months later, and it’s his birthday. In a beautiful essay on the struggle to sustain empathy among strangers online, she tells this story:
My brother’s 32nd birthday is today. It’s an especially emotional day for his family because he’s not alive for it. He died of a heroin overdose last February.
This year is even harder than the last. I started weeping at midnight and eventually cried myself to sleep. Today’s symptoms include explosions of sporadic sobbing and an insurmountable feeling of emptiness. My mom posted a gut-wrenching comment on my brother’s Facebook page about the unfairness of it all. Her baby should be here, not gone. “Where is the God that is making us all so sad?” she asked.
In response, someone — a stranger/(I assume) another human being — commented with one word: “Junkie.”
Hard as it is to imagine from here, her essay becomes a powerful defence of empathy as the recuperation of our capacity to care for strangers, even those we feel most secure in shaming.
In his writing on generosity, Arthur Frank calls on Levinas for the concept of alterity, as something fundamental to being human. We are not other because of location or opportunity or type, or because of any of the big markers of diversity (however important these are for other reasons) or any of the particular things we have gone on to do. Alterity—being other—is the condition of being a person in the first place.
For Frank, this is a useful way of approaching the symbolic violence of medical diagnosis and treatment, that tries to discipline alterity, to bundle it into thinkable categories. All the institutions we work in depend on this kind of classificatory busywork: tagging, sorting and ranking of humans like it’s a good thing that we can do this. We add a little science and call it analytics, but what we’re doing here is profoundly social and shot through with tiny fears: we’re trying to sort out the confronting alterity of the human crowd into patterns we can tolerate, so we know who to join up with, who to work on, who to exclude.
In Frank’s reading of Levinas, this poses an uncomfortable question about empathy. When we look at what someone else is going through and mistake our empathic reaction for their suffering, we blanket their experience with our own. Empathy places alterity under strain.
Empathy tends towards unification: either my projecting what would make me feel better onto you, or my fusing with your suffering. … Seeing the face requires alterity. I must recognise that there are aspects of your suffering that I can never imagine and I can never touch.
Restraint: it’s a tough standard for times of social grieving, when it feels as though we’re all keening and wailing through our common loss of faith. But maybe getting straight with this loss of faith might be a way that we can build something new together.
It’s been a year. Many of us stayed awake all night, keeping candles in our windows and our thoughts, while the rusted machinery of state killing—that has no place at all in this world, none—cranked into action and flung itself on the bodies of people who were already as subjugated to the forces of the world opiate market as anyone else.
When Myuran Sukumaran died, Australia lost a courageous, graceful and visionary thinker, someone who was actively making a better world.
I can’t imagine his mother’s loss. It’s beyond anything I could claim to touch.
All this was meant to be gone long ago,
votive lamps, lighting candles,
bowing towards some holy centre of the earth,
yet sometimes we have to
gather up the four corners of our lives,
like the corners of a tablecloth,
to shake out the crumbs;
sometimes we need light
for a journey,
sometimes we even need to bow.
Moya Cannon, ‘Midday at Stockholm Airport’
I’m not a person of faith in any religious sense, not at all, but reading this beautiful poem I wonder if maybe mortality itself can stand in for faith at times like this. It gives us a sense of scale, after all, and a reason to stay awake.
In the middle of chemo I had some problems with my care that upset me. Making an appointment with the oncologist who replaced the first one my daughter came along to help me speak but got my feelings wrong. When asked of the new oncologist had she read my record that sat in her lap, she stroked it gently to indicate she knew it all and I realized I wasn’t there. Later by phone the replacement nurse called the phone number in my record to ask if I was still happy. I think the call was for me.
This is a story that hits me hard as a patient, and all patients I think will recognise that “I realised I wasn’t there” can come from being spoken for, spoken over, by anyone including those who love us. That stroking of the records, that sense of knowing it all — yes, this is how diagnostics sets it up. Thank you Scott, your presence here is really appreciated.
This is a breathtakingly beautiful post.
“When we look at what someone else is going through and mistake our empathic reaction for their suffering, we blanket their experience with our own”
Such beauty, Kate. Thank you
Maha, you were on my mind tonight as I attended a memorial service for Myuran. Your recent writing on introducing faith to your daughter has really stayed with me. I am rarely in church as I was tonight, and I had my daughter with me, thinking again about mortality as a compass to faith. I don’t believe in a deity of any kind, but I do believe in grace, it turns out. Thank you for this comment.