This is a teen-written article from our friends at Youth Communication, a nonprofit organization that helps marginalized youth develop their full potential through reading and writing.
Regina Spektor sang, No one laughs at God in a hospital, no one laughs at God in a war… No one’s laughing at God when they’re saying their goodbyes.
It’s true, painfully so. I’m not really a believer -- at least, not in any one religion -- but there’s something about sitting at the funerals of people who were close to me that makes me want to kill God. Each time, it made me want to send God hate mail.
What the hell are you doing? You’re supposed to help people, not kill them! The majority of the Earth’s population must believe in you for a reason -- but if you can’t save people’s lives, then what’s the point of believing?
In my head, I’d yell these things. Though I didn’t really believe in God, I didn’t fully not believe in God either, and the idea of God gave me something, someone, to get mad at. It wasn’t my godmother’s fault she’d gotten cancer, for example, and I couldn’t even really blame her doctors for not being able to cure it -- but I needed someone to be responsible. I was furious at that someone.
But then all the anger would drain away like a receding tide, because of the thought that crept into my head every time I stared at the polished dark wood of the coffin: the thought that this will happen to me some day.
What will happen to me when I die?
My parents never shielded me from death. The first time I encountered it was when my grandfather died. I was five, and my parents did their best to explain what it meant. Later came the deaths of my best friend’s father, my uncle, my grandmother, my mom’s best friend. By the time I was 13, six people close to me had died, which was many more deaths than most of my friends had experienced.
None of the people who died were in my immediate family, so there was a degree of separation between me and each death. But I visited most of these people when they were terminally ill -- all of them except my grandfather died of cancer -- and I went to their funerals. All of it made life seem less concrete, like one of those dandelions children make wishes on -- just three puffs and the feathery, clinging seeds float away.
It made me feel powerless: I will die. There is nothing I can do to change that. But interestingly enough, that powerlessness gave me a sense of urgency: I couldn’t change that I was going to die, so I might as well get started on the things I wanted to do while I was alive.
Yet despite its finality, death has never yet seemed completely real to me. I still feel like the people I’ve known who are dead are just on vacation somewhere, that they’ll be coming home any time now. If they were really gone, I’d be able to sense it, wouldn’t I? They all had such a feel about them, such presence, that you should be able to tell something important has disappeared. They should leave an empty grandmother- or godmother-shaped space behind, an emptiness that never heals and that you can’t fill with anything.
Instead, I don’t always remember that they’re gone. I still feel that strong sense of personality and presence. If they were really gone, the world should stop, or the sun should explode, or some other catastrophic thing should happen. A human life is so important to the person who’s living it and to those who love that person that it doesn’t seem possible that it could just stop, suddenly and completely, while the world goes on like nothing has happened.
Some might say that they’re actually not gone -- that they’re in an afterlife, so we’ll see them again. I don’t know if that’s true, but I sort of hope it is. I hope that they still exist, just not here and now.
Then again, it might just be that I’m human, and the human mind can’t -- or fiercely doesn’t want to -- conceive of the idea of non-existence, and so we create the concept of afterlives to comfort ourselves. We’re afraid to imagine that when the people who know us die, and the people they know die, eventually our connection to the living world will disappear. We will be forgotten.
That’s what scares me the most, certainly more than public speaking (which is said to be Americans’ number-one fear), and even more than death: being forgotten; being here and then not being here, and having no one remember; leaving only a few simple footprints that will soon be washed away with the tide.
What’s the point? If I’m going to die -- and then be forgotten, not making any real difference in the world -- what’s the point?
This is one of the darker questions, the ones that haunt me late at night when I’m too tired to sleep. I don’t know when it first occurred to me; I was five when I first encountered death, and I doubt I was pondering philosophical questions by the illumination of my Chinese-character nightlight. But over time the thought came to me, as if it had always been lurking at the back of my mind. Maybe that’s why I push myself so much. If I can achieve something, if I’m successful, I won’t have to ask “What’s the point?” because I’ll have made a difference, and I won’t be forgotten.
Reprinted with permission from Youth Communication.