“Live as if you were living a second time, and as though you had acted
wrongly the first time.” -Viktor Frankl, author, neurologist,
psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor (1905-1997)
Attending to the dying gives one a glimpse into the great retrospective of a life. As time winds down for my father-in-law, his life unfolds before us in a long, slow parade: cards, phone calls, pictures, visits from friends and loved ones, fond reminiscences all pass through his room to remind us how much he has accomplished in his 79 years, how many people he has touched.
Those of us attending to him find ourselves privately taking stock of our own lives and wondering at the process of our own eventual deaths. It is in our basic human make-up to have some form of empathy, especially as it relates to the suffering of others. But it is also basic human nature to study how we are different from the suffering ones–how that suffering could never be ours, how we will be immune to that particular fate.
Some, although horrified by the earthquake and tsunami images, take comfort in knowing they are not near a coastline or a faultline and so will not meet that sort of terrifying end. When my own father died from the effects of years of alcoholism, even as I grieved, I reassured myself that my death at least would not echo his. Why are we compelled to think this way? Is it the brain’s own form of self-preservation? Is it a mechanism whereby we are able to manage our daily functions despite the myriad hazards that could at any moment randomly consume us? It seems cruel, on some level, to have such “at least I am safe” thoughts, but as biological creatures perhaps that is the best we are capable of instinctively. As sentient, spiritual beings, though, perhaps we can manage better. Perhaps we can find in ourselves some form of compassion, some grateful acceptance, some version of There, but for the grace of God, go I.