Reincarnation

14Dec09

Tonight, I have been reading stories of people caring for their loved ones when they passed away.  This is a grim topic, I know, but bear with me.

Death is somewhat new to me.  No one close to me died in my childhood.  It wasn’t until just a few years ago that I had to cope with death.  First, my aunt’s breast cancer metastasized.  The family knew it was terminal months ahead of time and was able to spend time with her up until her last moments. However, I was not in the country at the time, and was not able to see her.  Nevertheless, I was in frequent contact with my mother.  I spent quite a bit of time with her listening as she talked about feelings of her sister dying.  Myself, I was certainly affected, but it was still at a distance.  My aunt was in my thoughts and the experience caused me reflect on death and dying.  But at the same time, I was very disconnected from what was going on.

That year, I went back to visit my family.  I saw my flute teacher who was a big influence during my childhood.  She had had a recent bout with an illness that nearly killed her.  When I saw her, I was happy to see that she was on the path to recovery.  Though I realized while spending time with her that the experience had still been traumatizing and the recovery was not easy for her.  Not a year later, I got news that she had passed away.  I felt sad that I still had not sent her the card I picked out for New Years.  I was back overseas during that time, and once again, I felt disconnected from the what had happened.

Then that summer, I got a phone call early in the morning from my brother.  My brother was not one to mess up the time zone difference and I knew something was not right.  The first question out of my mouth was, “Is there something wrong?”  There was, my grandma had passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. I was completely shocked by the news.  My grandma was like a second mother to me while growing up.  I spent many of my childhood summers with her and was one of the first people I would call whenever I had something on my mind.  I had always assumed that she was going to be there for us for many more years.  At least, I thought that we would all have a moment to say goodbye first.  But instead she passed away quickly and alone at home.  I had no idea how to handle the news.  That morning I got up and got ready for the day like any other.  I didn’t know what else to do.  It felt like an out-of-body-experience, watching myself as I went through my routine.  My mind was disembodied.  On the train to school surrounded by strangers, I seemed to realize the significance of the news and broke down in tears.  I realized that I couldn’t go through the day as if everything was fine.  I started calling airline companies and booked a ticket back to my birthplace the next day.  (I should note how grateful I am for my girlfriends’ parents and teachers for being so understanding and helping me out during those days.)

When I arrived back to my hometown after nearly 24 hours of travel, my father was there to meet me at the airport. We drove straight to my grandma’s wake.  All the family members were there, and each hug was long, tight, and filled with tears.  I remember seeing my grandma’s casket and being scared to walk up to it.  I asked my brother to go with me and was relieved to see that she looked peaceful.  I whispered to brother, “It’s like she is sleeping.”  We stood there together in silence for a long time.  I stayed with my family for nearly two weeks afterwards.  The company of family—even with all our differences—was healing and I felt so thankful that I was able to there during that time.

So why am I reading these stories of people’s family dying tonight?  Well, perhaps it’s that period in my life where I need to think about this.  With BRCA on my mind so much these days, it also gets me thinking about the bigger picture.  When I was talking to my father about my mom’s breast cancer he asked me, “Are you scared of death?”  I can’t say how much that question  annoyed me.  First, the timing was really bad.  Second, I wanted to say “Yes, of course!”  I didn’t, because I didn’t want to hear my father trying to convince me that fear of death is a an unnecessary feeling according to his spiritual view of life and death.  Fear of death seems pretty normal to me.  I imagine that many people learn to let go of some of that fear as we gain experience in our life.  But I doubt that many (if any?) can say confidently they are not scared.

I am not a believer in gods of any faith.  I am a very scientifically-minded person.  I have long assumed that when we die, we lose consciousness and that is that.  I don’t believe in an afterlife or a soul.  I don’t see a higher purpose in our life.  I believe that what we know as our “self” is just the beautifully complex interaction of neurons in our brain.  When our brain stops functioning, so does our existence.  I admit, my view is not a particularly comforting one.  It may leave people wondering why we must go through life at all.  It may make people feel bitter at the injustice of the world and angry that some suffer unfairly while others never need to be responsible for their transgressions.  While I know that my view is not an optimistic view on life and death, I feel I must accept it as it is.

Perhaps its hard for some to understand my “scientific view of life.” It may help if I compare it to Buddhism.  I have read some Buddhist literature and, in my humble opinion, found that much of it fits well with this “scientific view of life”.   Thinking of te characteristics of Buddhism, some might ask how in the world reincarnation has a scientific basis?  Well, I can see it with regards to physics.  Reincarnation of our energy.  The energy of our physical body always remains in this world according to the laws of thermodynamics, and is merely transferred but never lost.

Tonight, reading these personal stories of loss, I became acutely aware of another aspect of reincarnation: our psyche (for lack of a better word).   The stories I read talked about people’s experience taking care of their loved ones in their final months, days, and hours.  It all started from a discussion of a person who is facing a terminal illness and wondering how to plan their own death.  Several people recalled stories of caring for their family member’s bodily needs, holding them, talking to them, and their feelings after the experience.   It made me realize how profound of an impact each one of our lives’ are on other people.   Even the briefest moments of interaction with another person can leave a life-long memory in another person.  A memory that they may share with countless others.  When I think of this “reincarnation” of humankind passing the memories of our loved ones on to the next generation, it awes me.  In our time here, we are all just sharing a part of single physical and psychological universe.

After my grandma has passed away, the grief stayed with me for some time.  I had many dreams of her, in which many where she had “returned” (in one, she convinced her death was just a joke to get me to go back and visit her).  I still get emtional thinking about her—no need to say I cried writing this very post.  But one of the greatest comforts for me has been talking to others who knew her about our memories.  In this way, I do feel she is still here with us.  And even when I am not thinking of her, I know her influence is still part of me and being shared with others every day

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