One of my friends recently felt the impact of the death of his grandfather and was feeling the natural human grief that follows from losing someone he cared about. When we are confronted with real suffering, this is the type of moment that puts our contemplation and insights to the test. Our realizations about life and death are useless if they cannot help suffering beings or enrich their lives in meaningful ways. Moreover, we are responsible for what we realize; insights should not be miserly kept back from the rest of humanity.
I thus sent my friend the following message, which shared some of the insights that comforted me in the wake of the passing of many of my own loved ones. Words are clumsy and cannot fully speak to the depths of feeling within the human heart, but this was my best attempt from what I have learned.
“My condolences, my friend… I know your family must be grieving right now and I feel with you. I have done a lot of contemplating of death in the last few years and have realized some things that have comforted me and others in the wake of the deaths of people I cared about. Perhaps some of these insights might resonate with you as well.
I realized that the common view of death as annihilation is false; matter cannot be created or destroyed, and therefore, death is not annihilation into nothing, but transformation into something else. All of the chemical elements, water, etc. that made up the person we loved return to the environment at their death and the person we loved is now present in the clouds and the trees and the atmosphere and the rivers of the world. You are never distant from them, though they have died… everything that made them up is still here, just present in new and other beautiful forms.
Moreover, those we feel we have lost live on in our memories about them. They continue to be present in our inner lives as we remember the things they used to do and say and their pespectives shape our lives.
Finally, they continue to act on the physical universe through the chains of causation that flow from the actions they chose while they were alive. Though they have died, their actions had consequences, which produced still other consequences and still continue to do so. They continue to make their mark, though we feel they have left us.”