Why Your Brain Cannot Truly Accept
that Your Other Loved Ones Can Also Die
Bob Baugher, Ph.D.
You have experienced the death of a loved one: a parent, sibling, child, spouse, relative, or friend. As a result, you have been experiencing a number of grief reactions such as shock, denial, confusion, yearning, anger, sadness, anxiety, guilt. You miss this person and wonder if you’ll ever feel better. Or, it’s been a while and you have gotten better. Whether you are still in the midst of grief or are feeling better, the question that arises from the title of this article is:
Given that your brain has already experienced a tragic death, wouldn’t you think that you have reached a point where you can now actually “get” that any or all of your other loved ones could also die? And die today?
Your answer to this question might go something like this: “Yes, I can imagine my loved ones dying; and I even have considered my loved ones dead. However, I really don’t like to think about it.” I don’t want to argue with you about how often you’ve had these thoughts. I do want to take you through why I believe that you and I really cannot “get” I mean really, really GET that our loved ones, while alive at this moment, could truly die today.
Let’s look at a few factors that make it difficult to imagine our loved one dead. Many of these factors overlap:
How our brain works. Complex as our brain is, one way to understand how it works is to break it down into two major functions: (a) To reduce pain and (b) To make sense of the world around it. To immerse ourself into the absolute belief that our loved one could die today is much too painful for the average brain. It makes sense that denial is much easier on the brain.
Death tricks us. Here is the problem when someone boldly takes the challenge to believe “My loved one could die tomorrow.” The person then vows, “I better do more to appreciate her and treat her right today.” The fact is: tomorrow comes and she’s still alive. And, then, another tomorrow arrives followed by another. After a time, our brain concludes that since she’s lived thousands of “day after days,” she’ll likely be alive tomorrow. And she is—that is—until one day she isn’t.
The finality of never seeing the person again. This is similar to the two previous reasons. No matter how hard we try, even if we experience a prolonged period of time of separation from our loved one, we simply cannot truly imagine a day when this person will never again walk back into our life.
End point. At the moment of death, we have a marker that punctuates the end of the person’s existence. Not one additional experience can be added to the person’s life. That day becomes the forever moment that our loved one’s life is over. Final. Done. The end. However, when our loved one is alive, there is never a final end point. There is always another gathering—until that one last day that we then look back on when this person has died.
After-Death Rituals. When a death takes place, it is followed by events that force us begin to understand that this terrible event has taken place: seeing the body, attending the funeral, seeing the cremated remains, going to the cemetery, participating in a ritual, or observing the scattering of the cremated remains. These one-time events create a reality that cannot be undone. These events are seared into our memory forcing us to confront the harsh reality of a life having ended.
There they are, factors that prevent any deep understanding that our loved ones could die today. When that fateful day does arrive, it often matters little how much “practice” we’ve had in imagining our loved one dead. When a loved one is going to die as the result of a prolonged illness, we “know” at some level the person will die. However, it matters little how much grieving we’ve done ahead of time: when the death does finally take place, we are still left with more grieving to do.
One question that arises in this matter is: Why even attempt to imagine a loved one dead? You know the answer: Picturing our loved one dead can add to the appreciation and gratitude that we have for them being in our life at this very moment. Imagining our loved one dead is a harsh reminder to not waste time. It can motivate us to say things and do things with this person once we begin to realize that we could actually lose them today—not tomorrow, but today. Of course I’m not suggesting that you put down this article and run up to your loved one saying, “A few minutes ago I thought of you dead and here’s what I want to tell you.” It is true, however, that in some cases, broken relationships have been healed when one or both parties really “get” that life is too short. Unfortunately, this is all too rare. Many people stubbornly cling to their anger, resentment, and bitterness only later regretting their decision when it was too late.
Unfortunately, you and I know that we are likely to get up tomorrow and continue to presume these precious people will still be alive. Our job, I believe, is to find little ways to increase our awareness of the death of our loved ones. I think you’ll agree with me that it can make us a little more grateful for what we have. And, isn’t that what life is about?