Note: This was written in 2016, not today.
Many passages in Stoic texts mention losing loved ones, probably because that is an experience that we all go through at some point, and it is also something that many people have difficulty dealing with.
I had my Stoicism put to the test a few weeks ago when my father passed away. This wasn’t a particularly difficult death to deal with as he had been terminally ill for two years and so I had prepared for it in advance, just like it is advised in the various Stoic texts.
It also wasn’t a tragic death. My dad was quite old, 78, and he had lived a full life, perhaps too full. He died due to having vascular dementia, which is often a self-caused disease due to lifestyle choices, namely smoking cigarettes and drinking too much alcohol. So again, it wasn’t a tragedy in conventional terms.
This is not to say that I didn’t feel anything when I heard that he died, but I wouldn’t call it something as strong as grief. It was more of a feeling that something was missing, although living on the other side of the world, nothing had actually changed for me, with the exception of canceling everything and booking the first ticket back home.
One interesting question that his death brought up in my mind is what it means to die. I feel that my dad, Angelo Faja, died two times. His first death, the more important of the two, was the loss of his reasoning faculty and memory, which occurred around two and a half years ago. His second death occurred three days ago when his heart stopped beating and his lungs stopped distributing oxygen to the rest of his body. I feel that while this is the death that caused all the newspaper announcements, the social media outpour (my dad was quite well known in his community and profession), and triggered the funeral, it was actually the least important of the two. The man we all knew and loved – in spite of his flaws – had already disappeared. For all intent and purposes, he had died over two years ago when he couldn’t remember that I was his son, after he lost the ability to speak, and then quickly lost the ability to move.
So what does it mean to die?
My best guess is that it means to be removed from interacting in this world in a permanent manner. Obviously, this is ignoring the scientific definition of death, which itself is a little shaky. So is someone who has a terminal condition similar to my father’s, actually dead? Or is there always the glimmer of hope that a cure might be found? There are cases of people waking up from comas after years, sometimes even decades. But we have to remember that for each of these stories there are hundreds if not thousands of people who are hooked up to life support machines and will never recover.
The reason that they are kept alive artificially is that our moral development hasn’t kept up with our technological development.
Just because we can keep someone’s body alive lying in a bed for twenty years, doesn’t mean we should.
Epictetus makes the point that faculties can’t examine themselves. The art of literature will not tell if you should write something, and the study of music cannot tell you if it’s the right time to play.
And so, the study of medicine does not, and cannot, tell us if it’s the right thing to do to keep someone on life support for decades. The only thing that will help us analyze this is rationality itself.
And, I think, it’s quite clear to any rational person that we need to learn to be able to let go, and not keep ghosts of people we once knew and loved tucked away in hospitals.
Some countries, such as Switzerland, are on the right track with their Euthanasia laws.
To be clear, the issues I have are:
- Dying a good death. I think every human being has the right to die honorably, and also not to suffer. Many constitutions around the world have a clause regarding unusual punishment and torture, and I think keeping someone alive who has already gone past their time may well fall into the territory of cruel and unusual punishment. It’s better, for both the individual who is sick and all the people he or she knows, to let go and die the right way.
- Waste of resources. With the huge inequality in the world, perhaps the resources that go into keeping all these people alive could go to better causes. I’ll leave this point here, as I don’t feel I want to elaborate on it in this essay.
Turning to the point of seeing things for what they are, I also see my father’s death as a lesson. He chose to live in a certain manner, and he paid the price in the last decade of his life, at a time when some people are still active and contributing to the world. I’m sure he had his reasons, but have been able to see the end results, it really puts into question my own daily life, and I think it will definitely make me more aware of living a healthy life.
What I find strange in a way, is how we care a lot about some people’s death, and not at all about others.
After all, people die all the time, at about the rate of two every second, and that doesn’t seem to upset me.
So obviously, the reason I care is that he was a family member and someone I knew.
But again, looking at things for the way they actually are, whoever said that family members were immortal? And anyway, sons burying their fathers is the natural order of things, so I should be glad that it is that way in my case.
However, we must also realise *that anyone can die at any time. * Looking around at everyone in the funeral, I was reflecting on how all the people attending, including myself, will one day have our own funeral.
There is no correct age to live to, and nothing is written anywhere about life needing to be just or fair.
Life, and death, just are, just exist.
I am actually enjoying the amount of thinking regarding the topic of death that my father’s death has caused in me. This is because it is a topic that a healthy rational mind should consider quite often because it is something that will come up again and again in life, and eventually it will be our turn and it might be something that we will need to face over a protracted period of time, as it might not come suddenly or in our sleep.
So what is the proper reaction for a son who has lost his father? A natural amount of grief, dependent on the situation. In my case, not much because the man who was my father died a couple of years before the body that he occupied finally took his last breath.
Why do we hold the body, and not the mind to be so significant? With enough life support and operations, we might be able to keep almost anyone ‘alive’ in one form or another for far longer than their natural age. We only need to keep the heart pumping and the blood flowing to the brain.
I think it is easy to believe one has understood what death is about, but it might be a very different story to react to it when it stares you in the face. In the West, especially amongst the top 1% of the world, we encounter death head on very rarely. This is both a blessing and a tragedy.
I’ve spoken before about the irony that it can be a tragedy if no tragedies happen to you in your life. Tragedies are what test our resolve, and make us stronger. Someone who has never experienced a personal tragedy is unprepared for the ones that life will inevitably throw at him or her.
Experiencing tragedies is what gives us the time and space to figure out what life is about, and if we’re lucky, we may just reach the conclusion that because there is very little we can actually control, the only real tragedy that can afflict us is if we misuse our own rational faculty and act in an unbecoming way. So if we’re lazy, angry, jealous, scornful, etc, that’s the real tragedy in life. A parent dying is not a tragedy, it is just nature’s course, and being able to understand that is something that should bring us joy.
And so back to my father. He’s gone, and it’s a good time for the people who knew him to reflect on his past, and be thankful that we had the chance to have such a wonderful man in our lives.
I am sure of one thing, if he was still here – and I don’t believe he is watching from any afterlife – the last thing he would have wanted would his entire family and all his friends to be crying and upset about this loss. He would most certainly have liked us to spend this time like he often did, with some great food, a glass of wine, surrounded by people we like and with a smile on our face, and that’s exactly what I’ll do.
Because to be truly Stoic, we must be able to accept anything that happens with a cheerful disposition, and I guess that in his roundabout way, my father was quite the Stoic.
This is dedicated to my father (28/1/1938 – 15/1/2016)