Ghosts and Imagination

-a dispatch from the grief process

It was M’s birthday on May 5. I was supposed to be there for it. I started writing this on May 14.

Four months since M. passed
Also on the night of the full moon
I too am only a ghost.

I want to write about grief and suicide. One of the things most grief counselors and books don’t tell you, nor is it listed in the various stages of grief or in much popular literature (it’s in the academic literature tho) is that thinking about suicide is a common grief symptom. Naturally when we’re faced with the mortality of a loved one we are also faced with the fact of our own eventual demise. Sometimes we may wish to some degree that either it had been us instead of them, or that we had died with them.

Just because someone is thinking about their own death, and because they are apparently healthy, the means to that death would probably be suicide at that point in time. This doesn’t mean they are suicidal or that they are even depressed. As soon as someone even says the word suicide people get all panicky and want to stage interventions and dope people up and so forth. Maybe we should stand down from that state of alarm and get a grip.

I was reading about the suicide of philosopher Walter Benjamin in a review essay in the LA Review of Books of a new critical biography on Benjamin that is out. The article, Colin Dickey on Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life:Shoring Against the Ruins. Benjamin was trying to escape the overtaking of Europe by the fascists and just when he was about to cross the border into Spain and be able to make his escape the border happened to be closed.

So as he was faced with that closed border and the encroaching fascists he decided to take his own life. He did so with morphine. He appeared to be out of other options. One can empathize with his predicament.

There’s more to the event though. His life had been fairly disarrayed. Lots of disappointments and failed ambitions, yet stuff he wrote was exceptional (I’m delving into Arcades right now).  Benjamin had also written and discussed suicide numerous times in his personal history without attempting it. If you read much of his writing it’s readily apparent he thought about everything, not always in a philosophical or sociological or literary way, though much of it was that way. He was something of a morose person from the accounts of those who knew him and didn’t cultivate a lot of close relationships. He comes across from those accounts as a bit of a high maintenance guy, but those tellers of his personal history may have had their own agendas as well. He was on the outs with his wife because he had affairs. He was on the outs with a lot of other scholars because some of them were duplicitous, some were perhaps jealous, some perhaps didn’t understand his point and it doesn’t seem he made any of that easy for them to do sometimes. So there were quite a few factors that went into his decision to suicide. A closed border with murderous fascists looming may have been the last straw. The next day though the border opened. It had only been a temporary closure. That’s so sad it’s not even ironic.

Anyways to think about a thing doesn’t mean one has an intention to act upon it. We think and imagine things all the time. Sometimes some of us imagine ourselves as rock stars or some kind of celebrities, we imagine ourselves having different jobs, we imagine punching our boss in the nose, we imagine ourselves having wild sexual encounters we’d never have in real life, we imagine what our lives would be like if we won a lottery, we imagine living in a utopia, we imagine sailing around the world, we imagine what it would be like to go into space, we imagine being on a winning sports team, we imagine winning an Oscar, we imagine living in a remote cabin in the woods, we imagine painting a masterpiece, we imagine our children’s futures, we imagine our countries getting better or worse after the next election, we imagine that we had won that particular argument that still plagues us to this day, we imagine having a particular kind of life with a particular partner, we imagine ourselves with a different hairstyle, we imagine ourselves with different physical features, we imagine ourselves not being lonely, we imagine ourselves being alone when we feel too crowded, we imagine what it’s like to be a certain celebrity, or historical person or fictional being, we imagine ourselves skydiving, we imagine ourselves swimming in the ocean. Sure there are other elements like hope, fear, longing, ambition, desire, and others mixed in there but the place they all play out together is in the imagination. That’s part of the purpose of imagination, to explore, to examine alternatives, to discover new perspectives, to connect with and understand other people, to assimilate our experiences, to manage our fears in a safe and fictional way, to create a basis for planning new experiences, and many other things. The purposes of imagination are myriad.

Imagination is very closely tied to empathy. Since we can’t know with absolute certainty what another human being is experiencing we have to come up with some kind of facsimile in order to empathize with them. We might think “If I was in that situation I imagine I’d feel X.” Then we test that hypothesis when we encounter that person and adjust our picture based on the feedback we get.

[As a bit of an aside, one of the dangers of this is that we can substitute our own mental model for the person’s actual experience and act from that, in which case we are involved only with our own mind and not what’s really happening. That’s an element of what Chogyam Trungpa called “Idiot Compassion” which I wrote about at length numerous times before. The main piece on that is here]

We use imagination to engender empathy. We have to do this with equanimity. If we decide we only want to have empathy for certain beings or situations, particularly those we are familiar with and block out others that’s not really employing equanimity.

Likewise when we imagine stuff we can choose to restrict it to certain comfortable and self-soothing things and try to block out anything else. This also isn’t employing equanimity.

It’s hard to imagine stuff that hurts. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for someone we loved to die. It’s hard to imagine our own deaths. If the imagining of the latter comes in the form of thoughts about suicide, which are different than thoughts that have suicidal intention behind them, then it can be somewhat distressing for some people. It can especially be distressing for those who hear about it. That’s the reason I didn’t write about it until now. I’ve been examining all that rather closely.

Thoughts like “I wish I was dead too”, “I feel like I died too” happened over the past 4 months. I looked at those thoughts and said to myself, “What should I do with that?” There was no impulse to act on it, only the occasional wish not to wake up again. The thing is that’s what happened to Manoj. He went to sleep, had a heart attack in his sleep and didn’t wake up. In my imagination I was trying to feel what he felt, trying to empathize with that situation.

I wanted to know what he felt. He’s not here to tell me. I wanted to know if it was painful and how long it took and if he was conscious of the process and if he was afraid.

These are common questions people have when a loved one dies. We all have ways to try to address them. One of those ways is to try to face our own death in some way to attempt to get an inkling of what the feeling might be. This is a really deep form of empathy. It’s pretty overwhelming. That’s why equanimity is important. We can try to push these questions away but they will persist. We will be left with feelings of unfinished business until they receive some attention.

It’s not something to panic about. If somebody talks about the way they’re dealing with these questions it’s not necessary to start panicking and shipping them off to a psychiatrist or retreat or doctor for a prescription or whatever.

You can think about something like death and suicide. It is permitted. Who’s going to stop you? It needs to be framed well though. One has to ask “Why am I thinking about this?”

I mentioned depression at the beginning of this post. That’s important. If the answer to the question of “Why am I thinking about death and suicide?” is “I want to understand what they went through.” or “I’m thinking about my own end.” or something of that nature then it can be worked through with equanimity and some sense can be made of it. If the answer is “To seek a release from my immediate pain and discomfort of grief.” then one may be moving into the feedback loop of depression (which in my view is a sort of emotional self-cannibalization—though there’s more to it than that which maybe I’ll write about some time) and that merits some attention maybe by a grief counselor or somebody like that. A thing I also think about suicide is…death is patient, it can wait for me.

So, no need to panic.

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2 comments on “Ghosts and Imagination

  1. I’ve always thought about death a quite a lot lot. It’s something I’ve never been able to talk about with pretty much anyone, except at an abstract, philosophical level. I’ve tried sometimes but it’s always gotten weird, even with people I trust intimately and who are generally able to face pretty much anything.

    Then again I don’t know how well I would do if the shoe was on the other foot.

  2. Am pretty sure you’re not the only one. Recently a movement of sorts called Death Cafe has taken off. People meet and talk about death. People want to talk about this. More here http://deathcafe.com/

    I’d rather go to a drunken wake than to a cafe for cake though.

    I think there are a lot of cultural aspects to this as well. In places where death is not hidden, where people have funerals in their homes and wash the bodies themselves etc. there doesn’t seem to be nearly this much anxiety and panic about it. It’s not that people aren’t grieving but it takes different forms. Sometimes people will wail at the top of their lungs and tear their clothes and really let grief have its way with them. I personally think that’s a lot healthier than the staid dabbing a handkerchief at a few tears at a sanitized corporatized funeral and then suffering in silence for years afterwards trying to deal with all the emotional shifts and not talking about it lest people become uncomfortable and call for some major intervention, which is what tends to happen (especially on Dr. Phil-blah).

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