Death is the ultimate experience of loneliness. Worse, it is loneliness experienced when we are most fearful and most in need of companionship. As fate would have it, when we enter the ultimate uncertainty, the time most we desire another, we enter alone.
The greater the uncertainty, the greater the need for companionship – a partner, a reassuring hand, a soothing word. Anything to relieve the terrible anxiety. In times quotidian when we go it alone – an interview, a separation, a test, a surgery, a date, a presentation – we know loneliness is ephemeral. We will soon enough re-engage to cathartically recount our experience to others. Death offers no such anticipatory reprieve.
Because we are innately social beings, death is immeasurably cruel. From the time we are conceived, we are never alone. Within our mother’s womb, we are assured by the warmth of her body; by the embracing snugness of her womb; by the muffled rhythmic beating of her heart; by the distant, mellifluousness tone of her voice. When we exit, we find ourselves immediately at her breast enveloped by her loving arms.
We are never alone in our corporeal form. Even when we are alone, we are never really alone. The option is always available to introduce ourselves to strangers and to engage with friends and family. Even hermits are never forcibly alone. A simple act of transacting with an anonymous grocery-store clerk can provide relief.
We grieve for two primary reasons when a loved one dies.
We grieve from a selfish perceptive. We grieve for our loss and its permanence, knowing we will never again experience that person as a person. That experience is forever lost. Only memories console us. We grieve because of the permanent void left in our lives that no other person can fill.
We grieve also from empathy. We grieve because we can only imagine, and yet not really imagine, what the person endured upon dying. We empathize because of our helplessness in easing the distress. We empathize out of self interest: we know we will face the same intense loneliness one day. Instanter or prolonged, it doesn’t matter. No matter how death comes, we cannot avoid the all-consuming loneliness associated with it.
Perhaps pain eases some of the anxiety of the loneliness tethered to this great uncertainly. Perhaps pain is a blessing in disguise. Pain, like loneliness, is something from which we always seek relief. We never seek more pain. We seek only its relief. Death, we know, will bring relief. Pain can ease our fear because its relief trumps all other needs. If the choice is between incurable physical pain and loneliness, everyone sides with loneliness. It might be likened to a Scylla-and-Charybdis choice, but the one is still of a lesser evil. Pain, therefore, can embolden us when we die.
In the end, we find that all our experiences are material. Our life, our very essence, is the product of our five senses. Might our perception of the material be present the moment we are conceived? If so, all our time is marked by physical experience. How can one not feel intense loneliness at the prospect of knowing the very essence of our being, the only relationship we know, that being with the material, will vanish in an instant?