Loss of Abstraction

November 01, 2004

The death of my father-in-law on Saturday has filled my mind with numerous thoughts. This is not the first time I have lost someone in my family, but it is the first "parent" I've lost. No matter how well prepared you think you maybe for the death of aging loved one, you never are really ready. Death isn't like saying goodbye and driving away, or hanging up the phone. Death is final and most of us during our lives don't have to many events that are well and truly final.

As Michele and I have talked over the past few days, trying to put words to the emotions we are each having, we have both come to realize that this is not an intellectual process. Death is a powerful emotional process, one that we are ill-equipped to handle. Michele has explained to me her model for how we humans deal with stimulus that has an emotional component. As children we experience emotions for the first time, and over time repeated emotions create places of recognition within ourselves. How we were able to react to fear, anger, loss, hope, joy, love, et cetera as children greatly effects how we are able to react to those same emotions as adults. For example: if as a child you were never allowed to express your anger appropriately, it is likely that you can't express it appropriately as an adult either.

By the time most of us are emotional adults we have experienced most of life's major emotions. Except perhaps for death. Even if we experience death as a child our cognitive ability isn't able to process it completely. Your first lost loved one as an adult puts you in a unique situation of having a powerful emotional stimulus with no place of recognition to handle it.

I believe that this accounts for the surreal quality everything takes on in the days following the death of a loved one. We have felt anger or happiness many, many times in our lives. The combination of our consciousness, spirit or soul, intellect, and emotional self know how to handle everyday stimulus. Death is a stimulus that we aren't prepared for, and one that most of us (hopefully) don't get to practice for, either.

Michele and I each are dealing with her dad's death in our own ways. Life is suddenly fragile and tenuous where before it seemed solid. Mundane daily tasks are no longer important or meaningful. Clear thought and introspection are faint memories. Death forces us to deal with life for a time without all the filters and illusions we normally use to get through the day. Death is like a violent storm that cleanses the air and leaves the air clear and devoid of distortion. In some ways the living we do immediately following a death is a truer form of living because the higher abstractions are stripped away, leaving us bare and exposed.

We will move forward from this event. Slowly our filters and illusions will return to the fore, our abstractions about how life really is will comfort us once again. But our understanding of the deeper, underlying truth of life will be a bit stronger. In moments of solitude and quiet we maybe able to strip away our carefully constructed artifice and touch the world with our true selves.

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Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.