What does death have to teach the living?

By: Angela Escobar

Right off, Dr. Randy Pausch said his lecture wasn’t about death but about life, and I found that interesting.

It is unfortunate that someone always has to be either on the verge of death, 6 feet under, or suffering from extreme circumstances in order for the rest of us to learn anything. Had Randy Pausch not been in the same predicament, would we have publicized his lecture to the same extent? Another example is my maternal cousin, Rolando: His now 5-year old daughter Miranda has spent 4 years undergoing chemotherapy for brain cancer. People far and wide offer words of love, reach out in any way they can, donate whatever possible—strangers become good friends. I have never seen so many people act with so much kindness and compassion. People who would otherwise see my cousin’s family as any other typical family see them as a special family made up of good people—all because of the things they are enduring. Had little Miranda not been in the same predicament, would these people even take a second to talk to my cousin at all or would they just walk right past them on the street? What is it about dying, death, and suffering that makes us stop, pay attention, and become open to changing our perspective on things? Why do people have to be on the brink of death or endure suffering in order for others to have any sort of compassion, show any sign of kindness? Shouldn’t Dr. Pausch’s lesson be something that we find inspiring regardless?

When I lost my son over ten years ago, I was crippled over in grief. I never got to see my son off on his first day of school, I’ll never watch him graduate, and I’ll never watch him get married—these are things I was forced to face square on and had to learn to live with. Dr. Pausch was forced to face his impending death, but only his family will have to learn to live with it, to move forward with it. And that, my friends, is what I find the hardest about death. Dying “stinks” (as Dr. Pausch put it), death is easy, but those who have to carry it on in life face the hardest battle. Have you ever seen the face of someone who’s crippled over in grief and compared it to the one who’s dead? Death is comfortable, but grief can eat you alive. In some cases, grief can impel people to take their own lives or take the lives of others.

Going back to my question: What is it about others’ dying, death, and suffering that causes us to stop and pay attention to things we otherwise would simply ignore or take for granted? Why is it that others’ dying, death, and suffering are sometimes the only things that makes others learn, grow, transform, and become free? Is it because there are some things that only death and loss can teach the living (unfortunately)? Dr. Pausch is faced with the reality that he is going to lose not only his three children but his entire life. I don’t know if I would have had the mental strength to face such major imminent losses with as much grace as he did. If nothing else, he certainly earns my respect.

After watching Dr. Pausch’s lecture, I made up my mind that kindness, compassion, and fun shouldn’t be put off for special moments or reserved only for special people but for everyone, everyday.

I loved his view on apologies. I’ve heard so many meaningless apologies in my life. But I have yet to hear the “second and third parts”–“it’s my fault…what can I do to make it right?”  Looking back, those parts would have made a world of difference among myself and others who have gone estranged. I love his views on valuing experiences over things and on being honest—these are some that I already hold. One other thing Dr. Pausch said: “If you’re going to have childhood dreams, I recommend you have good parents”. Unfortunately, many children don’t have the luxury of having these “great” parents to foster and nurture childhood dreams—what about those children? What of their childhood dreams and what futures can they expect?

Dr. Pausch was able to find meaning and happiness despite his impending death and he was fortunate enough have his message heard, but can one say the same for a young child in the same predicament who has not yet been given a chance to experience what life really is, much less pursue his/her “childhood dreams”?   What about the person experiencing homelessness who will freeze to death overnight, who is barely seen and whose message will never be heard? Many parents who have lost children to cancer and other conditions have told me that they have found meaning and were able to take away something good from their child’s death. I agree—they may have certainly been able to find meaning and goodness in their child’s death, but can the same be said for the child? The living will always learn more from death than the dead themselves. I believe that was what Dr. Pausch meant by his lecture being about “life” and not “death”. Not everyone will agree, but that is their prerogative.


Video Source: YouTube.com

This entry was posted in Case Studies, Life, Philosophy, Psychology-General and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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