Elana Kopelevich

Five ways to experience death, dying, and loss

December 23, 2023

tldr: You can think about death, dying, and loss in a lot of different ways, but your life will keep moving forward.

These are in no particular order. This is not the X stages of grief, nor is it intended to have any kind of palliative effect for anyone reading these words. These are just some thoughts that have had recently arisen in my mind.

1: Strange loop

If I understand Douglas Hofstadter correctly (and it is most likely that I do not), a person's existence is nothing more (or less) than a self-reinforcing stange loop that lives inside the mind. According to Wikipedia, a strange loop is "arises when, by moving only upwards or downwards through the system, one finds oneself back where one started." What does that even mean? Hofstadter spends several books thoroughly explaining what he means by this complex idea, but I'm pretty confident that I can do it justice in the next couple sentences. 😅

You - your personality and your consciousness - exist as the a self-referential flow of all the things that you believe about it. You exist because you believe you exist and believe you exist because you exist.

Furthermore, other people also exist in your mind as strange loops. Your version of another person is not exactly same as their version of themselves, nor someone else's version. The closer that you are to a person, the more similar your strange loop of them is to the strange loop that they carry of themselves, but it's never exactly the same.

When a person dies, their own strange loop dies with them, because their consciousness is gone. We don't really understand the nature of consciousness, but we, the living, do continue to experience our own version of it. So death takes one instance of an individual's strange loop, but the rest of the people who carry that person's strange loop, maintain it their minds.

There is one key difference between the living and the dead state. The strange loop that you carry of the person that you lost no longer receives updates. In one sense, it's less real because it's disconnected from its source. In another sense, it's as real it ever was because this is a made-up mental model anyway.

You can think of the premise of Pixar's Coco as a simplified interpretation of idea. In the movie, the idea is that as long as a person lives on in the collective memory of the living, they are in some way, still alive. There is, in a religious sense, a world of the dead, where they continue to exist as long as their families remember them. It is only when the last rememberer leaves the living world that the remembered person truly ceases to exist.

As long as you remember the person you lost, as long as they exist in your mind, as long as you believe they exist, they exist. Does that matter? I'm not sure.

2. They are missing this

When a person dies, they no longer get to be here and see this. They don't get to sit in the sun today. They don't get to breathe this air or get to taste this food. They are missing out on all the things that some part of your mind believes they should have. Or if not "should," but "could" have. This thinking isn't really about fairness. Everyone dies. It's not about dying young or old or anything about the state of the situation when they die. It's about waking up on a Saturday and wishing your person could wake up too.

The other side of that coin, if your person was suffering, is that they aren't suffering anymore. They don't have to fight for air today. They don't have to feel queasy. They are missing that and that is a blessing.

3. Time as a space

In the Western world, we view time as a tunnel that we move through in a forward motion. We are constantly arriving at a new moment and experiencing it. There is another way to look at existence. Probably not a useful one to situate yourself in for a long period, but useful for a contrast in perspective. What if you made a two-dimensional timeline, like a Gantt chart of all of existence? You could map every person's life, every every event, and every idea onto it. Some lines would be shorter than others, but each thing in time would have its space.

If you take snapshot of this particular moment, your person is not in it anymore, but in some other snapshot, they are. In some future snapshot, you are gone too. And if you go back a little further, no one that you know yet exists.

Is flatting time into space helpful? I don't know. It's just another perspective

4. Raw grief

The immediate response to thinking that you can call or see your person and realizing that you can't is raw grief. You can't show them something you made or ask for them for help. The response to a memory of their suffering is grief. Their absence is grief. Hopefully the grief dulls or comes at you in smaller pieces over time, but there is no intellectual explanation to paper over it. It is.

5. Focus on life

If we come back to our common perspective of time - a tunnel that we move through in a forward motion - then all that really matters is that life goes on, with or without our approval. This is how it's always been. As a species, we have (in general) built upon generations and generations of our parents' experiences and learnings in order to experience our own lives and build our own understanding. We live with our strange loops (of both the living and the dead) and our various perspectives of time and space. And we carry our grief, but we keep moving forward.

One day, we'll die too. We'll miss out, but we kind of won't miss out, because there is no way that we could be in the snapshot that we're not in, by the nature of not being in it. People we know and love will grieve and accept things in different perspectives, and then they will die too.

With all this thinking, there is not much to do, but focus on life moving forward. We can smile about good memories and apply things that we have learned from our people, but the underlying motion is forward. Understanding that is helpful, I think.