Want to know the ending to every real-life story?
I need to warn you though, and this serves as the most epic spoiler alert ever imaginable, so stop now if you want to hold onto any hope you may still have.
You’re still reading?!
Okay, I warned you.
The characters in every real story, every last one of them, no matter how good or bad, no matter how noble or vile, no matter how attractive or grotesque… they all… die.
Bummer isn’t it? We were all hoping for the happily ever after.
Now, your favorite book or movie may end before the chapter describing this final event is ever released, but nobody escapes this most-predictable of endings.
We all inherently know this. We all know that everyone dies, eventually. But we spend as much of our lives as possible trying to push that thought into the deepest, darkest, most remote recesses of our consciousness, hoping to bury the thought until reality reminds us that we can’t avoid it forever, no matter how badly we want to, or how much we exercise, or how much we pray, or how much hair dye and surgery we get.
So what’s the point in caring so much about the story when we all know how it ends?
From birth to death, there is this interesting gap. We casually refer to this gap as ‘Life,’ and Life offers different things for each person.
For some, Life is full of fame, riches, and glory, opulence, gluttony, and luxury. Others are damned to poverty, disease, and tragedy, injustice, sacrifice, and pain.
Most, however, are somewhere in between, experiencing a little bit of everything. Life is as diverse as you can imagine, and a wise, fictional character who won over our hearts hit it on the head when he likened life to a box of chocolates. “You never know what you gonna get.”
We are so invested in this Life because, as far as we know, it’s the only one we get. Maybe reincarnation is a thing. If so, I hope to come back as one of my dogs. They have the life. Seriously, they eat all they want, the world is their toilet, endless love, affection, and table scraps from little kids dropping buckets of food on the ground, and the naps. Oh, the naps. But animals don’t treat it the same as we do as far as science can tell. 99.9% of living things simply eat, reproduce, and die. But we humans do more than just eat, reproduce, and die, right?
Our brains have evolved to plan for the future, postulate about a meaning to life, try to explore the stars, and search for answers to nature’s most difficult questions. We have Google and smart devices and YouTube celebrities… surely there’s a meaning to all of this. What is the point to all of the good and bad that happens around us?
Life’s ups and downs
Take the story of an expectant mother, for instance, who literally cried tears of joy in her bathroom after the brilliant piece of technology in the form of a little plastic device she peed on confirmed what she already felt to be true. She waited until her husband came home from work before she ran and jumped into his arms, and squealed in that high-pitched voice she does when she’s excited, talking so fast that no one can understand what she’s saying because 2, 3, 4 words are blending into one, and she shows him the the two parallel lines.
Phone calls, text messages, and social media posts avalanche from their phones to spread the good news. They have tried so hard, for so long for this day to arrive. Finally.
A few sick mornings later and the ultrasound pictures hang on their fridge with a recording of the heartbeat saved on a thumb drive. Later, a gender reveal celebration happens with blue everything – glitter, balloons, napkins. Congratulations and hugs and new ultrasound pictures with an appendage circled circulate among family and friends.
It takes days, no weeks for her and her husband to agree on the perfect name for their soon-to-be miracle. The classes, the showers, the clothes. The numerous close calls when she almost pees her pants because a baby is resting on her bladder 24/7 (only happened twice).
The restless nights because a baby is pressed against her spine. The super sense of smell and random cravings for dirtiest Mexican food her husband can find at 11 PM. The go-bag, ready to be thrown into the car at any hour of the night once her water breaks.
The frantic drive to the hospital, the monitors and the beeping, the hand-holding, and the sweat, and the pushing (thank God for epidurals).
And then… Life begins – with a single, soft, almost inaudible puff of breath.
And then… time slows to a crawl. The seconds start to feel like hours. Her husband looks worried. Why does her husband look worried?! Why are the doctors and nurses crowded around her baby?! What’s wrong?!
She’s screaming, “What is happening?! Where is my baby?!”
Then complete and utter silence.
She is numb, both physically from the epidural and emotionally because it can’t be real.
She now travels through the darkest, most depressing black hole of despair and pain imaginable. It will follow her for hours, days, weeks, months, and years after she holds the now-lifeless miracle that was destined for something special. He was supposed to learn to walk, go potty by himself, go to school, get acne, learn to drive, have a first kiss, get a job, find love, get married, have kids… he was supposed to have a Life.
But this time, Life only lasted for one, single, short breath.
And now, every year, this mother visits a patch of ground with a polished granite stone inscribed with the perfect name for her perfect little miracle who at one point brought eternal joy and hope and tears of joy. But tears of joy are hard to come by these days. And the cold stone reminds her of the eternal sorrow experienced on that dreadful day.
How is that fair, or just? How is that part of some eternal plan?
“How come it had to happen to me?!”
If she had a dollar for every time she asked that question, she’d be the richest person alive.
But she (and we) goes on searching for meaning in that death because there HAS to be meaning, right?!
God? Helloooo? Are you there?!
What’s your secret?!
Then there’s the centenarian.
The groovy gal who just celebrated her 104th year of Life. She survived women’s suffrage, a world war, polio, civil rights, and climate change. Those major events were a struggle to deal with, but they were a walk in the park compared to watching cancer overcome her husband of 50 years. The chaos of the world is simple compared to the loneliness of living without him for the past 34 years.
She’s also outlived three of her five children, watching powerlessly as they lost battles with time and fought through varying degrees of physical suffering. She’s outlived four of her grandchildren, taken in a variety of ways at various points of their lives.
But now the local news station wants to crowd into her tiny nursing home room and interview her on her birthday. They bring balloons and cameras and enormous, bright lights. Goodness those are warm!
A 20-something year-old reporter throws a microphone into our 104 year old’s face.
The contrast is striking.
This girl, with perfect, smooth, tan skin, and perky assets that seem to defy gravity, and curves in all the right places, and bleached-white teeth, and a $300 haircut, and the scent of perfume engineered to arouse desire, and the eyes of every male (and some females) glued to her as she saunters by. This girl hopes to advance her career by nailing this interview, and asks our frail, wrinkly, saggy, stinky 104 year-old friend:
“How are you so lucky?!”
“What’s your secret?”
“Lucky?! What secret?”
She lives alone, and has for as long as some of you reading this have been alive. She has watched every friend she ever had pass away. Her best friend in elementary school, who would walk with her to school each day (uphill both ways) died 40 years ago of breast cancer. Her first date, who took her to get an ice cream cone and was too afraid to hold her hand until 2-weeks later, died in a car crash when he was in his 20’s (80 years ago). Her coworkers at the job from which she retired 50 years ago are all gone.
She needs help changing her clothes and going to the bathroom. The food she chokes down every day would make you gag. Her only human interaction is with the nurse making the rounds and checking off the boxes so she can move onto the next room where the guy who “sees things” stays.
She has almost forgotten what her husband’s laugh sounded like. All she has wanted for 34 years is to see his smile again, or smell his aftershave, or hold any one of her three lost kids on her on her lap and hug them, squeeze them, and reassure them that everything is going to be alright.
She has been ready to experience that final chapter of Life for a long time, but it taunts her menacingly by being close enough to touch, but never close enough grab ahold.
God? You are there, right?! You’ve got to be there.
My experience with death
Admittedly, I’v been sheltered from death up to this point of my life when it comes to family and close friends. The closest experience I have with death is when my dog died suddenly while I was in high school. One minute, I was rubbing her head and telling her goodbye as I headed to school. The next, she couldn’t move, the whites of her eyes were yellow, and my parents took her to the vet to put her out of her misery before I got home. When my dad picked me up from school, he asked if I felt anything in particular throughout the day.
“We put Kenzie down. She was in a lot of pain and we couldn’t wait.”
I cried for 2 days straight.
Outside of that, I still have both parents, both in-laws, I have my wife, three kids, and two dogs. Not a day goes by that at some random moment, the thought flutters into my mind of – What if?
What if I get the call informing me that there’s been an accident. What if that most recent hug I gave someone really was the last? What if I don’t get a chance to say goodbye?
I’ve had friends and family receive that call. Their lives shattered in an instant. It happened this past year to my stepmom.
“Julie, there has been an accident. Your son didn’t make it.”
He was 27. He had 2 young kids.
It was a car crash. Four other people were in the car. Everyone else in the car survived. He was in the back seat and didn’t have his seatbelt on because he was helping his friend buckle her seatbelt first as the car was speeding out of control down the road.
Click. She’s safe. Crash. He’s gone.
It happened more quickly than it took you to read this sentence.
No goodbyes to parents, kids, and friends.
How is it fair?
Why have I been kept from such heartache while others have had to live through suffering, disease, children who have taken their own life, or other renditions of their very worst nightmare?
I don’t have an answer here.
Life isn’t fair.
It never has been.
What happens after we die?
I remember as a kid being scared to death when my dad went out late at night for his work. I was worried that he wouldn’t make it home. I’d stay up into the wee-hours of the morning, waiting for him to come home, certain that something bad had happened.
About two weeks ago, he and I went to lunch where we ate the most deliciously bad Mexican food. Remember the kind? The same Mexican food our pregnant mother loved for 3 months?
My dad and I reminisced about life and the memories we’ve built together.
While trying to fall asleep later that night, that same old thought that I had as a child slipped back into my mind:
“What if dad dies?”
This thought kept my mind racing again into the early morning hours. When he goes, where does he go? What if it really is just lights out, and all those memories, and the plans we’ve made, and the dreams and hopes and understanding of the universe just dies with us?
I’ve had a knee-jerk reaction to the question of ‘what happens when we die’ my whole life based on the religious system in which I was raised.
“They’re going to a better place.”
“They don’t feel pain.”
“They are happy, and cheering for you, and running around with your dog.”
Since I’ve been quite sheltered from death throughout my life, I hadn’t really thought about it that much.
Until I did.
And it unsettled me.
And it got scary.
And even with a belief or a hope in something after death, it made me nervous.
Beliefs around death
I went on a quest of sorts, researching what I could about death. I read several books and stumbled across a docu-series on Netflix called Surviving Death, which was fascinating and raised even more questions. Disney put out a cute little movie called Soul that addressed the topic. By the way, how can a light-hearted cartoon get me thinking so deeply?
I started asking people around me how their perspective on death has changed throughout their lives. Some have suffered tragedies. Some have experienced the routine loss of loved ones who just grew old. Some, like me, haven’t had anyone super close to them pass away. Others care for patients of all sorts at a hospital or medical facility.
Some hold deep religious beliefs that shape their perspective on death. Others take a more agnostic approach and believe that this life is it, so don’t plan for life after death, live in the now.
While the mode of death is different for everybody, the eventuality of it is the same. While the beliefs in what comes next are different for everybody, none of us can ever be certain that ours is correct.
What if none of them are? Or what if they all are in some way?
Not one of us really knows what happens after death, so I try not to attribute certainty to any of this, but there have been those that have died, according to a clinical definition of both heart and brain activity stopping, and come back. What do they have to say?
There are several books and movies about this and I’m not going to recount it all here. There are even studies where researchers have travelled all over the world, into different societies and customs, to document the experiences of those who have survived near-death experiences. There are remarkable similarities in these experiences.
Communication with thought rather than words. Separation from the body and viewing a different dimension of sorts. Time distortion. Warmth. Calm. The feeling of love and the presence of other beings who care about you.
I’ve written about my mom’s experience with cancer and gall stones in a previous post, and when she was in surgery having a gall stone removed that had split in two with one section lodging in her pancreas and the other in her liver, she had a remarkable experience that she has shared with me.
I won’t share it here, but it was eerily similar to many other near-death experiences. After the surgery, she asked the doctor if something had happened. The doctor looked surprised and a little uncomfortable.
“Did someone tell you something? Who told you? Yes, actually. We lost you for a minute and had to bring you back. We thought you were gone for good.”
Is there something outside of our understanding of consciousness and Life as we know it? I think so.
I hope so.
So, what’s your purpose?
Where am I going with this?
I haven’t got a clue.
But, whether you have a few breaths left or decades, what is your reason for living? To quote 22 in the movie Soul, “Is all this living really worth dying for?” Remember, most of what you do while alive will be completely and utterly forgotten in 100 years (or less). Yes, even by your posterity. That’s kind of depressing, isn’t it?
Some people seem to have found their calling in life. Their spark (again from Soul), their purpose, their reason for existing. They move through life with this laser-like focus and they stiff arm distractions like Derrick Henry running through defensive backs.
But what if you haven’t found that calling yet? What are you supposed to do with the time you have left?
I’ve been struggling with this quite a bit recently. Every morning, in my drive to work, I speak to a being that I hope is real and I hope can hear me because I say it out loud,
“God, what am I doing here? What should I be doing with this life I have?”
Some ass-hat is honking at me as the light turns green and interrupts my conversation this time. But the response is the same every morning.
The main character in Soul had a similar thought:
“I’m just afraid that if I died today, my life would have amounted to nothing.”Joe
I have no idea what my purpose in life is. I feel like I should be doing something meaningful for the world, even though I don’t know what meaningful really means. I chuckle as I write this, but maybe it was because my mom always told me I was meant for something special, which begs the question, is marketing insurance special? What about writing a blog that only a handful of people read? Or making seemingly every possible mistake trying to raise my kids? Is this considered meaningful?
I’m still working through this.
If you are too… you are not alone.
Maybe I think too much
Maybe I shouldn’t worry about any of this. After all, we don’t officially know. Even science works on faith sometimes.
Us humans like to find predictable results from “If/Then equations.”
If I ______, then _______ will happen.
The trouble with life is that we just don’t have very many predictable if/then truths that happen 100% of the time.
Take a seemingly easy one:
If you eat healthy foods, then you will live longer.
Well… not necessarily.
If you smoke, you will get lung cancer.
Nope, not always.
If you pray, you will get an answer.
Doesn’t always work out that way.
If you are the good guy, then you will beat the bad guy.
Sorry, not true.
If I die, then… what?
So why even try?
Good question. Your answer will be different than mine, and that’s okay. I find hope in the happiness and joy I get from wrestling my kids and making Caitlin laugh until she cries (happy cry), or hearing that someone read what I wrote and had the same questions. Of seeing my friends after weeks, months, and years and picking up right where we left off.
In 100 years, the name Erik Soderborg will likely be long-since-forgotten, and it’s not up to me to control that. There is only so much time I have in this life so rather than spend it worrying about things outside of my control, I’ll try focusing on what I can.
How I treat other people.
How I talk about other people.
How I treat myself.
What I believe in and what I hope for.
What I write and leave behind for my kids.
I hope that there is a higher power waiting for us on the other side with a super high-resolution TV and a killer PowerPoint that outlines this extraordinarily beautiful plan, which, when we finally come to see it, will leave us going,
“Ooooooh… okay… yeah, that makes more sense. I was WAY off, hehe.”
I hope that all the injustices and examples where Life just isn’t “fair” are put into context and we can see the beauty of it all.
Here’s the response from one of my closest friends when I asked him how his perspective on death has changed throughout his life. He is in his residency as a doctor (interventional radiology), a Christian, and one of the most humble and genuine people I know.
“Hey man, it’s interesting timing that you ask. I’m on pediatric surgery and had a particularly bad day on Sunday. We had a newborn born with a giant tumor that needed emergent resection, and she died on the table.
Another kid came in after a car accident and was taken for emergent surgery and died right after we finished. Three other kids came in from car accidents with relatively minor injuries, but had at least one parent die in the accident. It was a lot of sadness in one day, hard to see kids die, but probably harder to tell a mother her son died or watch a 14 year-old realize she’s an orphan.
It’s odd seeing so much death when the majority of my day is spent trying to prevent it.
It does, however, put into perspective the knowledge and power of God. I love biblical accounts of Christ healing because to me it just shows a perfect understanding of the pathophysiology of the human body He created.
I think if you spoke with most doctors, they’d reiterate how little we truly know about the body and disease. Yet we can make blind men see. We can make a dead man’s heart beat again. We can control some aspects of mental illness. If we, with our admittedly limited understanding can perform so called “miracles,” is it of any surprise that our Creator can do the same but on a much larger scale? That He can devise a way to make that same body in the Resurrection but devise a way for it to be free of disease and immortal?
I am in no way comparing a doctor to God or Christ, but if we are expected to become Gods ourselves and create life, at some point in our eternal progression, we will need to obtain the same knowledge God has about life, physiology, and death. It’s cool that I can start down that path, albeit at a snail’s pace, during this life.
Essentially, our inability to fully control death and disease in this life is a reminder to me of how impressive the knowledge and power of God is. I have become more confident in the reality of a Resurrection because I know it is possible.”
How’s that for perspective?
Those nightmarish scenes described by my friend may have played out in your life or in the lives of someone close to you. The weight of an experience like this is unimaginable and our healthcare workers are on the front lines of all of it.
The doctors like my friend who work 100 hour weeks trying to prevent these losses, but have to deliver the awful news to the families of those that don’t make it. Then, minutes later, try to put the sadness behind them and literally run to help another person whose life is on the line. Helping most and losing some, our first responders, doctors, nurses, and frontline healthcare workers see these tragedies each and everyday.
So thank you.
World(s) caving in
What I find troubling is that, in the case of my friend, in a matter of hours there were at least five families who, on that day had their worlds shattered. Their lives caved in on themselves as they lost one or several loved ones in tragic accidents. And scenes like these are playing themselves out every minute of every day across the world.
In fact, I’d be willing to bet that if a tragic loss isn’t occurring in your life this month (which I sincerely hope it isn’t), there is someone that you will interact with this week that is going through something unimaginable. They may not tell you, but inside, their soul is aching beyond belief. The thoughts and hopes and fears we’ve been talking about have crashed through their front door and made themselves at home in every room, every picture, every song, and every thought of the person or persons that have been left behind with sudden, unexpected, tragic, or untimely loss of the person who meant more than anyone else in the world to them.
Keep these people in your prayers or thoughts or whatever you believe brings hope and comfort and peace.
Death is still scary
Death still scares me. I am less afraid of the event of death itself (unless snakes are involved… because snakes are messed up), and more afraid of losing out on the time I would have with the people I care about. Should I die, I feel bad that my kids wouldn’t have their dad around and that Caitlin would have a period of time alone, left to deal with the fallout, and never being able to enjoy my sexual prowess ever again.
“Oh, come on Erik! That was a touching moment you just totally ruined! Gosh!”
Moving on… I guess the point is: focus on what you can control. And, unfortunately, odds are, we won’t be able to control how or when we end this Life, so use your time wisely… you never know how much you gonna get.
Speaking of which, it’s time for me to stop writing and go wrestle my kids.
If any of you have found the answers for yourself, share them for the rest of us. Remember, just because something works for you, doesn’t mean it works for everyone.
And that’s okay.
I like to write. Some of it makes sense, most of it doesn’t, but if you’re into that kind of thing, subscribe and you’ll get notified when I post something new.