Escape from the Woo Zoo: Musings on Life and Death
This is part of our Teen Skepchick series, Escape from the Woo Zoo, in which regular people tell stories of how they gave up unsubstantiated beliefs in favor of evidence and skepticism. You can read previous installments here.
Growing up, one of the hardest lessons to learn is how to cope with loss. As kids, we’re not supposed to understand death, and certainly not experience major loss. Dying is something that happens to old people and people far away. But as adults, we are expected to be able to cope with understand dying and loss, and be able to cope to some degree. That puts the transition sometime in the teen years or early twenties. At some point, everyone experiences a major loss, that really makes them realize the fragility of life. For me, that was when I was around 13 years old.
The first boy died of a single gun wound to the head, from his hunting gun. To this day, it’s unclear if it was accidental, as his cleaning kit was out when they found him, or if it was a suicide. He was an amazing pianist, and had grand plans about performance after graduating high school and college. He was 15 years old.
The second boy’s death was a suicide, a few months later. In the note he left, he said that he would be more useful in the world as an organ donor than living his own life. He was an academic star. He was 15 years old.
A little less than a year later, a third boy committed suicide. He’d been accelerated in school a lot, already attending college classes. He was a great mathematical mind. It was his 16th birthday.
I wasn’t close friends with any of the three boys, but I knew all of them well enough that it shocked me to realize they weren’t alive anymore. The first boy, just a year before his death, sent me a get-well card after surgery. I had attended a week-long summer retreat with the third when I was 9. They’d all had great potential and even greater dreams for the future. Now, none of them would get to live those dreams, or show the world what they could do, who they could be. Before that year, the only deaths I’d experienced were my great-granndparents’, when I was 4 and 7, and that of a research associate at the museum, when I was 9. Those happened to old people, who had a chance to live their lives and be somebody. Sure it was still sad, and the knowledge and memories lost with them could never be recovered. But they were old, and it was time to peacefully pass away in the night.
But for the three teenagers… it wasn’t fair. They shouldn’t have died. Why did they die? I asked that question a lot that year. From my parents, I got explanations about how the universe isn’t fair, and at least all three boys were perfect matches for people waiting on organ lists. They live on, in the lives their deaths saved. My pastor gave a similar explanation, about how perhaps it was in God’s plan to save 12 children at the cost of my three acquaintances’ lives. He also offered to pray for them and their families, and suggested that perhaps I’d meet them again in heaven.
These assurances didn’t help much. I didn’t think it made any sense for an omnipotent and omnipresent God to have to end three live to save a dozen others. Why couldn’t all 15 live happy and healthy to old age? And by that point, I didn’t believe in an afterlife – I’m not sure I ever really did. I didn’t like that this was how the universe worked, that random things killed people with a future, whether through direct happenstance or a accumulation of things until death seemed like the only way out. It wasn’t fair. It still isn’t. And for the first time, I was scared of dying. Not for myself- I simply wanted to accomplish something before I died. I was terrified that all the boys I knew with the brightest futures would die before they’d had a chance to shine. In particular, I was terrified for my three younger brothers (11, 10, and 10 at the time) and CJ, my collegue, close friend, and crush (14 then). Losing them would not only devastate me… the whole world would be missing something wonderful. And almost no one would know.
For me, coping with the loss and the fear ended up making me both stronger and more cynical. Now, 5 years later, I am very intolerant of woo about the dead. Mediums who pretend to talk to the souls of the departed are running a sick, sick scam, preying on people at their most vulnerable. And those who believe in ghosts are, in my opinion, at least a little delusional. Even the idea of an afterlife, particularly of a hell, bothers me, although I can understand why people find the idea of heaven comforting. After all, I’ve rarely talked about that grief and terror since the first boy’s death, because I still find it difficult to handle. Knowing I’d see those I’ve lost again would make it much easier. But, that time in my life also strengthened my conviction that this life is the only one I get, and my intent to live it to the absolute fullest. There’s sadness and anger and fear and ugliness in the world, but also immense beauty, love, joy, and opportunity. Reveling in the chance to be alive is the least I can do in memory of those who didn’t get a chance to.