“We all have our ghosts.”

Robin Williams 1951-2014
Image credit: Google via Newslok.com

During beta 2 of The Ghosts of Reseda High, I will post spoiler-free commentary about issues and themes I cover in the book. This is the seventh and final post of the series. 

This week, we had a sobering confrontation with death.

Much has been said about the death of Robin Williams. Some of it has been a much needed discussion about depression and suicide. Most of the talk is about the loss of a great talent, the appreciation of the creative work he has given us, and the regret that there won’t be any more. Unfortunately, others have used this tragedy as an opportunity to further their political or religious agendas or engage in “look at me” trolling.

Regardless of what has been said, it reveals more about ourselves than the person who died.

We speak about someone’s death in terms of how it affects us. The memories we made. The things we will miss. We yearn for their presence and feel their absence. We second guess ourselves, especially when someone died young. We mutter a guilty “if only” or “I wish I had.” We feel regret.

We may also feel anger. When people accuse Robin Williams of “being selfish” for “choosing” suicide, I can hear that anger. Even though that’s not true about suicide, we wish it were. If it were true, Robin could have been saved — and we could have been spared the pain of his death. We could control the situation. But we can’t control Robin’s emotions or the impulse that drove him to that final act. We get angry at what we can’t control.

We can’t control death. We can’t prevent it. Our modern medicine, functioning sanitation systems, and clean water supplies may delay it, but it can’t cure it. We must face the fact that all of us will suffer the pain of losing a loved one. And our loved ones will one day suffer the pain of losing us.

Sometimes, the pain doesn’t go away. I still feel the pain of my mom’s death 22 years later. Mary Ann Henderson’s death still haunts the people who remember her after nearly 40 years.

What can we do? Give ourselves permission to feel those difficult feelings that we don’t want to be there. To feel the grief, the emptiness, the regret, and even the anger. We need to allow ourselves to feel those feelings as long as necessary. Those feelings will fade, and we will go on with our lives. But those feelings will fade on their own schedule. We have no control over them as well.

Even then, that sense of loss may never go away. Our loved ones may seem like ghosts to us — a presence that remains but isn’t really there. We carry those ghosts around with us. We may choose to let them go someday, or they may stay with us. They may haunt us. Ideally, they can teach, inspire, and comfort us.

I think about an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation when Data and Captain Picard attend the funeral of a crew member who had been killed. Data, an android trying to understand human emotions, asks Captain Picard:

Data: Sir, the purpose of this gathering confuses me.
Picard; Oh? How so?
Data: I find my thoughts are not for Tasha, but for myself. I keep thinking, how empty it will be without her presence. Did I miss the point?
Picard: No you didn’t, Data. You got it.

The dead don’t need our mourning, but we do. We need to face our emptiness, our regret, and our anger. We need our ghosts until we don’t need them anymore.