I debated for weeks whether to write about something as personal as the death of my brother Kevin on my (semi)professional blog and to try to explain how this event affected my view of life. Ultimately, I gave myself permission after deciding that it’s a fallacy to think that anyone can seal their personal and professional selves into watertight compartments. The personal side of me draws meaning from what I know of anthropology and evolutionary biology. I agree with the physicist Brian Greene, who once wrote that science isn’t merely about facts and theories; it’s also about the perspective those facts and theories provide. Science widens our horizons. Likewise, my academic side draws inspiration from my personal history, including the people who have been part of my life. I can say unequivocally that I was drawn into anthropology because of the many friends of different ethnicities I’ve had, which made me curious about the biological and cultural diversity of humanity. All of these things are significant events in my life, as is the death of my brother, after whom this website is named.
Yesterday marked the tenth anniversary of the passing of my younger brother Kevin, who died after his SUV swerved off the side of a small highway and hit a tree. He was only 23 years old, and left behind a young wife and an infant son. I was 25 and in graduate school at the time, three hundred miles away, and didn’t learn what happened until my father called me at 6 AM the following morning. To this day, any time the phone rings in the early morning or late at night, I am automatically filled with a sense of dread. As my father repeatedly asked me if I was sitting down before telling me what had happened, I immediately knew that someone close to me had died. I didn’t care if I was seated, standing, or on my head; I just wanted to know what happened. After what seemed like an eternity, I relented and told my father that I was in fact sitting down. For the rest of my life, his words will be tattooed in my mind: “Your brother Kevin was in a car accident last night, and he’s no longer with us.”
The grief was immediate and paralyzing. My first thoughts were fairly rational: “are Ana and Daniel (his wife and son) OK?” Thankfully, they were, as they were not in the car at the time. Then illogical thoughts ran through my mind, like “I can’t go home for the funeral yet. I have to grade final exams for Mike Little’s class.” (Of course, Mike was kind and completely understanding, and took over all my grading duties). But many unanswerable questions consumed me. First, I wondered what Kevin’s last thoughts were. Did he know it was the end? Did he even have time to think at all? Was he ever in pain, or should I accept at face value the notion that he died instantly in the crash and didn’t suffer? Who can ever know? More importantly, I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that I’ll never get to talk to my brother again. Ever. There is no concept deeper or more incomprehensible than forever. To think about such things can be disorienting, or worse.
The next few months were a fog of tears and spontaneous emotional breakdowns. My fiancé, Debby, and I were getting married in early July, not even two months after Kevin’s accident, but everyone in the family encouraged us to go forward with the wedding because we needed something to celebrate after the tragedy. It was a welcome distraction and somewhat cathartic, but also bittersweet. Something was conspicuously missing, and still is. How could it not be? Someone who should be here simply is not.
I’m not claiming to be unique. Almost everyone has suffered from the death of someone close to them, and if they haven’t, then it’s only a matter of time. Certainly, many people have had more tragedies in their lives than I have. Kevin’s death has impacted the people in his life in various ways, and I don’t presume to speak on their behalf, only what his passing has meant for me. Since that time, I’ve probably become more preoccupied with death than a healthy 35 year-old American should be. ‘Obsessed’ would be an overstatement, but it was a sobering smack in the face, reminding me that death is the elephant in the room that everyone tries to ignore, but ultimately we cannot.
At some point, everyone is forced to accept death as a natural part of life, but we are nonetheless inclined to view it with trepidation and sadness (I’m no exception, obviously). Much of that fear may result from the mystery factor, since no person can ever describe authoritatively what it’s like to be dead. Even near-death experiences cannot suffice. Another fear must simply be of non-existence, of losing consciousness, of ceasing to be. Forever. I suspect that even the most stoic, faithful individuals among us harbor those fears subconsciously. We may be able to temper our grief by believing in an afterlife or the idea that some part of us, such as a soul, continues on without the body. However, grieving over death may be instinctive, as all cultures grieve in some way. We may even find it in other species.
The evidence is accumulating that apes have at least some awareness of mortality. I’ve written before about the case of the juvenile chimpanzee Flint and his mother, Flo. Essentially, Flint died from refusing to eat for a month after his mother passed away, hinting strongly that his grief led to outright depression. Other case studies support the notion that apes can grieve or are at least aware of death in a general sense, if not their own mortality. In a famous 2009 National Geographic photo (above), a group of chimpanzees at a primate rescue center in Cameroon appear to be captivated by the deceased body of their former groupmate, Dorothy. In another example from a safari park in Scotland, chimpanzees were videotaped gently caressing and grooming a 50 year-old female named Pansy who was fatally ill, as if to comfort her. After she died, researchers noted that Pansy’s son, daughter, and a friend appeared to check her for signs of life. Pansy’s daughter slept next to her body, in an area of the exhibit where she had never done so before. In addition, the three survivors were described as being ‘subdued’ for weeks afterward. On the other hand, there are also multiple videos of chimpanzee mothers carrying or protecting the bodies of their deceased infants for weeks after they died, raising the question of whether the mothers recognized that their infants were in fact dead. To the zoologist Dora Biro, mothers do realize when their infants are dead because they understood that the infants were immobile and unable to cling to their mothers’ bodies by themselves, which they normally can.
So, what’s going on here?
It is extremely difficult to discern exactly what an ape is thinking, but if we accept the evidence that we share a recent common ancestor with them, then it makes sense that we should share not only similar anatomies, but also brain structures and behaviors, at least when compared with more distantly related species. In light of the above examples, it is not too great a leap to suggest that chimpanzees share with us the intellectual capacity to recognize mortality as well as emotional states such as grief, though more evidence is needed. I think that their behavior resonates with us because we can see parallels to our own emotions, though there is always the danger of anthropomorphizing and seeing something that is not actually there. In other words, it is important to avoid highlighting only the similarities we have with apes while ignoring or downplaying the differences. For example, human mothers do not carry their deceased infants around as chimpanzees do. One possible explanation for why chimp mothers do this is that it indicates the strength of the mother-infant bond and a reluctance to let go, but it is difficult to be sure.
Even without the anecdotal evidence of grief and awareness of mortality in chimpanzees, we can still say with confidence that grief has deep roots, since it is a human universal. In that context, the pain that accompanies the death of a loved one (particularly a premature or unjust death) may be inescapable for most of us.
And yet, even being fully aware of the fact that death and grief are inevitable, I refuse to focus on them and yield to a pessimistic view because there is too much to admire about life. There is a path to a more sanguine perspective, and this is where science helps center things a little, at least for me. When thinking about death, it is also necessary to consider its converse – life – and how incredibly fortunate we are to be alive. One of my favorite quotes on this comes from the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins:
“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”
Read that quote again if you have to until it sinks in. It’s beyond profound. However, it may not go far enough. To say we are “lucky” to be alive seems inadequate. A better way of putting it might be that the odds against any individual being alive today actually existing were microscopically, infinitesimally, almost incalculably minute. If we accept an evolutionary perspective, and I think we should given the accumulated evidence, then we can say that every species alive today (E. coli, komodo dragons, jellyfish, rosebushes, & humans) shares a common ancestor that dates back to some point in time, possibly as early as 3.9 billion years ago. From those earliest life forms to us is an unbroken thread, with continuity at each intersection, at each generation, eventually arriving at all contemporary organisms, including us (from our own egocentric point of view). How unlikely was it that we’d be here? It’s hard to say exactly, but we can make some estimates based on the number of generations we have in our ancestry.
Consider that for most of human history, women probably had their first child around age 22 (we can infer this from recent, technologically simple ‘natural fertility populations’ that lacked artificial birth control). We also know that chimpanzee females have their first infant around age 14 years. If we consider these to be the generation times in these two species, we can split the difference and say that the average hominin generation time was around 18 years since our lineage split from chimpanzees around 6 million years ago. Though this method is admittedly crude, if we divide the 6 million years of hominins that existed between us and chimps by 18 years, we get about 333,000 generations where our ancestors walked bipedally. If at any point in those 333,000 generations our lineage was broken, then you wouldn’t be here (and you obviously are here, so good for you).
Plus, that’s just for our ancestry as hominins. For a more complete model, we’d have to factor in ALL of the generations in our lineage over the full 3.9 billion years of life. As we get closer to the earlier stages of life, generation times of our earlier ancestors were quicker- much quicker- before we evolved into moderate sized mammals such as apes and humans. For example, some bacteria have a generation time of 10 minutes. What this means is that we’re talking very big numbers here in terms of how many generations preceded us, meaning that there were an astronomical number of opportunities for one of our ancestors to drop the baton before passing on their genes to the next generation. And all it would take would be for one link in the chain, one generation, to be broken to have prevented us from existing. Anything from failing to outrun a predator, eating a poisonous berry, a famine, or just a freak accident could have broken the chain.
Oh, and one more thing… if we consider that males in sexually reproducing species, of which we are one of course, release on the order of millions to billions of sperm cells per copulation, the odds of any one particular sperm cell reaching the egg and becoming one of your ancestors was literally one in a million, at best. Then, take that number and multiply itby the 1.2 billion years of generations among sexual reproducers, add in the remaining number of generations we spent as asexual reproducers, and you have a ballpark idea for the odds of your own existence. The bottom line is that the deck was stacked against any single one of us being here (to put it mildly). We weren’t guaranteed to be here, but we ARE here. To me, that is a very comforting notion.
Evolutionarily speaking, what each of us have done is the equivalent of winning the cosmic lottery. There were an astronomical number of closing doors we had to pass through to make it here, and each of us made it through every single one. Life can be a struggle, but the struggle seems to be worth it because species endure despite living in ecological niches that can’t be very pleasant. Consider what it would be like to be something other than a human being, such as a mosquito, algae in Antarctica, or thermophile microbes living at boiling temperatures in deep-sea vents or the hot springs of Yellowstone. To us, that doesn’t sound like very much fun at all, yet those species (like all others) plod along. Why do they do it? In Bill Bryson’s words:
“It is easy to overlook this thought that life just is. As humans we are inclined to feel that life must have a point. We have plans and aspirations and desires. We want to take constant advantage of the intoxicating existence we’ve been endowed with. But what’s life to a lichen? Yet its impulse to exist, to be, is every bit as strong as ours-arguably even stronger. If I were told that I had to spend decades being a furry growth on a rock in the woods, I believe I would lose the will to go on. Lichens don’t. Like virtually all living things, they will suffer any hardship, endure any insult, for a moment’s additional existence. Life, in short, just wants to be. But- and here’s an interesting point- for the most part it doesn’t want to be much.”
I don’t think I’d want to be a lichen either, but having never been one I cannot say. However, if the option were between being a lichen or being nothing at all, the choice is obvious. The lichen life cycle may not be the most exciting thing in the world to us, but it must be somewhat successful simply because lichens have avoided extinction. Species have many adaptations and strategies to exist: from bacteria that reproduce every 10 minutes to bristlecone pine trees that live over 4,000 years. Or, imagine what it would be like to be a Madagascar chameleon (Furcifer labordi). From conception to death, it has a lifespan of less than a year, making it the shortest living tetrapod (4 -limbed animal) in the world. In fact, it only lives for 4 to 5 months after hatching from the egg. Why do this? Simply put, this is a genetic strategy to speed up the life cycle in order to reach the age of reproduction for the chance to pass along their genes. For some species, that strategy must be rapid because harsh ecological conditions prevent them from living too long. Other species, such as ours, can take a bit longer. If all goes right for us, our genes may allow us to survive for 80 or 90 years. However, for many people in the world life expectancy is much lower than that, which seems patently unfair.
No matter how long or short, life is an incomparable gift, and as humans we are fortunate enough to have evolved sophisticated brains that allow us to contemplate the nature of our own existence. It is our chance to observe, explore, question, feel awe and wonder, experience love and pain (hopefully more of the former), help others, and appreciate the beauty and magnificence in even the most mundane details of our universe, from atoms to astronomy to altruism to art. No matter where one finds inspiration- religion, philosophy, science- I think we can agree that an opportunity at life is precious.
I’ve tried (and succeeded, somewhat) to see life this way ever since losing Kevin. To console my parents, I suggested that one way to think of his passing was that we had him for 23 years, which is far too short, but infinitely better than not having known him at all. We are also fortunate that before he died he gave us a sister-in-law and a nephew. When I think of life in this way, I am profoundly grateful for the opportunity to be alive, to be conscious at this place and time in the universe. Despite my shortcomings, the mistakes I make, and the painful experiences I may have, they are all dwarfed by the opportunity to exist, to live.
To me, this is the proper way to view life. It is temporary. It is not guaranteed to anyone. It is sometimes painful. But it is also a heroic struggle to exist against the odds. As Darwin wrote, “there is grandeur in this view of life.” He was right. Life is – above all else- beautiful.
Thanks for sharing this. You have captured and put into words how I feel about the subject also raised some questions that I never thought of. Amidst all hardships, life is indeed beautiful.
absolutely beautiful. thank you for writing this and for sharing it with all of us. your brother’s love and your love for your brother come through in your words, in the fact that you have written this, in the email commemorating his life, for your expressions of vulnerability and humility…i marvel at how this love and your brother’s memory have touched me so even though i can never know him. it is a testament to the ways that, through love, life transcends death. i now better understand the significance of your website’s name.
Your words are so eloquent, I dont know how you do it but you always have a way to say the things I think and feel but don’t know how to put words to them. I love you and am grateful that you are my big brother because even if I don’t say it I look up to you and always will.
Patrick – I can hear you speaking these words to me as we drive across Tennessee with half a journey behind and half a journey ahead. Life if beautiful, even if only for five minutes at a burst (or five days or five years or five decades). Thank you for sharing, and in that sharing, this eternal human need to tell our stories, you have reminded me of this beauty, and have helped me to live a better life and to in turn share a better life with those around me. The bond I feel with your brother, a man was not lucky enough to meet in person, is amazingly strong, and the bond I have with you and your family is seemingly unbreakable. Thank you. Your friend for as long as possible… Kevin
patrick, i find your words truly consoling. unfortunately, i know your pain – my wound is still an open wound but your wound is still painful – i find comfort in knowing what a wonderful person you are – your parents did a fine job raising the four of you, as you & debby are doing a great job with your sons – we are truly blessed to have a caring & compassionate family – no one should ever have to deal with death alone, and yet, there are people, many people, that have no one – can you imagine going thru this grief alone????? i, for one, cannot – i went to one grief counseling session & the commentator asked if there was anyone in the room that has @ least 3 people to call in the middle of the night & just 2 of us raised our hands – personally, i have so many i couldn;t count right away but one woman started crying & said she only had one person – and i was totally overwhelmed, at that given moment, to think how very fortunate i am to have so many people in my live that truly love me & for that i am forever comforted – i love you pat, now & forever aunt patti
Patrick you took the words & feelings right out of my mouth. I know that phone call and the term “what I have to tell you” oh so well and never liked it, because it’s haunting.
In either case I honestly believe our brothers, loved ones etc. walk with us and some how watch over us until our end days
Thank You so much for putting this into words
Follow up: On the odds of your existence.
Certainly changes the mood of one’s Monday evening in the most thoughtful and thankful kind of way. Such a beautiful piece Patrick – and so beautifully written. Thank you – a truly a generous gesture to have shared. x
I’ve read several books on great apes and I don’t buy for a minute the idea that chimpanzees wouldn’t understand mortality. They really aren’t that different from humans and suggesting they don’t recognize their children are dead is simply absurd. It sounds like the usual “their culture reacts to something in a different way from our culture, so clearly they cannot be as developed as we are”.
The question of figuring out what apes think is actually a tricky one. I agree with you that it’s very likely that they understand at least some aspects of mortality. We have observations of similar behaviors, and personalities in apes and other intelligent animals. We also have the logic of evolution that predicts similar neuro-biology. But, cannot observe directly what is going on in the mind of an animal, and we cannot interview them to ask them what they’re feeling. That is a frustrating limitation of science, but it’s one that needs to be acknowledged.
I read for the first time another of one of your articles a while ago and now this one and I can say that for many many reasons i will be searching for more. You have a unique way of putting to words emotionally difficult subject matter in a way that is easy for me to identify with both emotionally and intellectually. I also commend you for your ability to write in a way that is still comprehendable to myself albeit I know I am most likely far, far less educated than yourself. I can feel your sincerity and heartfelt thoughts that determine your words and for that i thank you. I look forward to searching for more and more of your writing and if you have authored any books I will surely be a customer.
Thank you very much, Greg. I appreciate the kind words. Don’t sell yourself short. You write very well too.
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This is so beautiful! I am coming to it very late, as I only found it because you linked to in in this posting: https://kevishere.wordpress.com/2013/01/23/nature-not-always-red-in-tooth-and-claw/ Brilliant! Thank you for your thoughtfulness and sensitivity.
Allow me to take this opportunity to introduce myself and say hello. My name is Richard Wagner. I’m a psychotherapist and sex therapist here in Seattle. I am the author of the newly published — The Amateur’s Guide To Death and Dying; Enhancing the End of Life.
I’ve been working with sick elder and dying people, in hospital, hospice and home settings for over 30 years. I facilitate support groups for care-providers and clinical personnel as well as provide grief counseling for survivors both individually and in groups settings. I was honored with the prestigious UCSF Chancellor’s Award for Public Service back in 1999 for this very work.
I design, develop, and produce long and short term in-service training seminars for helping and healing professionals. And I am the founder of the nonprofit organization, PARADIGM Enhancing Life Near Death.
At any rate, I just wanted to say hello and thank you. I sense we are kindred spirits.. For more information about my new book see: http://theamateursguide.com/?p=83
Thanks for taking the time to read this.
All the best,
Hi Richard, thanks for the introduction and the kind words. Your work sounds very important and the book looks quite interesting and positive. You’re right that we have a taboo around death, which probably only compounds the emotional pain when it jumps into our lives. I think Stephen Colbert said that “grief will always accept the invitation to appear.” I’m not so sure he’s right. Grief is powerful, but we have other emotions and capabilities in us that can resist it, under the right circumstances.
Some suggest that grief resisted is grief denied. I know many people that won’t let themselves feel what they are feeling. Perhaps it’s too powerful, too disturbing or they have a sense that it’s unmanageable. But like death itself, grief will take us. Being honest about our grief, having the integrity to live with and through it, will, I believe, allow grief to take it’s proper place in our lives. It will mark us as genuine people, people who have loved deeply and mourned fully.
Thank you for your comments about my book. I don’t suppose you’d be up for taking a look at it, would you? The reviews I’ve gotten so far are truly amazing, but one can never have too many reviews.
I can safely say that it’s fundamentally different in style and scope from everything else I’ve ever read on the topic. I could send a PDF copy or a hard copy. Feel free to contact me through my site.
Dear Mr. Clarkin,
It is so rare to come across writing which celebrates life so positively. And I find myself wanting to print this so I can read it everyday, to remind myself that no matter how tough it gets, there is a reason to celebrate being here, being alive.
I am so sorry for your loss. My father passed away 6 months ago, and I feel that there is no filling that space that he has left, and the thought that it is for-ever is too much.
Thank you for sharing these thoughts and words. Which I hope I will be able to draw comfort from when I need them.
I’m glad you found something worthwhile in what I wrote, Hina. I’m sorry to hear about your father. Forever can seem like too much, but it is also a fact that we knew our loved ones, and that fact lasts forever too, even if we aren’t here to remember it.
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Patrick, I just came across this posting, as I read your blog only occasionally (urged by Amy Todd). I, too, lost a brother to an accident. He was riding his motorcycle and swerved into the guardrail That was in July 2008. He had just turned 50, and sadly had no partner or children. I still struggle with the grief, but in many ways I am comforted by thinking of and remembering him, often when I see him so strongly in my own son whom he resembles. This was a beautiful essay. Thank you.
Thank you. I’m sorry to hear of your brother, Jemma. In my experience, the grief never goes away completely, but it’s like a pulse where the frequency between beats gets longer over time. Sometimes it’s awakened by some unexpected reminder.
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