What Happens When You Die


Your funeral feels surreal. Faces from your past and present are suddenly all in the same place, smiling and crying and celebrating your life. Your loved ones are hugging each other and saying goodbye to you, but they haven’t really accepted yet that you’re gone. They never really will. Your presence is still felt everywhere. When your loved ones squint they can almost see your fingerprints glowing on everything you touched. Doorknobs and light switches, shoelaces and silverware. It’s like you’re still here, just out of reach, and your voice is still so clear, just distant, coming from another room.

Your obituary seems uncanny, both unreal and hyperreal, like a piece of fiction that’s somehow become a fact. Your loved ones read it once, twice, again and again. They read between the lines. There are stories hidden within that brief paragraph. There are chapters. Volumes. So much goes unsaid. Your loved ones glance at all those other obituaries printed on the page and imagine all the other recently deceased out there, and all those other loved ones. They are strangers, united by grief. The living left behind by the dead.

And that’s what’s so strange too, that your death isn’t front page news. It’s buried in the obituaries section, the graveyard of the newspaper. Meanwhile the rest of the paper is tattooed with the usual ink stains. Weather and war, gossip and sports, op-eds and crosswords. Your death belongs with the puzzles: it’s a sudoku without any numbers, impossible to solve.

The world is cruel in its obliviousness. Offers for new credit cards addressed to you continue to arrive in the mail. They pile up in the recycling bin, unopened.

Your phone number is still saved in your loved ones’ cellphones. They’ll never delete it. Your email address still pops up in the To field, and it haunts them every time.

Photographs of you take on more weight. A 5×7 inch glossy photo of your naturally smiling face weighs 3.5 ounces, but it may as well weigh a hundred pounds. Your joyful gaze transcends two dimensions.

Your emails become digital mementos. Every book you inscribed, every card you sent, every gift you gave takes on new gravity, exerting its own pull on the soul, a bittersweet black hole to be cherished from time to time, then placed back on the shelf. These objects can’t replace you, but their presence helps solidify your absence.

Your loved ones couldn’t forget you even if they tried. Artifacts are everywhere, scattered through the mundane world of sights and sounds. Your sandwich on the menu. Your song on the radio. At first the unexpected reminders sting, and your loved ones wish those things would respectfully disappear, wish restaurants would stop serving Reubens and radio stations would stop playing The Temptations. But eventually the sting lessens, until it barely feels like they’re being stung, and your loved ones order your favorite sandwich, and hum along to your favorite song.

Life goes on without you. Time doesn’t pause. Students go to school. Workers go to work. Meals get prepared and eaten. Money exchanges hands. Jokes are told. TV shows broadcast new episodes. Gas tanks get filled. Dishwashers get emptied. Dogs bark. Cats nap. Birds sing in trees. The sun rises and sets, rises and sets. Perhaps that’s the hardest thing of all to accept, that everything in the world just keeps on going without you in it.

Acceptance comes in slow stages over the months and years following your death, and nevertheless sometimes upon waking from a dream about you, it’s hard to believe you’re forever gone. The dream gets dismissed as just a dream even though a part of the dreamer knows it was you, saying hello.

You weren’t perfect. You were better than perfect. You were good. You were warmth and wit, kindness and integrity, welcoming arms after a long flight home. You loved this place, this planet. You loved it in a way that only you could, and your love lingers in everything you left behind. Your family and friends. Your work. Your books and movies and TV shows. Your food and music. Your house. Your neighborhood. Your evening walks. Your now empty shoes. Your expired passport, which took you everywhere.

You loved. You are loved. You will be missed.

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