Experiencing Life and Death Across Generations

How personal experiences of life and death can be devalued if operating with self-centered priorities.

| September 2014

  • In “How To Survive Life (And Death),” author Robert Kopecky, who has had three near-death experiences, explains what it means to be alive today.
    Cover courtesy Conari Press
  • For those who were born during the post-war American baby boom, their generational experience of life and death has become isolated from previous generations.
    Photo by Fotolia/mattiamarty

The deaths of ones we love come in generational waves as Robert Kopecky explains in How to Survive Life (and Death) (Conari Press, 2014). In this book, Kopecky touches on the way individuals tend to possess self-centered experiences of life and death when a loved one passes away. He also provides an insightful look into the cultural definition of death and how to escape it. This excerpt is from the section “A Baby Boom Goes Boom.”

A Baby Boom Goes Boom

Every generation must have more or less the same experience of life—updated to current times, that is. The basic life cycle couldn’t have changed all that much, except that we generally live a lot longer now. We obviously all get born—a shared experience that I don’t think anybody can remember. As little children, our brains aren’t developed enough to receive all the complicated transmissions, navigate “reality,” or fill up with lots of (mostly useless) “important” stuff for a while yet. I think that’s why so many little kids appear to be so endearingly insane. For a little while at least, they’re free of the complicated world of “who you are supposed to be.” They haven’t yet reached that threshold of sanity that we call being “grown-up” (which some of us never truly reach) and which always tragically tends to interrupt our ability to perceive the simplest magic of Life. That can be our critical loss of innocence, I suppose.

It isn’t until you get a little older that a slightly more adult perception starts to form and you also first begin to notice the seriousness of death, perhaps with the loss of a beloved pet—a loss that never gets any easier because of the shared innocence of our animal partners. Then maybe a grandparent passes away. Sometimes there’s an illness or an accident involving a young friend or acquaintance, and occasionally the loss of another person now and then throughout your life. Then your second generational wave of deaths arrives: an uncle, a friend’s parent, and on into your own parents’ generation. It’s a far more involving wave, that one, because it sets you firmly into a middle age when you begin to lose your parents and mentors, and when you first begin to sense that “ultimate” wave that’s drawing ever nearer to your own generation—and, most important, to you.

I was born at the tail end of the 20th-century post-war American “baby boom,” so I’m somewhere approaching or in the middle of that second wave. The third wave, my own, is rising up on the horizon ahead—–not nearly so far off as it once was. Now I sometimes remember how I experienced death during those earlier times of my life. As a child, at first it was with solemn questions like: “Why?” and “I wonder what really happens?” That was replaced by a generally similar quizzical sadness as I passed into my young adulthood. As I got older, the deaths of people I cared about seemed to be more about me, and my questions unconsciously changed: “Why did it have to be them?” or “What’ll I do now?” Death started to be defined more by what I would lose.

Being “grown up,” what we call adulthood, is, in many cultures (not just ours), often considered to be about becoming “a somebody” as opposed to just simply being a part of a larger group. If we consider ourselves as special “some-bodies” who make things happen in the world, then it tends to feel more as if the world is making things happen to us. Of course, it is an exchange; we do build lives and “reap what we sow.” On the other hand, the grown-up idea that I’m somebody totally separate and special may be good for the old self-esteem, but it can too easily get out of hand and become a bit grandiose given the actual scale and eternal sweep of Life. That sense of separation isn’t really very realistic, you know; it can disassociate us in a self-centered way from the real value of our experiences—in our relationships with one another, and with the events of Life and death. In this ego-based way, each of us and every generation can lose its proper perspective.

I had my first NDE in my twenties, my second in my thirties, and my third in my forties. None in my fifties so far, thank you very much. So I received this crazy, painful periodic education, parts of which remained subconscious until I finally “woke up in class” as I entered into that wave of deaths that includes my generation, as I and my peers began losing the ones we love—and each other. So it’s largely for those peers that I’m writing this book, even though I suggested earlier that “it’s for anybody who’s planning on dying someday.” Of course, it’s for all of you too, but it’s specifically for a baby boom that’s about to go boom—and there’s always one of those around. My boom, your boom, everybody’s boom boom.

When I look around, I see calm pockets of wisdom and reason concerning mortality. But I also see so many people of my generation confused and conflicted by the “meaninglessness” of death, and becoming agitated by the inevitability of their own aging and “ending.” I’m sure this happens to every generation, not just mine; but this is one of the first generations in Western culture to be almost completely, artificially separated from the experience of death. There aren’t too many elderly people dying in the family home anymore. We seldom witness the grim fates of millions of farm animals, or what once were the brutal necessities of hunting to kill and eat. Because of this, life and death experiences that were once appropriately acknowledged, even ritualized in earlier indigenous cultures, have now become unsettling and unnecessary expressions of a skewed mass ego, shielded by denial at a global level. (We really don’t need to kill anything except plants anymore—rice will not become extinct.)

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