Funerals, like sneezes, tend to come in groups. We had a rash of funerals in our community this last year.
None of the people who died were particularly close to me. But funerals, also like sneezes, have a cumulative effect. They add up after a while.
One autumn, I remember, Joan and I lost six friends or distant relatives. As the season moved on, I felt incredibly tired. Eventually I realized that, even though we hadn’t seen some of those people for years, their deaths had somehow diminished us.
I’ve often wondered why.
The most satisfying answer I’ve found comes from philosopher Ken Wilber. He argues that we humans are not individuals but holons.
“Holons” – I dislike the name; I love the concept. At the risk of fearfully oversimplifying his thought, Wilber says that everything is part of something else. Each thing has its own identity, but it is always part of something bigger too.
So an atom is part of a molecule, which is part of a compound, which is part of a mineral, which is part of an ore body, which is part of a continent, which is part of a planet, which is part of a solar system…
A cell is part of a leaf, which is part of a plant, which is part of a forest…
I am an individual, but I am part of a couple, of a family with children, with grandchildren… I belong to a church, a Rotary club, a nation….
We delude ourselves when we insist that we stand alone as individuals. That would make us only half of a holon. In fact, we are attached in countless ways to other individuals, who make us whole.
In the womb, we are literally attached to our mothers.
As newborns, we are physically separate from an adult. But we cannot survive without an adult’s loving care. We bond with her smell, his voice, her touch, his breath.
Later, we broaden our range of connections. We develop attachments to teachers. To youth leaders. Perhaps to priests or ministers.
In our teens, we differentiate ourselves from our parents; we gradually sever our closest attachments. But we don’t cease to be holons. Even as we cut some ties, we build others. With peers, colleagues, associates….
Marriage creates a new set of attachments. To a spouse. To children. To in-laws.
Whenever one of our attachments dies, part of us dies too. Sometimes a small part, sometimes a huge part.
Amputees refer to the reality of a “phantom limb.” That arm or leg has gone, physically. But it still hurts. It itches. It feels cold. The amputee has not yet grown used to the absence of that limb.
So too when someone close dies. They do not just vanish. They are still part of our holon, our whole.
A death never happens just to an individual. It ripples through the whole web of connections that made that person whole, and that makes each of us whole.
It’s not just the loss of someone else that hurts. It’s the loss of part of me.
Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author of 17 books and several thousand magazine and newspaper articles. He welcomes comments; firstname.lastname@example.org.