Universal Ethics > Wise Choices > Index > Death and Grief

Death, Grief, and the hope of Immortality

It is inevitable that each person will eventually die, and there will be a sense of loss that arises in those who remain that cared about that person.

How can one prevent or mitigate that sadness? The most obvious solution would be immortality, so that one doesn't have to face the problem at all. So, let's start by considering immortality...

Conceivably an individual life could last forever. Currently, humans and other animals generally do not last forever, because there are some parts that wear out and are not replaced, and also the animals gradually become susceptible to disease. But in the future, genetic engineering might make it possible to have a perfect body that fully repairs itself from any wear and that is immune to diseases. Or one could place hope on religion, with a promise that a god exists who can already do it, and who will provide a resurrection of each person that he chooses to save.

However, as we imagine various hypothetical scenarios, we can see that there is still some inevitable loss with each of them.

In the case of a genetically engineered immortal person, first of all that's far off in the future and not available to us today. Moreover, even when it becomes possible, we can expect problems. For one, a single brain cannot have infinite memory capacity. A person must eventually either drop old memories or stop taking on new ones. In the former case, a person might eventually no longer recall their childhood, to know who they are or who were their parents, old friends, children, etc. In the latter case, it would be like senility, where recent events are not remembered. There would be other challenges too, such as the potential for overpopulation. That could be mitigated if there are no more children born, but that also stops the progress of evolution.

The other hypothesis is that a god is currently resurrecting or reincarnating most people upon their death, to some hidden place far away that is undetectable to us here. The loss in that scenario is that if your parent or grandparent dies, they are gone from you until your own death. That could be a period of many years, and if you loved them it is inevitably sad to be parted so long. If you have a child who dies, you might imagine them growing up in a far-away world, and you would miss the whole time of them growing up.

When religion offers hope of a perfect world, typically that world is not described in any detail. That enables each person to imagine it the way they want it to be, as if everything was restored to match all the things that they currently enjoy on earth, but without any of the problems. The intent is to offer comfort and hope, but it is only partially effective: there is still a sense of loss, some degree of uncertainty, and the result is that people are still sad at funerals.

Regardless of the hopes that a person might place on those things, there is one strategy a person can pursue that is within his (or her) own power, to make things less sad. It is a strategy to exercise before the moment of loss: it is the ability to appreciate life while they have it, and to appreciate the friends and loved-ones in their lives while they are together.

Though it will still be sad when they are parted, the sadness is mitigated because they appreciated each other when they could. Instead of having regret about all the good times they could have had, there will be happy memories of the times they had together.

In general, the happiest path is to focus on the present, build good relationships with those around you, and don't worry about eventual outcomes that are outside your control. When a sad event does happen, realize that there are changes in anyone's life and that life goes on. Your own life goes on for a time, new children are born in a cycle of generations, and your own actions can produce a legacy of joy and good memories among other people who are close to you.


Return to Universal Ethics home page