Death came to my family’s door in recent weeks. My brother’s son, who has experienced psychotic episodes for years, stabbed my brother Chris to death. Alex had just been released from a mental hospital a month before, and stopped taking his medications. He always relapsed when he did this, and he did again.

Ironically, my brother was a psychiatric nurse who along with his wife, Pam, undertook heroic efforts to try to help Alex. In the end, Chris died trying to save Alex from the demons of schizophrenia that plague his soul. Our family finds the loss of Chris and the life potential of a young man who had great promise a twofold tragedy.

Having one close family member killed by another is one of the great tragedies anyone can face. And my family and I have now faced this. We live in a society noted for its denial of death, obsessed with pushing it out of mind. Shoved hard up against the brute reality of death, and one that was untimely and senseless, denial is not an option. It brings to the surface every sense of vulnerability and mortality that normally stays buried, or which comes out as surface anxiety about this or that life circumstance, but really in the end is about dying. It has me musing a lot on the reality of death in life, and about how we must grapple with this reality to live life with authenticity.

The reality of death has surrounded us lately. The day before my brother’s demise, it came close on my Northwest home ground when a Union Pacific oil train derailed and exploded in the Columbia Gorge, forcing evacuations in Mosier, Oregon. Very fortunately for Mosier, only a few tanker cars burst into flames, and no one died. If more had gone up, the town could have shared the fate of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, where an oil train exploded July 6, 2013, destroying 30 buildings and killing 47 people. After the Gorge derail, Mosier Fire Chief Jim Appleton said that to continue running these bomb trains is “insane.” In this case, the mental illness is a virtually sociopathic pursuit of profit at all cost, and a denial of the deaths that might come to others as a consequence.

A week to the day after Chris was killed, another tragic event brought the reality of death in life to the whole nation. As my daughter and I left the motel to return from my brother’s funeral in Pennsylvania the next morning, CNN was blasting news of the many dead in Orlando from the lobby TV.

In a Facebook post some days before, I had written, “People around the world suffer tragic and senseless losses of loved ones to violence. From Syria and Iraq to mass shootings in the U.S. Now my family has. I can’t take away much meaning in this except to deepen my sense of compassion for those who have suffered similar losses.”

I could not have expected such a monumental event to come so close in time, 49 dead, 53 injured, in the largest mass shooting by an individual in U.S. history. An individual driven by hatred and derangement. I know, in a way I would not have known before, the deep grief and soul wounding that at least hundreds of family and friends of the Orlando victims are feeling now. It is a feeling of darkness that burns like a deep black fire into the depths of your soul. The loved one taken away. The loss you can never replace. The empty hole that you know can never be completely filled. The experience of death in life.

I have spent many years working to address one of the largest life and death issues ever to confront humanity, the radical climate disruption caused by carbon pollution. A 2012 report puts annual deaths due to climate disruption at 400,000, from people dying in heat waves to children extinguished by hunger and disease. But climate can seem like a large wonky, abstract issue and numbers are themselves abstractions. They obscure the reality of the human beings behind them. Of a child dying in the arms of a mother wracked by despair at her helplessness to save her dearest. Of a father whose absence will leave his wife and sons and daughters pitted with sorrow. To really comprehend the large issue of climate, we need to touch those human realities of death in life, to feel these losses as our own.

Death is coming upon our world, and we cannot deny its reality. From the death of much of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and other corals around the world, along with the biodiversity they represent, to the multitude of deaths brought by drought and heat waves searing hundreds of millions in India. Because of the momentum of climate change, the losses will be greater no matter what we do. We will lose coastal cities to sea level rise, from New Orleans to Venice. Innumerable species will go extinct. Superstorms will wrack continents. Breadbaskets will become dustbowls. The wrenching reality, so hard to face, is that now we can only contain the damage and hope to leave a world with which our kids can at least cope. We must also confront the very real chance that we might not make it, and our world will plunge into civilization-destroying catastrophe. Somehow, pierced by the reality of a death so close, I have found a new grace to take in the possibility of failure.

Much climate denial is about denying the reality of these deaths we must face as a world. The climate movement itself finds it difficult to grapple with these realities or honestly communicate them. But we are late in the game, rushing headlong into oblivion. We can no longer afford to downplay, soft-pedal or bright side what faces us. Ourselves the products of a culture dedicated to the denial of death, we have to summon up the courage to speak the truth and say we have already visited the future with a legacy of death. That unless we rise to the challenge rapidly and in a massive way, many more will die and we well might collapse our civilization. We must confront the reality of death in life, knowing that much will be lost, in order to save that which we can.

Chris Mazza, 1958-2016, "There is no death, only a change in worlds." --Chief Seattle

Chris Mazza, 1958-2016, “There is no death, only a change in worlds.” –Chief Seattle

To come to terms with the many challenges we face, both personally and as a world, we need a quality that my brother exemplified, that of empathy and concern for other human beings. As a psychiatric nurse, Chris did not have a glamour job, or one that was particularly high paid. But he dedicated his life to helping the most troubled among us. Many of his fellow workers showed up on the viewing line. They testified to how much he cared for patients and for them. Chris was the glue for his state mental hospital ward and the union shop steward. Nurses on the women’s ward the floor below described him as their protector, the one who showed up first when they had trouble. Some were in tears. Their grief at his passing was real and deep.

Chris was also was the one among our four siblings who most took care of our aging mom, and who last summer drew the family together for the first time in over a dozen years. I will forever prize those last times with him. He was one of those good, humble human beings who put others first, the kind of human being the world needs more of. The hundreds who showed up for his viewing and funeral were testimony to how many lives Chris touched. As I said in my words at his funeral, if I die with as many friends as Chris, I will count my life a success.

If there is any grace in my brother’s tragic death, it is to deepen my empathy for my fellow human beings. In the end, I don’t know if we get through what we face without that quality. Whether as individuals coping with our own personal realities, or as a people dealing with the tragic consequences of our time. I will miss my brother, and take from his life the example of caring. A death, even a senseless one, can have redemptive value if it makes those left behind become better human beings. I can only hope that my brother’s death, the way it is making me confront the realities of death in life, and calling me to empathy and compassion, will have that value. That will be a legacy of life in the midst of death.

 

Patrick Mazza is a Lake Union writer on sustainability issues. This is a cross post from his blog Cascadia Planet.