Death and the Ripples of Life: What We Leave Behind

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The recent death of actor Leslie Nielsen touched me with sadness; he was a good actor and a funny man, and his films made me laugh till my cheeks ached. It made me reflect on how — if at all — any of us can expect to be remembered after our death and whether our existence will be marked in any meaningful way.

News that the actor Leslie Nielsen has died has made me reflect on how, as I get older, more and more of the famous names and characters who formed a backdrop to my everyday life have passed away, leaving a sense of a richness fading. Leslie Nielsen was best known for his comedic roles in films such as Airplane! and the Naked Gun trilogy, though he also starred in one of my favourite science-fiction movies, Forbidden Planet, with its clunky yet at the time hugely futuristic robot, and unsettling theme of the dark side of human nature unleashed by technology.

Although it’s regularly shown on TV now, I well remember going to see Airplane! in the cinema when it first came out and feeling very grown-up when the infamous and very funny scene came on in which the stewardess is attempting to re-inflate the auto-pilot (I appreciate that unless you’ve seen the movie, this statement will make little sense to you). For weeks afterwards, we went around at school quoting lines from the film, many of which still make me laugh when I watch reruns today. Airplane! and Leslie Nielsen (like many other actors, musicians, and comedians) were a part of my growing up years; their stories, songs and comedy routines were like sturdy rocks in the fast-flowing turbulent stream of life or like bright stars which I could feast my eyes on whenever I needed a boost. They carried an emotional value for me beyond the wit, cleverness, or musical value of the work they produced. Their deaths symbolise the inevitability of our own ending and the loss that others will experience when we go.

One of our national newspapers runs a column around Christmas every year, which features the famous, and sometimes not-so-famous, people who have died over the preceding 12 months. I always read it with a sense of sadness and regret — a kind of distant sadness for the loved ones they left behind, but a more personal sadness for myself. It’s a reminder that I too will die some day and leave loved ones behind; that I will no longer feature as a living presence in the backdrop to someone else’s world, or will feature only as a memory. What else will be left of me?

One of my all-time heroes (at least in my psychotherapeutic world) is Irvin D Yalom. He has a lot to say about death and its meaning (or meaninglessness). Here’s what he wrote about what we leave behind in what is perhaps his best-known book, Love’s Executioner [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]:

“Some day soon, perhaps in forty years, there will be no one alive who has ever known me. That’s when I will be truly dead — when I exist in no one’s memory. I thought a lot about how someone very old is the last living individual to have known some person or cluster of people. When that person dies, the whole cluster dies too, vanishes from the living memory. I wonder who that person will be for me. Whose death will make me truly dead?”

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I find that a scary concept; that in a few short years, or at most decades, I will effectively have never existed, at least so far as living memory is concerned. Yet wouldn’t most people want to feel that they leave something behind to be remembered by? Yalom has an idea about this too, which he borrowed from the Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. He talks about ‘rippling’, the idea that everyone can leave behind “something from your life experience, some trait; some piece of wisdom, guidance, virtue, comfort that passes onto others, known or unknown”. I find this very comforting; the idea that while my name and the memory of me may be lost, something of me and how I am in the world — in personal relationships, writing, teaching, counselling etc. — will ripple on into future generations, and perhaps change the course of some future person’s life, if only a little, for the better.

I’m reminded of the idea of ‘paying it forward’, which was featured in a novel of the same name by Catherine Ryan Hyde [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]; ‘paying it forward’ encourages people to do a good deed for someone now, rather than in return for something else because by ‘paying it forward’ (as opposed to paying it back), you’re helping to make changes one by one to other people’s lives, rippling something of yourself into their future.

Perhaps in a few decades’ time, there will be no-one alive who remembers Leslie Nielsen; his films may not have been Oscar-winning material (though Forbidden Planet was nominated for a special effects award), but they were great entertainment and continue to make many people laugh, years after they were first produced. For me the name Leslie Nielsen will always evoke fond memories of teenage trips to the cinema, cheeks aching from laughter, and a vivid recollection of his deadpan face as he uttered those immortal lines “…and don’t call me Shirley”. Rest in peace, Leslie Nielsen, and thank you.

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