“Did you know babies have webbed hands in the womb?” my daughter asks me on the ride home from school. She’s taking Honors Biology this year and has become a DNA and genetics junkie. “How come they’re not born with their hands that way?” I ask, happy for a new topic to draw conversation out of my usually quiet eldest. As though she’s just been waiting for me to ask, my daughter launches into a full discussion of the marvels of apoptosis, programmed cell death. I listen and marvel. Death is everywhere. It’s even in our cells before we’re born.
As it turns out, apoptosis is a vital process for all living things. In apoptosis, cells destruct and die to give way for new cell life. This systematic, regulated process of dying actually makes our bodies live. It’s a vital mechanism for healthy physical growth. Humans experience approximately 60 million cell deaths in their bodies each day; parts of us are dying all the time. Tadpoles lose their tails and become frogs, thanks to apoptosis. Pre-cancerous cells are destroyed by the body, thanks to apoptosis. We count our newborns’ ten tiny individual toes, thanks to apoptosis.
It’s hard to believe than any death can be good or useful. But in the case of apoptosis, death isn’t just good or useful, it’s necessary. Without this highly controlled process, cancer cells grow and birth defects develop. The body sentences some cells to death for a larger purpose, healthy new cells.
Necrosis, or traumatic cell death, stands as the opposite of apoptosis. This darker, disordered version of cell death always brings negative consequences. Cells die when they shouldn’t, producing disease and decay. Wounds fester with gangrene because of necrosis. Apoptosis and necrosis: two kinds of death, one productive and one destructive. Death is indeed everywhere. It’s everyday business in our bodies.
As I listen to my daughter, I marvel at how much these phenomena sound like my life. Rob’s death has prompted a sort of elemental death in me. The old cells of our life together are breaking down. Though much of the process is slow and smaller than my eyes can easily see, I know that his death is affecting big changes in me. I may look the same on the outside, but I am becoming different down to my very cells.
I am convinced that, if we allow it, grief can become the pathway to personal transformation and growth. We have the choice of how death changes us. Will our encounter somehow produce life again, or will it affect our own demise? It is up to me which kind of death Rob’s death will work in me. I can choose to let his death cause me to fester and die. Or I can choose to allow his death to somehow bring about new life.
The Greek word apoptosis evokes the image of dead leaves falling off a tree, an exquisite picture for what happens in our cell material. Apoptosis, the natural shedding of what is no longer needed. I hope that Rob’s death produces that kind of death in me. I hope that, as I grow through grief, my character will be honed and the things that do not matter will shrivel up and fall away. In their place, I hope I will someday find beautiful new life that only exists because death has brought it about.