Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Am I Getting Used To Death?

Deb: I remember when I was a kid and my Mom and Dad would go to a visitation or a funeral. It always seemed so incredible to me that they could function at all, let alone iron their funeral suits and go to a reception afterwards. I mean, isn’t this death? Aren’t they scared? Freaked out? And why aren’t they crying all the time? I would watch them come and go. And each time was different, accompanied by fluctuating levels of emotion. Their level of pain was on a sliding scale of sad depending on the deceased. 

We have, all of us, suffered losses in our lives. Some are devastating and stay with us till we die, others are quite painful, some are sad, a few “regretful”, and others are “a darned shame.” It occurs to me that as we get older we almost need to have that Sliding Scale of Grief to cope with all the death and dying we encounter. It sounds awful, but whether or not we admit it, we rate death. We have to deal with everything from the death of our nearest and dearest which shatters us, to the death of a person we barely knew for whom we are just paying respect to a life lived. 

I have come to accept that, but the thing I still struggle with is how accustomed and sometimes almost comfortable I am with the ritual of death. It has, at this time of life become a constant, a duty, a loving tribute, and even sometimes an obligation. We all know death is a part of life. And the irony is not lost on me that the appearance of death and my attendant juggling of schedules has become the most spontaneous part of my life. Sad but true. I go, I mourn. 

Now I wonder why it is that I can take time at a moment’s notice and switch everything for funerals, but I can’t do it for something fun. I wonder why I can’t just clear my schedule for the possibility of something wonderful. Sometimes I do, but mostly I don’t. I continue to schedule my life on a dime––and then someone dies and all my planning goes to pot. Then I dutifully pull out “my funeral suit” and I go and I pay my respects, human to human. It’s what life is. It’s death. But I’ve gotten used to it. 

Barbara: I’ve often wondered how you cope, Deb. Deb comes from a very large extended family and lives close to her relatives and all their close friends and family. She also has a huge range of friends and associates from years in one of the most socially-diverse jobs there is. I swear, not a month goes by where she doesn’t (sadly) have to attend another funeral. And I’ve seen how these funerals take their toll on her, both the near-and-dear ones and the dutiful-honouring ones. I never thought of it before, Deb, but I don’t doubt for a second that you must be getting “used to death” by now. 

I, on the other hand, have not had the same huge, ever-expanding circles of friends and family, and friends of friends and family, and parents of friends and family. There have been some funerals of this ilk, yes, but nothing like your experience. And too many of the funerals I have had to attend have been for people too young for their deaths to be mundane. 

But maybe there’s something strangely comforting in your words, Deb. It is our life-journey, right? so we shouldn’t be fundamentally undone by it. And these rituals that we have so wisely put in place around death really do help us make some kind of peace with it, don’t they? The visitations, the wakes, the eulogies, the sobbing, the drunken reminiscences, the human-to-human bonding. Who doesn’t go to a funeral and find themselves feeling a little cathartically better at some point? Even if it doesn’t last long, that catharsis makes it somewhat bearable. And it becomes our reminder that this is a normal part of life. Even one we can—or must––get used to.


  1. Poignant.
    Luckily, I don't have the need to attend too many funerals, and I don't. But I do think I have learnt to accept passing on as a necessary part of living. The only reason I cling onto life right now, is because the kids need me. Or I think I do.

  2. I do take time, at a moment's notice, for an opportunity that seems right to take. Whether it's a funeral or an excursion to NYC, I think it's important to give the time to many experiences as they arise. Not necessarily often, because such is the routine of life, but still, to pay attention to those wonderfully unscheduled days too.

  3. Yes, funerals show respect for the dead. But, to me, they are mainly for the survivors. The crowd is building a soft pillow fort around them.

    Grandmama's funeral hurt me bad. I remember sitting by Granddaddy before the service. He was quiet, but tears were sliding down his cheeks and his nose was dripping. I kept taking Kleenex and wiping his face.

    One visitation still haunts me. A man my ex works with rushed out of work one night. His 4yo son had found a pistol that no one knew their late grandmother had hidden. While handling it, he shot his 7yo sister in the head. The line of people who came to tend to her parents at that visitation stretched for blocks.

    I went to the visitation for a local doctor who died suddenly at 47. The thing that bothered me about it was that it seemed like his kids (early 20's, college) were taking care of the visitors instead of the other way around. When I got to his daughter, she straightened her spine, put on her polite beauty queen smile, and extended her hand. I said, "What are you doing? You don't have to fake a smile for me." She froze for 2 heartbeats and then collapsed into my arms and buried her face in my neck while sobbing about how she couldn't imagine living without her dad. She snuggled into me like a security blanket. Next was her brother. Only 48 hours before, he had driven his dad to the hospital when the chest pains started and was there when he coded and died. (He wore a dazed, distraught expression for days.) He shook my hand, and I told him, "I'm not here to spout useless platitudes at you. I'm just here to help love you through this." He leaned forward and I reached my left hand up to the back of his neck as he folded his tall frame around me. He was quiet, but he was shivering! Honestly, I think he was still in shock. I braced myself to hold him up while he took gasping breaths. He reminded me of a scared little boy who needed a safe lap to sit in and have comforting arms wrap around him.

    One thing that really bothers me at funerals and such is how other Christians spout platitudes and Bible verses about rejoicing that the dead person's in heaven. Yeah, that's good and true. But, it denies the survivors the right to express their grief. They can comprehend that the person's in heaven. But, all they know is that they miss the person and can't imagine living without them here on Earth. Bring your tray of food and sing your hymns, but your most important job is to be available when the person needs you to sit in the muddy trenches with them as they endure the angry, ugly, scary stages of grief. And, that's far more true in the weeks and months to come. They're gonna need that pillow fort for a long time.

    There's something to the Jewish traditions after a death. Mourning and remembrance are marked for 7 days, then at 30 days, then at 1 year, and then yahrzeit. When Grandmama died, the 2 acts I remember as being of greatest comfort were: 1. My friends who without hesitation agreed to babysit my son for the duration, 2. As we were on the highway, I was on the phone with my friend the rabbi crying and explaining I might miss an upcoming obligation. Grandmama died late the next night. I got word to him Fri. a.m. I heard from him before sunset. He told me that during Shabbat services that night, when he was naming the dead and marking the remembrances for that week, he would lift up my Grandmama's name and be thinking of me. That the senior rabbi of a huge Reform congregation would whisper the name of a Presbyterian woman because of my love and grief was precious.

    I saw him weeks later when people were acting like I should be back to normal. He leaned down to where only I could hear him and whispered, "How are you?" I whispered, "Bad."

  4. I just lost my great grandmother in Feb of 2009, Seeing her leave us was one of the hardest thing's that I will ever to watch. I also have a huge family so I know what you are talking about when you say that you are almost getting use to death. For me when I go pay my respects for someone and I go in the funeral it's almost feels well I hate to say this but it almost feels natural to me. When my great grandmother passed away that month we had 2 more deaths after her's which is way to many if you ask me. We still miss my great grandmother like crazy but I know she is in no more pain and I guess for me the thing that makes me happy when she passed away is that , she passed away the way she wanted to,with all her family and friends near her. I don't know if I will ever stop mourning of the loss of my grandmother, it has gotten easier but when I think of her it still brings a hurt in my heart and a tear to my eye.

  5. Unfortunately I can understand where Deb's coming from on this one. I come from a big family and we have experienced a lot of loss over my short 21 years. I still ache whenever death crosses my path, but it's understood as a part of life, it almost has to be. There are still some times it hits me hard though. I think the worst part about being around death for me, is it reminds me of my own mortality, and of all the moments I've wasted lately that I'll never get back.

  6. Such an interesting point. I would support that in many ways we DO 'get used to' death. I also think there REMAINS a huge distinction between 'death when it's time' and 'death too early'--and also a distinction between 'death where you get to say good-bye' and 'sudden death'.

    I've seen A LOT of death in my life, but a huge reason for that is I had 7 great grandparents when I was born. I was 'practiced' at death 'at the right time' before I lost my DAD suddenly and too early (I was 10).

    I have come to see old age illness as a gift of sorts--people can sort things out, say the things they wouldn't want left unsaid. It is still HARD, but the coping is SO MUCH easier.

    I've become a deep believer in PETS (which I would be anyway, but...) they give my children practice at loss, so the first one they have to face (aside from distant relatives) won't be of someone they can't bear to lose. It is part of life, and so... pointless death aside (most wars, preventable disaster, violence) I don't think there is shame in getting used to it. In fact I think it helps us help OTHERS who have less practice.

  7. Aw, ladies, you got me good with these stories. Mourning and grieving -- so difficult, so essential.

    Tart, I agree about pets being a good life-cycle educator. Although, so far we've only lost a few fish and our beloved Cinnamon (the hamster). But when I think about my dog, Chaplin, being part of that lesson ... well, can't go there. That'll be some heartbreaking grieving.

    And I think you're also right about how we can learn to help others grieve. If you've never (or rarely) experienced death, you really don't have the tools to help others effectively. And we need those tools.

  8. I totally agree with you, when my dog nicky passed away it was so sad I was upset for like a week. I was little too so that might have a little something to do with it. But still it is hard when animals die,expecially when you have had them for a long time and they are like your best friend. I think that sometimes the death of an animal bothers me more than the death of a person. Just because I am use to the death of people but not animals.

  9. Something I've noticed since my mom died five years ago is that the relatives she was close to have opened their arms to me, and I to them, in a way that I never noticed before. It's like their feelings toward Mom are now turned on me, and I also feel a warmth and affection for them that wasn't there earlier.

    In the past month or so I've attended funerals for two of the elderly members of my extended family on Dad's side. I note that we cousins-once-removed are now hugging each other like longlost sisters, when over the years we haven't gotten together often and have certainly never been close.

    It's like these deaths are losses of important foundation pieces for all of us, and so we have to reach out for the first time and strengthen the whole structure somehow. It's great; I'm just sayin'-- we lose people we cared about, but we gain intimacy with other members of the family.

    I don't understand it, but I like it.

  10. When I was in Kenya I had the unfortunate chance of attending a funeral. Relatives of the decased came from all over, and they had this huge celebration of life lasting serveral days. Every time someone passes away it's like a family reunion, because most of the people are too poor to travel except for circumstances like weddings or funerals. They gathered together to take family photos and eat big meals accompanied by traditional dances and storytelling. It was amazing to watch them celebrate life, and also (as My Kateness said) regain intimacy with the rest of the family.

  11. What mostly struck me in this post was the question why we clear our schedules for funerals, but not as naturally for something fun. In a way, I agree that this is a shame. From a different perspective, though, I think there is something beautiful about this. It shows how much respect we have for the fact that someone is dead, and by extension - how much respect we have for life. (Of course this argument backfires slighly since it may be argued that if we don't allow ourselves to enjoy life to the fullest we don't respect it either...)

    I think we probably do get used to death, but I hope that the reason we do so is that we through life learns better to cope with difficult things. That way getting used to death does not mean we care less, it means we care better.

    And finally - it seems strange to round off my reply to such a sombre topic on a cheerful note - but I have an award for you two over at my blog. It's been such a treat to explore this blog, so I wanted to give others the opportunity as well.

  12. I have never done well at funerals. I start crying when I hit the door, but I still go. I'm there for the family, to show my support and love. But I agree we learn and build on our experiences to help us help them. When I was younger I never knew what to say, and this made me uncomfortable talking to the family. As I've gotten older, I have realized you don't need to say anything. I just offer a pair of arms, a big hug, and support. That above all was what helped me with my Mother's death. That is what I was able to give Jack, his sister and his niece when my mother-in-law passed away at the hospice.

  13. I think it's true that love and support -- that pair of arms -- after someone you love has died is the most important key to surviving loss of any kind.

    On another note: we would really love to thank Cruella from The Giraffability of Digressions (a wonderful blog) for her award! Thank you!


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