I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately. Yours, mine, and the way that we relate to death in general. This is obviously one of those topics that make a lot of people uncomfortable. (Which is to say, it’s one of those topics that tends to make people say and do really stupid things. More on that later.) But that’s never made any sense to me, probably because my experience with death is long and deep. How long? How deep? Here’s a timeline for your reference.
- 1980: my grandmother (76)
- 1985: my favorite uncle (38)
- 1987: my grandfather (86)
- 1988: my aunt (40s)
- 1989: my great-grandmother (80s)
- 1990: another uncle (40s)
- 1992: my cousin (15)
- 1992: a next-door neighbor I grew up with (15)
- 1993: my aunt and her baby (30s; not-quite-born-yet)
- 1994: my best friend from elementary school (19)
- 2008: another cousin (40s)
- 2008: yet another cousin (40s)
- 2011: my favorite aunt (70s)
- 2012: another cousin (40s)
- 2013: a dear friend (50s)
Freaky? Yeah. I know. That’s a lot of death. A lot. (It may not come as a surprise, but I spent the years between 1992 and 1998 assuming, whenever anyone was late, that they were dead.) For a long time, I experienced this overabundance as something shameful; a curse, if you will. Over time, I’ve come to see that, for however awful these experiences have been, they’ve helped me to accelerate a particular type of learning. Primarily, I’ve learned to live in such a way that, if I die tomorrow, no one that I love would be left wondering how I felt about them. But it’s also given me a sort of rare privilege: the ability to make myself useful when the people around me are faced with death.
We’re all going to die. Right? We know this. But because we’ve had the luxury in the West of removing, sterilizing and/or ignoring the things that cause us discomfort and pain, we walk around pretending we’re not going to die. Or worse: we think about it and make reference to it in hushed, faux-pious tones.
Death is imminent. All the time. Everywhere. It takes so very, very little to make it happen. Which makes it (rather automatically) unmysterious. Common, even. And yet: when it happens to the people you care for, it never is anything less than painful as hell itself. You get used to the process, which is sort of helpful; but that’s it. The pain is new every single time.
Death is messy. It’s embarrassing, awkward, ugly. It’s definitely inconvenient. It never, ever feels right. No part of it ever feels right. And it brings out the worst in people; those directly connected to the deceased, and those around you with whom you might need to share the news. When my cousin died in 1992, it was completely unexpected. It was accidental. He was 16. I went to school the day I found out (figuring that doing something normal would be the best way for me to cope with it during the shock stage), and I told a friend of mine what had happened. She opened her mouth in surprise, closed it again, and walked away from me. And then she never mentioned it afterward. A couple of years ago, the brother of a dear friend of mine died suddenly, and although I hadn’t known him, I was stunned to receive the news at work. I got up from my desk, and the first person I saw was an office mate I trusted. I told him what I’d just heard, and he grimaced, chuckled a little and said, “Well, that’s fun.” (Amazing, the similarities between a 15-year-old girl and a 46-year-old man, no?)
Here’s what people need when someone dies:
- To be held
- To be heard
- To hear that you are waiting to help them in whatever way they need help
- To be checked up on
- To be fed
- To be reminded to sleep
- To be told that however they are grieving is normal
- To laugh
- To cry
- To slip back into their regular lives and selves for a bit, even (especially) in the midst of grieving
- To never have to hear (or never again have to hear) dumb-ass platitudes like, “Well, she’s in a better place now,” or “He would have wanted you to be happy.”
- To not be expected to be back to normal after the funeral
That last one in particular gets to me. The first few days, everyone descends upon the bereaved with cards and phone calls and meals and visits. Once the funeral is done, people start frowning upon signs of your insistence not to get back to life as we know it. If we’re honest, we can say that other people’s grief is not terrifically exciting, and that we tend not to see beyond our own level of entertainment. That is to say: our own level of comfort. We are small, small creatures.
But we aren’t so small that we can’t push past our silly little cubicles and pigeonholes and scheduled me, me, me time to provide a service for a fellow human being. Reaching out to others is risky. It’s awkward. It doesn’t always feel good. And hey, guess what? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all what it feels like to you. Because by being a willing participant in the grand, arch, cosmic joke that is life on this planet–that is, by being willing to bare yourself in a way that we never really do anymore in this great Western culture of ours–you begin to see that maybe, just maybe, there’s a bigger picture. And that the bigger picture goes beyond life and death. Because once you get beyond that, you begin to see that the little things are huge, and the big things are tiny. And nothing is ever the same again, really, after that. And you won’t mind.