August 10, 2006
Having experienced to one degree or another the impact of four deaths in the past two years has focused a lot of my thinking on death and dying. Ultimately I have come to an understanding that works for me. I share it here mostly to capture it in words and solidify it in my mind.
I believe that emotion and intellect are the most important gifts we as humans posses. It is a shame that our society places so much emphasis on latter and almost none on the former. Whether or not you accept that you are an emotion-based being isn’t necessary for it to be true. I have no idea what portion of the strife, war, anger, hate, and unhappiness in the world is the result of society’s inability to accept emotion as normal and natural, but I think it is a larger portion than most would believe.
As we grow and experience life we build places of recognition for our emotions. Repeated experiences resonate as they have a home in us - a place already established. It doesn’t matter what the emotion is, the pain of being teased as a child or the elation at hearing from an old friend unexpectedly, we all have experienced these feelings before and therefore have a response. A response that we recognize and accept.
Death, dying, is something outside of the normal range of experience. We will all experience the death of loved ones in our life time. But not to the same extent that we experience the joy of hello or sadness of parting. The ordinary, common emotions, whether pleasant or not, are familiar - known to us. Death is a stranger, and interloper, and with no place of recognition where we can set it down, we struggle with feeling out of place, feeling upset, or feeling grief.
For a time after Michele’s death I participated in a survivor’s group, and what struck me almost immediately was the length most there went to re-frame death to something else. It was if the concept was too large to take in, so they tried to ignore it, while all the while dragging it along behind them like a ball and chain. Most couldn’t even embrace the manner of death, preferring to say “completed” rather than “committed” suicide.
Personally I found it better to acknowledge the manner of her death - to use the words hung, dead, death, suicide - than to gloss it over with platitudes. I think that by being blunt or direct every time I spoke of it or thought about it I was able to start to build a place of recognition inside of me, a place for those emotions to be anchored. Instead of being at the mercy of swirling emotions that felt out of control, I found a way to root them so that I could be in control. I still experience the emotions but I am no longer helpless in their grasp. Make no mistake, I am not talking about building an affection for the emotion; I don’t want an affinity with death. But I have found a way to understand the emotion that comes with that experience in a way that allows me to continue my life and not to have my life defined solely by grief or sadness.
Maybe this won’t work for everyone, but I think that by owning the truth of the event - My mom died from lung cancer - rather than whitewashing it - She passed away peaceful - is the better way to continue with my life.