On Death

I’ve been writing this post in my head for a long time.  There are so many things I want to say, and I can’t seem to make them fit together in a coherent package.  So maybe this will be filled with rambling bits that only I see the connection between.  Doesn’t this sound like fun?  Come with me.

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I’ve been reading a lot about death and loss over the last few months.  One of the things I have found, at last, is a language for the sadness and grief that is an ongoing part of our lives.  I’ve felt it, and tried to reason with it, but lacked the language and the recognition that this is part of all of our experience, even apart from major events.  Beatrix’s death was an Event, and it gave us permission to come to a full stop as we grieve this along with other accumulated losses and griefs.  (I am so thankful that we have a “job” that has allowed us to come to a full stop and still survive.  I heard on the radio the other day that there has just been a law passed in Alberta that says you cannot lose your job because you have lost a loved one… so if I had been working in Alberta in August, it is possible I could have been fired because I just couldn’t go back to work for a while.)

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One of the books I read has the subtitle “A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul.”  I thought “Exactly.  There is so much insanity (often in the form of denial) in our culture regarding death.”  (I saw this as we planned the funeral.  One example is: often a grave is dug, and the dirt is moved away so that people don’t see it, and then brought back after people are gone.  Aren’t funerals about mourning the reality of your loss?  Besides being unnecessary work, this practice struck me as a way of sanitizing/denying the process.  But it is not clean and nice, it is ugly and painful.)

One of the reasons I think we cannot honestly acknowledge our losses is that we have no underlying Story that helps us answer the Big Questions:  Where did we come from?  Why are we here?  Where are we going?  If we can’t face those questions, it becomes much harder for us to acknowledge and prepare for a day when we might lose someone close to us, or when our loved ones might suddenly be planning our own funerals.

Over the years Mike and I have had several conversations around death and funerals.  After Mike’s dad passed away several years ago, we had many conversations.  This meant that we had a foundation of understanding and common thought with which to approach Bea’s funeral.  We knew what we valued, what we didn’t care about, and what questions to ask to get more information.  We were stunned, and our world was turned upside-down, but we weren’t also grappling with many concepts we had never thought or talked about.  (For example, by what criteria do you even start choosing a coffin?)

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The subtitle of another book I read is “Grief and Praise.”  I had never thought directly about the idea that our grief is intricately connected to our praise.  You won’t mourn the loss of something that doesn’t mean anything to you.  In actually mourning (whether it is a death, an illness, a change, etc), you are acknowledging the value of what is lost.  And when we face losses with as much honesty and courage as we can, we are able to acknowledge with gratitude the real value of what we have had and currently have – or what we are seeking.  Making space to face the things that grieve us also allows us the space to celebrate and be grateful for that which is good.

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One of the things I have continually reminded myself over the last few months is “I am the centre of the circle.”  The idea looks like this:

GPS-Circles-of-Support-1024x1024

My favourite explanation of this is here – she explains it with what I think is just the right amount of humour and reality.

This model has been familiar to us in other circumstances, and it has worked well.  It has given us permission not to feel responsible to comfort others (unless we are capable of it), and also to receive comfort without feeling guilty about being a useless lump.  I had had discussions about this idea with my parents, so when I told them that our MO for this season was going to be “I am the centre of the circle,” they didn’t roll their eyes or need a long explanation.  They said, “Yes, absolutely.”

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Let me try to end my wanderings with some explicit exhortations, in case you are the kind of person for whom direct works better than subtle.  It is my hope and wish that we all go through our years gently, with no trauma, loss, or grief.  But in case you haven’t considered it – you are probably going to die.  And before you get there, you will probably experience all sorts of griefs.  Read the article (or google circles of grief, and find one that fits your tone if mine is too snarky) and talk about it with those you love.  Mike and I have watched a bunch of doctor shows – which has led to all sorts of conversations about what kind of medical interventions we think are reasonable – and affirmations of our trust in each other to make good decisions should the need arise.  If you die suddenly, will your spouse still have access to finances?  Will your spouse or children wrestle with what your funeral wishes might be, or will they be able to make decisions with as much confidence and peace as is possible?

And don’t shy away from the Big Questions.  Real peace with them doesn’t come quickly, but allowing yourself to ask – to look, even peripherally – is the beginning.

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6 thoughts on “On Death

  1. A wise person once told me that Grief is the price of Love. I believe this to be a fact! Also, even though we all grieve at our own pace, there is comfort in “sharing” with others.

  2. Thanks for this. Fear of death is so prevalent, with the most common response being to ignore it. Our culture works very hard “guarding” us from the reality, leaving so many unprepared. I think the openness of your journey through this will help many people who might otherwise not take those necessary steps.

    As an aside, the book “Slavery of Death” is a very thoughtful theological look at death through the eyes of a Christian psychologist. One of the more formative books for me over the last few years.

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