Some Thoughts on Death and Mourning
My brother passed away last weekend. Roger left us forever at five minutes after midnight on Sunday November 9th, 2014. I was on my way to the All Soul’s Procession, a wonderful contemporary community sharing of celebration of people’s lives and supportive public sharing of grief when I got the news via text on Sunday night.
Needless to say perhaps, I am thinking a lot about death, death rituals, death culture, and my personal views of death.
Death is the most personal experience there is. Birth is shared, but death meets us alone.
I should say that I have not been all that concerned about what will happen to me after death since December of 1977. I was in college, my best friend from High School, Kim Marie Sanders, was in a horrific car crash on November 6th, 1977, seven days after her 21st birthday. Her brain stem was crushed. A few weeks later I was at home, a solid but worn, two story house, a rental on Greenbush Avenue in Lafayette, Indiana where I lived in Junior year of college when I had what I have to describe as a classic NDE experience.
As I walked into a bedroom I passed out, I guess. But it was different, quite distinct, from when I usually blacked out which I had some experience with as I had very low blood pressure back then. Normally, when I would pass out I would just have my vision narrow in as in the iris of a camera, as a circle, graying out.
But this time I did not see that, I saw a tunnel of light. As I began to travel in the tunnel or beam of light I felt as though my energy or essence was draining from my body through the back base of my skull. Then there was bright golden white light. At the end of the tunnel I knew there was just LOVE, complete accepting love. I did not see individuals although I felt like there was someone there. I did not consciously get to the end of the tunnel but I remember thinking, “Wow, this was death and it was not bad at all.”
I think I woke up about an hour later. I knew my friend had changed, but I wasn’t in touch with her family until a few weeks later. It was then that I found out that she had come out of the coma she had been in since the wreck on the same afternoon I had the encounter with the light. She was in the coma until mid-December, Friday December 16th I think. She died on Friday, January 13th, 1978.
I had a very difficult time with her death. I grieved for years. But I was not afraid. I have never been able to reconcile this disparity except that I can accept my own death, but not that of another person.
I think it is that I am selfish. I just do not want to be alone without my friends and family.
I’ve always thought something was amiss with what people told me about death and how they really felt about it. I was three years and two months old when my mother came in to me in the morning, crying and obviously very upset. She said, “Grandma died during the night.” My analytical self was already present within me apparently as I distinctly remember being confused that I had been told that when you die, you will be with Jesus. From everything I had been told as a toddler, this Jesus guy was a really good guy and Heaven, with Jesus, was a good place. So what was up? Grandma was with Jesus. That was a good thing. Why was Mom crying? Incongruity. Someone was not telling the truth.
I think what I experience as grief, and thus mourning rituals, is an incredibly selfish indulgence. How does our grief add up to anything but our experience of loss. It really has very little to do with the person who died. It is all about the pain we the living experience. Everything we do, for the dead, is really for ourselves. I think I learned this from my dad. I think I have finally figured out that Dad viewed cemeteries as parks where you talk about the past, teach kinship, consider the impacts of life and living in various ways. This from a man who said that when he died we should just, “toss him over the fence to the hogs.” Historical markers were okay but the obsession with body preservation was over the top in his view.
Shift in Perspective
These are some of the things I’m thinking about today. I couldn’t wait any longer to grieve. I had to take today off to just feel, think, ponder, and cry. Normally I would tell stories of the person recently deceased with others who loved or knew him, but I’m 2000 miles away and the only one left in my generation of close family. My eldest brother Jim is 75 and has memory problems. So I’m having my own private remembrance.
Perhaps I am just being selfish, but I have a lot of information I need to share. I’ve decided that information exchange is the most important ritual. If I have information that might help someone with a question or concern or just to create an understanding, I need to get it out there. I have several years until I am 60, but much information would be lost if I died before I got it into the cultural information collective. These are the things that matter to me. Distilling lives into stories. I have much work to do.
A Milan Kundera Day
Today I am struggling with being and nothingness.
My mind travels from the bleak, drenching 21st Century Arizona rain to artful black and white photos my mother never snapped of pans filled with shelled peas my brother and I had spent hours extricating from pods. Creativity allows me to examine an imaginary composition, a nonexistent thing, but a very real thing, prior to my mind assembling them just a few minutes ago.The photo’s context is black and white too. A large bank barn, sets at the top edge of a long slopping hill. In front of the barn is a solid tamped-down barnyard with another outbuilding to the north located just before it also dips down to meet a tiny stream that drains a nearby wooded knoll. A rusty two bottom plow rests there too, where it was detached from the old John Deere last spring.
Closer still to the vantage point of the scene is a country lawn a few feet higher than the barnyard. In the contextual panorama a skinny boy, scarcely adolescent, sits in a stiff gangly non-pose in an aluminum lawn chair, a well-used pie-pan filled with raw peas rests in his lap. He wears denim dungarees, and a plain white t-shirt and sports roundish tortoise-shell horn-rimmed glasses. He seems fragile, and anxious, constrained by an unknown future so heavy it already presses in on him and weights him down.
I am there too. I am incidental to the scene and too young to know more than the moment, the sunshine, and the bright starchy crunch of raw peas. I sit next to the lawn chair distracted by a the sticky, sweet dance of a honey bee on the soft spikes of a clover blossom. I cannot imagine the scene being any different than it is.
I cannot imagine nuclear-tipped missiles, much less that they are being deployed to an island called Cuba by my country at this very moment. I cannot imagine that skinny boy in ten years. That is the second image. I wish I could not now imagine it.
In the second photograph that never was I am the same age as the boy in the first picture, the vantage is from a farmhouse window looking down to the midnight black silhouette of a young man, cigarette in hand leaning against a muscle car outlined against the lighter gravel of a driveway. The red-hot glow of the cigarette punctures the moment and tears a rift in time as a maelström of shredded flesh and shrieking wraiths of Khe Sanh detach from the man and are sucked into a collapsing universe into another dimension.
Even at that moment bits of him were already connected to that netherworld. Soon the process will be complete and I will watch from that long ago frame, alone.
The Horrific Cost of Stupid – Guns
Corporate Financed Terrorism
Today I listen to yet another day of media coverage of yet another mass shooting. 13 dead. Around 300 people are shot every day in the U.S. by guns. For a crowd-sourced data site that lists the basic statistics for named gun deaths in the US starting with the Newtown massacre go to Gun-death Tally. The interactive map can be searched by age, gender, location, or date.
I just checked the tally and the shooter in today’s massacre at the naval yard is the third from the last death listed. The list contains over 8000 names. It is inaccurate as these are publicly reported gun deaths. It is probably grossly under-reporting gun deaths because suicides account for 60% of gun deaths but are rarely publicly identified as such. That means over 17,000 deaths in the last 9 months. That is almost 6 times as many people in 3/4 of a year compared to those killed on 9/11.
Our culture apparently values money more than life. My views on the problem and where efforts to stop the slaughter should begin:
- The NRA is a terrorist arms dealer.
- Violent games in which players kill people over and over and over are terrorist training camps.
Maybe it is time for women who love their families and are sick of the growth of industries that promote slaughter to consider monkey-wrenching.
Perspective Brought Home: Mourning on My Birthday
It had not been a great week leading up to my beautiful, silly dog, Mr. Worf, dying from an attack by Africanized bees the day before my 55th birthday.
I suffered from medical abuse as a child and interaction with my family can dredge up lots of stress and sadness. With every passing year I understand more and more of the glaringly maladaptive communication patterns my family accepted as normal. I just last week had a particularly distressing interaction with family members over tax payments on a bit of land we jointly inherited. Even though I moved to the other side of the country to start a more normal life to minimize the frequency of hurtful reminders, such reminders naturally exist in the honest life I have tried to build for myself. I became quite sad when talking to a sister-in-law reminded me of how much unhappiness can come to so many when a person choses to act dishonestly, unethically, or solely in their own self interest.
Even though I consider myself a pretty successful person who manages her severe depression pretty darn well these days, family-related funks I experience can demoralize and demotivate me when they reverberate like a strong sound wave throughout my being with a particularly meaningful tone. I allowed the house to become messy, seemed distant to my husband, who is also a child abuse survivor, and we both ended up having a particularly nasty argument from the immature vantage points of our separate corners in the boxing rink where we both retreated with the tantrum clenched fists of the wounded children we both have inside. The argumnent happened over finances, like so many other marriage arguments do, in the early hours of Mothers Day.
I knew this day would be difficult because my little girl graduated and moved to the northern reaches of midwest a few months ago. But the family funk topped off with an argument turned the day into a dark and unfortunately familiar unpleasant place where I just could not connect with any happiness, calmness, or positive mindset.
It took a couple days but by Tuesday afternoon I was headed out of the funk. I wend shoe shopping an early birthday present for myself and found two adorable pair of sandals at a discount store for a gonga deal. My hubby and I were starting to chat normally again when the horrible day before my birthday happened.
I spent my birthday mourning the loss of a dear pet, who was as much friend as pet. It sucked. But out of that day friends from around the country, people I know primarily from game playing, and neighbors, and yes you, you dear readers, offered me touching messages of sympathy, affirmations of friendship, hugs, calls of concern, and expressions of the sadness they and you all too felt. Birthday wishes tempered with sympathy came from husband, step-daughter, and daughter. This real touching outreach of human to human comfort touched me deeply and helped me get through the worst birthday of my life and come out on the other side of that day, into today, with a renewed appreciation of all the miracles of connection that life offers. Life is relationships, and I’m so grateful for the beautiful friendships and sharing I have had and will continue to have with friends,and readers, and even with earthly spirits that through an accident of birth we call family.
Life is good. Sometimes is is too short. But oh, it is sweet.