DEATH, DYING, AND GRIEF (4)
We can hardly take death in any form. Not just death in its final shape when the body dies. We protest it in its disguised forms too. Everything that puts limits around us, or takes opportunities from us, or handicaps our search for self-realization, is a manifestation of what we call death. From how many directions then does death loom upon us! From our heredity! Our environment! Fate! The age in which we live! Everything designed to tell us that we are bound by flesh and blood, mind and emotion. No matter what we do to ward it off, ultimately we are bound. Bound by our humanness! And we don’t like that. So we reject what it means to be human. The fear of death kills us and causes us to reject our humanness. I believe that if we can accept our essential humanness, which includes death, we will be able to live as free, loving, responsible, growing human beings.
Let me give a disclaimer clause. Since death is somewhat final?? – no one can talk about it from the standpoint of personal experience. In many ways death is beyond knowing. This seems obvious. I want to say it because I might give the impression that I know what I’m talking about when I talk about death. The plain fact is that I have not been there. No matter how sensitively I observe what the person seems to be experiencing, I myself do no not know what it is like. In writing, speaking, and teaching about death I am trying to educate myself and you about the unknowable. (There are some Thanatologists who argue that one cannot even experience his or her own death since one can never be certain that it is the process of dying that one is experiencing).
Nevertheless we still need to get in touch with the whole issue of death and dying. I particularly like the lyrics of George Harrison, written before his diagnosis:
There’ll come a time when all your hopes are fading.
When things that seemed so very plain become an awful pain.
Searching for the truth among the dying.
And answered when you have learned the art of dying.
When do we be begin learning the “art of dying”? We begin by acknowledging that we do not want to do what we are doing now – Dealing with the subject of death.
Most of us are not familiar with the dying process. The dying usually reside in hospitals, not visited at all by casual acquaintances, and only rarely by friends. The final moments of life are seldom observed by the family. The body quickly disappears to be handled by a funeral director. It usually appears, not in a church for the whole community, but in a funeral home for family and selected friends. All of this has separated us from the dying and the dead.
And yet, we are more aware of death today. Maybe more than ever. Our newspapers are one large obituary column containing reports of death on every conceivable scale by every possible means. Books, articles, television, and radio programs inundate us with the reality, as well as sanitized versions, of death.
And yet, we are caught up by our culture in systems that deny we are going to die. Indeed, we have gone to great lengths and devised elaborate means convincing ourselves this is so. Generally, our first question when someone dies is, “What killed him?” What did he die of?” We purchase “life” insurance in case of “premature” death. We seem to think that by naming the specific cause or somehow reducing death from the inevitable lot of all humans to the accidental or the unfortunate few we can avoid dying at any moment in time by any possible means. In spite of the fact that we know that all people are mortals, most of us have not internalized: “I’m going to die!”
Some of the Ways we deny Death
One of the ways we deny death is that we shroud death in euphemisms like “passed on,” “left us,” or “went to their eternal reward.” Another is our society relegates the dying to somber and often emotionally careless hospital wards with code words like “oncology, carcinoma, and myocardial infarction.” Here are some more ways we deny death.
1. We ignore it. Most insurance salesmen don’t say, “How will your family be taken care of should you die tomorrow?” That raises too many fears. They say, “How would your family be taken care of if you had died yesterday?” They offer a comfortable impossibility.
2. Another way we deny death is we use a lot of euphemisms to smooth death’s harshness. We don’t die: we expire, we depart, we pass on. We don’t “fill in a death certificate”; we complete a “vital statistics form.” We don’t “buy a grave” – we invest in a “pre-need memorial estate.” We attempt to prettify the corpse and then observe that it looks “very natural.” Then we put it into the ground in a hermetically sealed box so that nothing will happen to it. I once had a salesmen trying to sell me a hermetically sealed vault he guaranteed would not leak for fifty years. Being one-half Scots I wanted to be sure of how I was spending my money, so I inquired, “Who’s going to check?!”
3. Another way we deny death doesn’t look like denial at all. But it is. It is the bizarreness, fantastic preoccupation we have with death. The newspapers and non-fiction books are full of numerous and detailed presentations of violent death. Geoffrey Gorer, a social anthropologist, says our fascination with death is pornographic (Death, Grief, and Mourning, 1967). Pornography is something offensive to the taste. Usually, it refers to those pictures or writings that excite us sexually and give rise to private sexual fantasies. With pornography the thing viewed is not responded to as a person. When we say that sex is disgusting and not to be talked about, the sexual need is not destroyed but only forced into non-human paths. Death is pornographic in the same sense that sex was in the 19th century. Just as women covered their bodies with voluminous skirts, so today we cover the reality of death with unrealistic funeral practices in accouterments and words to deny the reality that each one of us is going to die. The pornography of death follows the same pattern. Too often the way we confront dying and death does not call forth our normal feelings of sorrow, guilt, and love. We emphasize death’s harshness and deny our tenderness. If we are prudish about death – that is, see it as disgusting, obscene, not to be talked about – we have not come to terms with all the elements of real and authentic life, and the end result is pornographic diversion.
4. We ridicule the elderly and costume ourselves in garish hair dyes, make-up, and expensive surgical procedures, all in hopes we might fool death into passing us by.
5. When we discuss death, it is usually in sympathy cards which dare not even use the words death or dying.
6. Death is romanticized in literature and the media by deathbed scenes where good-looking actors say good and sweet things and die nobly, emotionally stable, and articulate moments before their death, still looking good. They are not portrayed coughing up blood, gasping for breath, and causing the rest of us to feel imposed upon, awkward or inconvenienced.
*Discover GriefShare if you are experiencing death in your life of a significant other. Meetings at Norway Avenue weekly, call for further information.