Saturday, November 2, 2013

Death Stories

My mother-in-law was diagnosed with lung cancer this year, and I honestly was at a complete loss.  Paralyzed for days, I cast around for an appropriate response or way to relate to what she was going through.  Mobilizing care was pretty straightforward, but what might come after... well.  I had no way of understanding that or even having any kind of response other than a numbing confusion.

You see, my family doesn't do death.

I come from a crew of Christian Scientists, which means that death isn't a part of the conversation.  Everyone gets uncomfortable when it comes up, shifting in their seats and looking away.  We talk about people passing on, but no one ever dies.  They're "in a better place" or they've "gone over", which sounds like they're just around the bend somewhere, hanging out in the mist, still touchable and present if we can just catch up with them. 

This lack of narrative about the finality of death came to the forefront when my mother-in-law was diagnosed.  Every time the possibility that she might die came up, I would brush it off, or get wildly irritable and defensive, lashing out at my poor husband, who was dealing with his own confusing mix of worry and grief at the thought of losing his mom.  My therapist finally asked the gentle question of what rituals my family had about death, and when I burst into tears, she teased out the truth that death makes me really damn uncomfortable.

I don't have any framework to understand it.  It seems so vast and encompassing.  I don't know how to cope with someone being gone forever.  And further, I don't know if I can handle the slow decline into the final days.  Cancer is a huge jerk, and I hate it.  Alzheimer's took both of my grandmothers, heart disease took one of my grandpas.  Watching those final days was rough.

But, we all die.  There is an end.  I have to find a way to cope with the death of my loved ones, and my own, eventual, end.

In other cultures, there are rituals to help us die.  There are narratives about the life cycle and the graceful retreat into death.  We need those stories.  We need those rituals.  I need them.

So, I'm doing a research project about death.  I watched this TED talk today by Amanda Bennett, about her husband Terrance's vibrant life and death from cancer.  Together, they fought cancer 3 times successfully.  The last time, it was time to let go.  Until the end, they thought they could keep fighting.  In fact, they didn't say goodbye, because they were so wrapped in their hope.


Hope isn't denial, Amanda says. In fact, hope is what we cling to because death, in our culture, means failure. When people die, it's because they have failed to keep living. But this makes our stories sad.

Instead, she posits, we need a heroic narrative about death. We need to be hopeful, and not thought to be in denial.  We can keep the stories that we are fighters, that our doctors are healers, and then when it is time to go, we can leave knowing that we put in a good fight. 

We need a way to leave as grandly as we came in and lived our lives. This will make the exit joyful and we can be proud of it. Hope isn't a bug; it's a feature.

There will be more of this as I sort through my complicated feelings about death.  But you should watch this, because it's heartwarming.

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