The mysterious graffiti artist, Banksy, once said, “I mean, they say you die twice; one time when you stop breathing, and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time”.
Death brings reality: Just like ‘love’ and ‘romance’, our culture is embedded with these unrealistic narratives of death; “The entire family is gathered around the hospital bed as he calls out his wife’s name, and slowly takes his last breath, and then closes his eyes”; “Despite the fact that we haven’t talked for two years, my mom and I made amends just before she passed away”; “He passed away peacefully in the night” (and, we forget to mention the fact that someone had to find him, someone had to carry him out, someone had to alert the family).
Reality is, life has limitations and constraints. Sometimes, time and money forbid us from being with our loved ones as they take their last breaths. Sometimes, family dynamics prevent us from obtaining that spoken apology. Sometimes, we unfortunately are the ones who have to break the news to everyone. When my grandpa passed away this weekend, I was on the way to the airport to pick up my aunt, and reality meant that I couldn’t be there with the rest of my family to witness his last breaths. My sister expressed some guilt, because she told him to, “Just hold on, everyone would be there soon”, when she should have said, “It’s ok”, but, reality is, that is what happened, that is what she said, and no one could have predicted this end. My mom wishes she would have told him how much she appreciated him being the best grandpa to us kids, and reality is, he passed before that could happen. But, that is reality. Life has limitations and constraints, and we must forgive ourselves for not being able to live in a ‘fairy tale world’.
Death brings catharsis: I believe the best times to observe the root of who we are as humans is when we are put in positions where we must be stripped from all of our comforts and our societal rules, and our instincts rule. This happens when we are really, really tired, or, when we are really, really hungry, or when we are put in traumatic situations.
Everyone grieves differently. There are some of us who take the hysterical crying path; who erupt into sobs so hard that our lips turn blue and we can’t breathe. There are some of us who revert to business; who call the cremation center, the hospice nurse, check the time, alert the family members. There are some of us who assume authority, and begin instructing everyone on what they should do, where they should go, what they need to buy. There are some of us who disappear entirely, don’t tell anyone where we are, what we are doing, because we need to be alone. There are some of us who need to throw plates, punch pillows, stomp our feet. I am the kind of griever who will save face in front of the group; I may shed a tear because you are crying, and that makes me sad, but I really lose it when I am by myself, driving in my car, being in church, at yoga class, just before I go to bed, and some kind of sensual experience (usually a song or a memory) tips me off, and I can’t control myself. As I watched my family each observe our grief in so many distinct ways this weekend, I couldn’t help but notice how accepting we were of each other’s differences.
My family puts the “FUN” in “dysFUNctional”. We have a LONG history of tensions and conflicts with each other. And, as we grieved the loss of my grandpa, some of these hidden feelings began surfacing. People remembered their hurt feelings about being abandoned by their dad, about that time . And, in the end, it was productive, because people were able to purge those feelings that had been covered for so long. It’s like a wildfire; there is a lot of mess and destruction in the beginning; things are burning, but, in the end, the junk and debris is cindered off, and a new beginning can emerge.
Death brings human connection: Unfortunately, we all have some experience with death, whether it was our own parents, a classmate, a friend’s friend, a beloved pet. As people began offering their condolences, they began sharing their own stories of grieving; the neighbor lady, of whom barely knew my grandpa, began welling up, because she remembered her father dying of Alzheimer’s five years ago. A friend called to invite me out to a drink, because she remembered how claustrophobic it felt with family everywhere when her dad passed away. As we were going through pictures, I came across one of my Oma, who passed away from breast cancer when I was 10, and I began remembering her, and losing her. And, through all of this, we are united in this facet of the human condition that we can never get away from. The next death I am involved with, I will remember my grandpa, my Oma, my friend’s brother, that classmate, my favorite cat, the girl on the poms team…and, it’s just something we will continue cycling through our whole lives, because death is part of the human condition.
….grandpa, thanks for stopping me with the the Burlington Northern train on the way to school this morning…