Death Becomes Us

June 13, 2009 at 6:15 am Leave a comment

I have been peripheral to a fair amount of death lately.  Two of my very closest friends lost their fathers in the past few months, one after an excruciating illness and another in a shockingly sudden way. A college friend called last week and told me she lost her stepmother.  A dear new friend lost her grandfather last week, and I see my own grandparents are moving farther from their former selves each day.  Meanwhile, I follow the blog of another friend, who is dealing with the loss of her husband; and today my family acknowledges the birthday of our beloved Aunt Phyllis, who succombed to ALS just weeks after my daughter was born.

I was also surprised and touched to receive a comment this week from Jen Ballantyne of “The Comfy Place,” a blog I follow with a lump in my throat each time I read.  I’ve never met Jen, who lives in Australia, but I have mentioned her here before, as her documenting of her daily battle with terminal cancer, and her emotional agony at the thought of leaving her young son, is one of the most poignant stories I’ve ever read.  Blogging puts her day-to-day struggle in real-time in such a way that she has gained a ton of supporters from around the globe, all of us whom are so invested in her survival against the odds that humanity and community are highlighted in ways we rarely see these days.

Then, of course, there is the constancy of death surrounding us all — the wars, violence, and disease we see on the news each night.  And, yet, we have trouble talking about death in our culture. Unlike the parades of calaveras on Dia De Los Muertos to our south, we tend to whisper furtively about death, perhaps to avoid its grasp, or to put on a strong face and “move on” here in the United States.

In my own home, we have yet to describe death to our three-year-old.  We are somehow protecting her from it until it gets close enough that we must engage with it, and until then we tell her the dog next door went to live somewhere else where she is well and not sick anymore.  Do I think this is a great idea?  I don’t know.  Ironically, this is a child with a life-threatening medical condition (who has a father with a similar condition), and yet she is so far from understanding what that means.  Perhaps ignorance is bliss at three, and especially with her particular situation.  We do not want to instill fear in her.  But perhaps she is closer to the circle of life than we give her credit for, given that she is so new to this Earth.  Perhaps she would be less afraid than we are, if death was a more normal part of our culture and daily life.

Keeping ourselves removed from death somehow also removes us from life, doesn’t it?  If we allowed ourselves to be closer to it, to engage with it more fully and openly, would we perhaps live more consciously, enjoy each moment more, walk our talk more truly, speak our truths more loudly?  Would we be more connected with our souls or spirits, even our bodies?  Are hospice workers or doctors or soldiers more connected in these ways?  I’m sure it depends on the person, but I can only imagine that seeing death daily allows more opportunity to ponder the meaning of life.  Isn’t that part of why people love Grey’s Anatomy and all those hospital shows?  These shows’ stories let us engage with death and life — passively, of course — and have some catharsis.  Easier to cry about Izzie’s cancer than our uncle’s, perhaps?

This is all just musing, as usual, but there is something to the jolt of life I feel each time I engage with death.  There is something about death that we can use as a gift to the living.  It is the ultimate perspective.  The critical lesson. The great equalizer.  It is common to every one of us, eventually, from ladybugs to presidents.

None of this is new thinking, just my thinking today.  And, tomorrow, having written this, I will pay more attention and feel more gratitude.  That is becoming, and for today that is enough.

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Megan Pincus Kajitani: Writer, Editor, Former Academic Overachiever and Career Counselor, Mom, Wife, Feminist, Gen Xer, Californian who believes that change is possible View Megan Pincus Kajitani's profile on LinkedIn

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