If we “fight” cancer, then when we die is it a failure? What does it mean when someone has a life-limiting illness but people don’t talk about it and instead say they really “love life”? If someone accepts that they are not going to get well again, does that mean they “don’t love life?” I live near a large university who’s motto is “the victors.” That’s fine for a sport’s team, but when it’s all over the walls of the hospital, are you a “loser” when you die? How do we accept “Being Mortal” (the name of the best selling book by Atul Gawande) when our language around illness and death clearly does not?
*****How does this affect our grief? If we don’t believe “It’s OK to Die” (Monica Williams-Murphy’s powerful book), how do we make it “OK to grieve?” We have distanced ourselves so far from the normalcy of death it is now pathological (extreme, excessive, abnormal) to die. This has also distanced us from, and pathologized, grief.
*****Look at our funeral rituals and mourning practices. They aren’t helping us any. We instantly move from a paradigm of fighting illness to an urgency to accept death and say good-bye. The body, which becomes putrid and dirty the moment it fails, must be disposed of rapidly. We don’t encourage seeing the body right after death; it has no value. It is not “normal” to sit with the body, to touch it, nor heaven forbid, to hold it. We are expected all of a sudden to shift from unacceptance to acceptance and move on. And it only gets worse after that.
*****Americans today seem to think they have two choices for what to do after the [fight and defeat of] death. The body is removed from us quickly as if it’s dangerous, as if the sight and feeling and sound of being around it will damage us. The professional, whom we’ve paid to antiseptically care for this body, either
- cleans it, preserves it, makes it look alive again, displays it, seals it away in something that looks like a jewelry box, buries it it in a hole you can’t see, and covers it with perfectly green grass
- OR takes it privately to be cremated and then gives us a flowerpot-looking thing full of what we are told are it’s remains, which we then dispose of. We don’t see the body at all.
This way of dealing with the dead body puts the emphasis on hurrying up and dealing with the grief over the loss. As we are expected to not linger with the body, we are expected to not linger with our grief. We are expected to move through it rapidly, one year at the most, get over it and move on. I think THIS is the dangerous thing; in order to fully accept something we need to fully see it, and that takes time, more time than we are allowing ourselves these days.
*****Our American funeral practices deny us time with the body. It is valuable to be with the body after death. It can help us. In fact, I think it is normal to want to be with the body. After caring for someone in life, it is normal to care for them in death. Taking our time to sit with the body, to touch it, to hold it, to wash it, and to anoint it actually benefits us and assists us to come to grips with and accept what has happened.
*****If death is not a failure but a normal end to life, then maybe the dead body is not a failure but a normal part of the end of life. If we accept the dead body, take our time and care for it, then maybe we can accept our grief, take our time, and care for it. No need to hurry. Time and space to see, time and space to honor, time and space to feel. The gift to us in being with death and not distancing ourselves but feeling it, seeing it and touching it, is to help us understand it, and our own emotional, psychic and spiritual responses to it. If we don’t deny death or the dead body by immediately removing it and sterilizing it, then maybe we won’t deny our feelings about it, remove them and sterilize them. We can more easily integrate them, grow through and from them, and get along with them. This is normal grief.
*****New funeral practices, new ways of seeing and caring for the body, can help us. This is so very important to ourselves, our culture and our future.