An Interruption at Time Goes By – Day 3
Sandwich Generation

Talking About Death

While I was setting up my new laptop over the weekend, wisewebwoman, who blogs at The Other Side of Sixty, left a nice note on my 2004 series about caring for my mother during the last months of her life in 1992.

It was then, and remains, the most profound experience of my life. I hadn't read the series in a couple of years so I spent time yesterday doing that, which accounts for the sudden soberness of today's post after three days of light-hearted golden oldies.

Death, no matter how many facelifts and Botox injections, comes to each of us. It is the central dilemma of human existence which, with variations determined by personal philosophy, religious belief and disposition, haunts most of us from the moment we are old enough to understand its finality.

In modern-day America, we avoid talking about that inevitability – at least, publicly – by ignoring it. Among the many methods for this are exalting youth as the gold standard of life; consigning our aged to retirement ghettos or, if ailing, to nursing institutions instead of home; and by sanitizing death.

People hardly ever die; they pass on. We've even given up on funeral directors (a mid-20th century euphemism for mortician or undertaker) who now call themselves grief counselors, as though the main character of the event is not the dead person.

We impose distance, too, when preparing wills, living wills and burial arrangements. There is so much paper full of legal language, you might as well be preparing a business contract and not for your own death.

As a result, there are few places and circumstances where we are allowed to speak openly about the stark reality of dying which, in my case, comes to mind more strongly in the years since I turned 60 or so, and it would be useful to hear how other people think about it. But try bringing it up with friends: What you will get is, “Oh, that's too morbid. Did you see Dancing with the Stars last night?”

And then they think you're weird; you can watch their faces change as they mentally withdraw from you.

Even when we get old and closer to the end of our lives, we are often cavalier about it. “I'm not afraid to die,” many say, “I'm afraid of a lingering death.” That's probably true - if you live long enough, you see some people suffer terribly as they die – but is that all there is to say?

Oblivion is what most of us fear. The loss of our individual self-awareness. It is hard (impossible?) to believe we just stop being which, I suppose, is what religions that offer an afterlife are for. That doesn't work for me. Although I am well beyond agnostic, I avoid labeling myself atheist because my lack of belief in a god (and afterlife) is different from rejection of it and also doesn't require railing against religion as in recent, popular books.

The comfort some naturalist sorts say they get from knowing they will return to the earth from whence we sprang bothers me because it doesn't account for having lived. During occasional dark nights of the soul, I wonder what the hell it's all for - all this experience and information I've gathered, collated and tried to understand during my many decades, along with that of everyone else's - if it disappears when we die.

Here is what I hang on to:

About ten years ago, talking with my friend Sandy as we walked down Bleecker Street in New York City, I gestured widely with my arms to make a point and took a step backward. Instead of pavement, there was the emptiness of an entrance to a store cellar - a large, square hole in the sidewalk. As I fell backward, I managed to brace myself against the building with one arm and could see below that it was a deep cellar with many, steep concrete steps. I would surely die as my body crashed to the floor.

Sandy caught my other arm and tried to pull, but she was wearing new, smooth-soled sandals that kept slipping so that she could get no purchase on the ground. My arm against the building was slipping too and in a span of no more than ten seconds, I went from blind, paralyzing fear (oh, shit, I'm going to die right now) to perfect calm and acceptance (it's okay, I can do this).

Then I deliberately let go of the wall to fall to my death.

But a miracle happened. (I don't believe a god is necessary for miracles.) Two strong hands caught me in the middle of my back and gently lowered me, unharmed except for a scraped elbow, to safety and continuing life.

What comes to mind now, when I ponder death, is the memory of that perfect calm and acceptance and I am counting on it to return when next I need it.

That doesn't mean I don't think there isn't a lot to say about death and dying, and I wish we talked about it more.

So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan which moves
To that mysterious realm where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon; but, sustain'd and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

- The final lines of Thanatopsis by William Cullen Bryant

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Claire Jean writes of Netti who is Yesterday's News - Not!]

Comments

I'm with you, Ronni. Let's talk about death and dying. I'm fortunate to have one good friend who shares my interest in talking about what others might find too morbid to consider. I'm thinking up an approach to a post of my own as I write this.

To each her own. Since I will die, what is the point in making myself miserable while alive by staring into the abyss? I am not, thereby, avoiding death. That would be impossible. But, I choose to live life instead of engaging in futility.

The part about falling into the store cellar is amazing, Ronni. I'd like to know about the person who caught you.

Facing death is as individual as the person talking. We all bring our perceptions, our beliefs to the table. As a nurse, I remember my very first patient who died. I was a student nurse and I was caring for him, a man terminally ill with cancer. It was very simple: one minute he was talking to me and the next he was gone. A simple breath in and then no more.

I barely knew this man but the significance of the moment was not lost on this young Florence Nightengale wanna be. I started sobbing. My instructor pulled me into her office and we talked. I am the first to say I had lots of problems and fears about death. My family seemed to have some sort of death curse on it as we lost so many people as I was growing up. I even went to a shrink to try to figure this all out.

After years and years of pondering death, as I aged, I have come to terms with it. In fact, all I pray for is quick, no pain and that my children are left with the legacy of my love and faith in them.

When my aunt died several years ago, we went to the funeral parlor to pick out a casket. We are Jewish and usually it is a ritual/rite to pick out a plain box, which we did.

But I sat there purusing the catalogue of caskets, in my own morbid humor, and picked my own casket (which frankly I have yet to purchase because of its outrageous cost but still aspire to get it). It was a wooden casket packaged like a Fedex box and imprinted with the words, return to sender.

And that my friends, sums up where I am with death....it is not my enemy, it is not my friend, but I do not fear it and want to leave this world with fun....because that's who I am and always will be.

I was tempted to post this anonymously, which seems silly, but I'd hate for my net savvy friends to think I was complaining about them because really they've been quite wonderful - but the fact that no one wants to talk about death has been one of the more uncomfortable and difficult aspects of being a caregiver for my grandpa. He's in the later stages of a long bout with cancer and it's almost embarrassing to think I'm in my early 30s and never really, I mean _really_ faced what mortality actually means until now, but that's how it is. And it's causing all of these.. thoughts, emotions, fears, worries, all kinds of perspective changing experiences - and I can't really talk about it with anyone because death (and all the yucky stuff that precedes it) is a verboten topic. My friends offer love and compassion and distraction upon distraction, for which I am very grateful, but the white elephant in the room is something few among them are willing to really talk about.

I imagine I would have loved your blog even if I'd come upon it at a different time in my life, but it's been especially helpful to me in the last year because your willingness to bring up "unmentionable in polite company" topics about aging has helped me understand many things about my grandfather as we've gone through this (at times horrific) process. Your readers' comments add to your perspective and I really can't explain how helpful it's been.

So, though I can't pretend to understand the big "what's it all for" questions, I can say I'm grateful that you and your readers take the time to _share_ the knowledge and wisdom you've accumulated over your lives. In doing so, you ensure that at least some of your hard won experience doesn't go with you - it lives on in me now, and I'm sure in countless hundreds and thousands of others who read Time Goes By.

That might be cold comfort, I don't know, but it seems to me the greatest gift my grandpa gave me was a lifetime of teaching me and oh how I wish he had been a blogger or a writer so I could go back to his words over and over again after he's gone.

It's a funny thing about all this technology, it connects us, helps us share and learn from each other in the here-and-now, but in a sense, doesn't it give our thoughts some immortality too? So long as the web pages are hosted?

Maybe I'm straying off topic, but it is some comfort to me, when I think about The End, to imagine that perhaps some of what I've contributed to the world will live on even after I'm gone. That somehow the collective output of what all of us are doing online is creating the greatest treasure trove of thoughts, experiences, wisdom, and knowledge ever co-created by humans before, living on the web, and hopefully helpful to generations to come.

Maybe there is no other point than sharing what you know to ease the lives of those who come after. I dunno.

A very good post and I'm sure you will see a lot of comments.

As you did, I also had one of those surprisingly calm moments before an expected death. I think that happens to a lot of people but we don't hear a lot about it.

As for myself, I do have a relationship with God and we talk a lot. But it's all very personal and I don't need you or anyone else to believe along with me to somehow make it 'real'. Believe me, I'm not urging you to change your views!

I've experienced both my mother and my sister's deaths and those events seem to have given me some insight and I simply don't fear death anymore. I see it as an experience that is waiting for me...I'm probably more curious than anything else.

And if I'm lucky enough to know when I'm about to die and have the time, I will probably post my feelings on my blog...

kenju:

I'd like to know about the man who caught me too. He didn't say anything to me; just helped me back up the stairs. For no good reason, I had the impression that he didn't speak English.

I started shaking as uncontrollably as if I'd been pulled from an icy river. Sandy was shaking too and we sat on a stoop by the restaurant together until our wits returned.

Then I wanted to thank him, but we hadn't noticed while we were sitting there, that the metal doors to the cellar entrance had been closed.

I went into the restaurant, explained what had happened to the manager and asked to speak to the man who had been working in the basement. The manager said he had no knowledge of anyone working there that day.

I like the subject, too, Ronni. And thanks for saying a little more about your miracle. I believe that's how most of the real ones come about.

I have been religious, but no longer. I believe that we have a spiritual center, and that oblivion after physical death is not the end product of our lives. What might be next inspires curiosity, and drives my desire to live well and leave as rich a legacy as I can. And by legacy I mean several things: the day-to-day manner in which I live; how I treat people whether friends, family, or strangers; my integrity or lack thereof; and even small things like how my home feels to you when you walk in the door.

There are lots of sources for inspiration and strength when the going gets tough. My favorite is a dear friend near Chicago who is a very talented author, coach, psychologist who writes at No Safe Distance. You might like this article and this writer. I highly recommend her.

Meanwhile, I aim for the nearest to truth I can get everyday and practice paying attention.

In the (progressive!) religious circles I run in, there has been a lot of discussion lately about the book discussed in this New York Times article. Apparently people in Denmark and Sweden are simply irreligious -- not anti, but indifferent. I was struck by this:
Social conformity or not, Mr. Zuckerman was deeply impressed with the matter-of-fact way in which many of his interviewees spoke of death, without fear or anxiety, and their notable lack of existential searching for any ultimate meaning of life.

Maybe, in a peaceful, well functioning society, a lot of the angst we feel about individually not being here anymore can dissolve? I don't know. I do find that as I age, I obsess less about the mystery that one day this bustling person I think I am will be gone.

I like to talk about death, but know that most people do not. I had one of those near death experiences when I was in my twenties. I saw a magnificent bright light drawing me closer and closer. I can only describe it as feeling peace that could never be possible on earth. When I woke up in the hospital, my family was by my bedside. They were told that my chances when brought in were fifty-fifty. I spoke of this bright light phenomenon to only one friend. I knew she would believe my account of what I saw period--no questions or reasons why. Many have come forward during the past fifteen or so years telling of similar occurrences which in turn prompted me to open up to a few more friends. Some feel it’s a religious sign; some have a scientific explanation. I only know my experience of my experience. I’d like to think death will come that way, but I don’t know. I don’t know why I’m here or what happens once I’m not.

What a magnificent post, Ronni. Thank you. And I loved the story about the cellar.
Interesting that you shook afterwards. That's our built-in biological method of dispersing the after-effects of trauma and we share it with other species (see Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine).
This death-denial stuff our culture is into is a fairly recent phenomenon. The Victorians, for example, used to have various kinds of memento mori around in their homes and gardens. But death is gradually coming back out of the closet, just like sex and birth. And dialogues like the one you've started here are an important part of that.

I think trying to make meaning out of life, what it's all about, does explain the human need for religion as it is where most find that kind of explanation-- correctly or otherwise. Most of us want to think it is not all for nothing that we have lived.

Having been through religion and found it a good experience for me (for awhile), I still sometimes miss what it offered, but it's more for living than the dying part.

By now in my life I tend to believe more in reincarnation than anything else for why there is purpose, why it matters how we have lived, and what might come next, but I also think it's possible that it's dust to dust. I am really okay with either. What I would hate to believe is that fundamentalists were right and god had a heaven and hell prepared for those who had not said the right words, done the right things, or felt the right way. I mean it could be true. Truth is whatever it is, but it would be the one I would not like to believe and not out of fear of hell but about what it'd mean about life itself and really for what it would mean about the higher power behind all of this. I do not believe in it though and we have to be honest with what we believe-- whether it suits the norm of our time or not

Jung's first task for healthy aging is "Facing the reality of aging and dying." And then the third one is: "Defining life realistically." In my mind its the third one that speaks the most clearly. To really know about life, and a mystery it is at root, what we do know are its limitations. All growing things die. Years ago I found this poem my Erica Jong and it made sense to me in an almost funny way. I can see death this way (on some days) as one of those long-time friends that sometimes drive you nuts but you know that they are forever planted in your life no matter what. If one is fascinated by life, well, death is part of it. Yes?

MY DEATH
“Death is our eternal companion,” Don Juan said … it is always to our left, an arm’s length
… It has always been watching you. It always will until the day it taps you.” (Carlos Castaneda)


My death
looks exactly like me.
She lives to my left,
at exactly an arm’s length.
She has my face, hair, hands;
she ages
as I grow older.

Sometimes, at night,
my death awakens me
or else appears in dreams
I did not write.
Sometimes a sudden wind
blows from nowhere,
& I look left
& see my death.

Alive, I write
with my right hand only.
When I am dead,
I shall write with my left.

But later I will have to write
through others.
I may appear
to future poets
as their deaths.

(Erica Jong)



Your reply about the man who saved you gave me goosebumps! This is definitely a topic of interest, and I hope you will continue the discussion in future blogs. My own contribution is the change I observed, during home care, in my 96-year-old intellectual mother who believed nothing comes after death. Well, spirits started visiting her. Oh, I am not making this up! She received them with disbelief at first. Hospice personnel told me the experience is fairly common at the end of life but most people hesitate to describe it. The doctor wanted to prescribe an anti-psychotic but I refused. It was interesting to see my mother's approach to death change over a period of months. During the last few days, she received visits from her father, a beloved grandmother, and my father, all deceased of course. She finally decided death must not be all that awful. Her death was very peaceful. I wish more people would talk about these things. I find stories of the white light in near-death experiences fascinating.

I certainly recognize your "perfect calm," Ronni. I have had periods of depression during my life. As a teenager, I was fascinated by a poem about the angel of death, which I was, in some ways, longing for. During one period of depression, I didn't care if I lived or died. So I risked my life over and over. Once I was diving off the coast of Norway, using borrowed equipment. I didn't check how much air was available and went down to 40 meters. Then I realized something was very wrong: I was almost out of air and couldn't find the reserve. "This is it," I said to myself, perfectly calm. "If you want to die, you die now." A fellow diver released the spare air so I could reach the surface. This experience changed me. I started to believe life has a purpose, that we have choices, that we are here to help others, as far as our abilities allow.

I had an earlier encounter with death that I would like to share as well. Hedvig rented an apartment in my parents' house. They were seldom home, and I became close to Hedvig. One day she had a heart attack. As soon as she had returned from the hospital, I went down to see her. The first thing I asked was, 'Aren't you afraid of dying?" To my surprise, she said, "It wasn't hard to die. But it was very hard to return." I asked what she meant. She replied, "When my soul left my body, I was floating over the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen, green meadows. Far away, on the horizon, I could see bright light. I really wanted to reach that light, but never did. I had to go back." Hedvig's experience has made me seek out literature on the subject all my life, starting with books by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and James Moody.

Both my parents and my younger brother died, within a period of two years. When I came here to the USA, my father-in-law was 97. I was working with a young carpenter outside our house when his wife called me in, saying her husband had fallen. I helped him sit on the bed and returned to work. She called me back five minutes later. I went into his room and realized he had just died, so I called to my carpenter friend, who joined us. We laid the old man out on the bed. I can still see the two of us, looking at each other with astonishment. "How peaceful and young he looks!" I said. My friend added, "I hope I can die like this."

I'm 70 now and a lifetime of experiences has changed the way I approach death.


Perhaps we are just a thread in the tapestry of time.

I learned those lines from Thanatopsis in ninth grade, and, young as I was, I recognized their potency and importance to me. I memorized them and have held them close to my heart ever since.
I knew your "perfect calm" when I looked straight in to the barrel of my own loaded gun being pointed at me by a husband who declared that if he couldn't be married to me, he would rather spend the rest of his life in a jail cell. My death sentence was written all over his face. Then I looked at him and told him with absolute certainty that I was not afraid to die, but that he was the one who would have to explain to our kids in the morning why he had shot their Mom. He knew that I was right. I was not afraid to die, and he could not face anyone, least of all our kids, and see the look on their faces when they found out -- and he ran away. I have kept this "perfect calm" close to my heart too, along with the cherished words of Bryant. They have seen me through a tumultuous life. And I remain calm and at peace at 72.

Ooops - little side note -- it's "Scourged to his dungeon" ... not "Scourged by his dungeon"

I really appreciate your comments today. They are a healing contrast to different internet conversation I had this week. During my husbands illness and death I was a member on an online support forum. Late last week another member asked about having a memorial page for the people who had died of Bladder Cancer. I said I would like to see such a page. The response was overwhelmingly against the idea. They wanted to keep the site focused the living. I didn't ask for a focus on the deceased but i didn't want them ignored and have my feelings minimized.
I believe the only immortality we have is in the memory of our friends and family.

Ronni, once again your thoughts provoke such a good conversation with your readers. I particularly like reading Fleep's comment.

Fleep, I don't know if it will be a comfort to you, but most of us are beginners when it comes to dying. And this is good and proper, because it is ours alone to live.

Last summer I cared for my beloved uncle for two weeks when he was "lying in dying" (a German expression). It was a very short duration, but a precious experience nevertheless.

I'm not sure I quite believe the "I'm not afraid of dying" stuff, but I do know it is possible to be in a situation as you described where death is inevitable and you accept it. If people think talking about such death is morbid, they obviously don't understand the punchline.

Ronni, I thank you for a most provocative post. It is liberating and stimulated some great comments that will give us all lots of think about.
Since you mention god, I wonder, what is your concept of god? What do others conjure up when they think of god? I'll bet it's not all traditional.
And to the thinking Fleep, your grandfather must be some guy to have nurtured the devotion you show. With the way you express your thoughts, maybe one day you'll write about him, and bring pleasure to us all.

I had a near-death experience, and it was the most wonderful experience I've had up to this point in my life. I was surrounded by a deep, deep love beyond description. Coming back into the physical body was extremely difficult, as my body felt as heavy as clay in comparison to my "lightness of being". I am not afraid to die.

WOW, Ronni! Powerful stuff! "Then I deliberately let go of the wall to fall to my death." Fascinating, actually.

I would love to talk about death much more than I do. I NEED to, I think. I'm afraid my husband bears the brunt of that. Even then, we're not discussing. I'm talking and he's politely listening.

January 11, I wrote a post on my blog titled "The Sunset Of Life". It was about death and dying. I have not given the subject much thought since then, but I have come to the conclusion that the view people have regarding death is what they are comfortable with. I think a person who believes in heaven is afraid of death or they would not have to believe that a better place awaits. It should actually free them from fear.

I can unequivocally say that I am not afraid of what happens after death because I think that it is truly the end of my existence. I will not be joining my relatives, nor seeing people with wings, nor being reborn in another body. I simply will cease to be. So why fear that?

My husband had a near death experience, saw the light, felt peace, and had a feeling of no sense of time. I wish I could believe that it was a real passage into another world. Being pragmatic, I think it is natures way of releasing the endorphins at a time of need.

I have heard all the stories of seeing dead relatives, crowds around a teacher, beautiful scenery, etc. at a time of death. I believe that this is what the person expected death to be like and, dreamlike, they filled in the scenario.


Another great post, Ronni! At the end of 1995, following the deaths of my son and my partner, 7 months apart, I lived a period of time realizing that I would welcome death were I faced with a death sentence of some sort. I felt closer to death than to life. Since then I feel I have distanced myself, perhaps too much from death, as I am so content with being alive and simply enjoying life and what it has to offer. My 88 year old mother seems quite content with the idea of death, yet did make an appointment to have ultrasounds done of her carotid artieries and abdomen. So, it is indeed a mystery!

I do belong to an organized religion, if you can call it that--Unitarian-Universalism--which essentially "allows" one to believe as you wish and is open to any and all alternatives. After the deaths of my partner and son I needed to believe that something else existed in order to make any meaning out of things. I would like to believe, as did Joseph Campbell, that after all his investigations into mythology and various religions, he still "knew too much" to not believe in a "God", or whatever else that word can connote. I go back to what I recognized at age 18--that if there was a god, it was beyond our realm of understanding, and at the same time, I felt/feel I was a pantheist. Whatever the god force it, it dwells in everything. I think the fundamentalists have given god a bad name by making it too personal.

It is truly strange to no longer inhabit the earth,

to no longer practice customs barely acquired,

not to give a meaning of human futurity

to roses, and other expressly promising things:

no longer to be what one was in endlessly anxious hands,

and to set aside even one’s own

proper name like a broken plaything.

Strange: not to go on wishing one’s wishes. Strange

to see all that was once in place, floating

so loosely in space. And it’s hard being dead,

and full of retrieval, before one gradually feels

a little eternity. Though the living

all make the error of drawing too sharp a distinction.

Angels (they say) would often not know whether

they moved among living or dead. The eternal current

sweeps all the ages, within it, through both the spheres,

forever, and resounds above them in both.

-- Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies

There is a HUGE HUGE difference between being religious and being spiritual. Most people I deal with are the latter and have strong opinions about how religion (and government and money) have attempted to control our lives.

Yes, there really IS something afterward to the afterlife. I have seen it and spoken with those that have crossed over.

But here is the catch: If you believe there is an abyss to fall in after you die, you will certainly find *exactly* that when the time comes. You will stay there until you get bored with the concept. Then you too will move on.

You *will* create your own reality.

PS

Ronnie, I forgot to say how happy I was to see this post.

Its disgraceful how we as a society hide the second biggest event in our lives. After birth, what else is more important to acknowledge?

THANK YOU.

Ronni-Thank you for this most interesting post. Gee, I am glad you were saved by an angel. (sound familiar)
1. To live life to the fullest or as best as we can...is my first rule.
2. To prepare for the end of life through a memorial trust where our wishes for when we are "in the light" are fulfilled to our specifications...is my second.
In this I speak for Syd, as well. Having married off both our children and buried all four parents in a span of 6 years...we know the value of pre-need planning.
3. No matter what you believe...having put your house in order can make this event easier on those who have to "shovel the bit of dirt on your coffin" or whatever ritual is involved in your moving on.
4. According to the Torah - man's life span is 3 score year and 10....so make each day a blessing for life is holy and live what is in your heart.
I could go on for ages...but it is better sometimes to be brief and be seated.

It never ceases to amaze me how a perfectly rational human being can not understand one simple truth: When you take your first breath, you also are closer to your last gasp.

Fear of dying? Some people are dead already because they have never had the courage to live.

Death is all around us, daily and for the foreseeable future - I don't see the Old Boy retiring:)

Live like you intend to live forever, love as if it's your last.

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