Have you noticed that we live in a death-denying society? Yes, I said death-denying, not death-defying, although the way unwritten rules about grieving control the manner in which our members grieve, you’d think we are capable, somehow, of avoiding the deed altogether.
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but as the saying goes, there ain’t none of us getting out of here alive. When I was in the midst of deep grief over the loss of my husband Hugh, which in turn made me face my own mortality, my brother Ray, a yogi, said, “Well, you know Rita, in some spiritual practices, the goal throughout life is to prepare for death. There is a constant letting go of attachment.” And I’ve participated in a couple of yoga-based sessions in which the instructor said, as we headed into meditation, “Okay, go ahead and picture yourself dead on the floor.” Frightening, yes, but oh so freeing.
Have you had a chance to watch George Harrison: Living in the Material World? Now there was a man on a constant quest for spirituality who ended up dying in “profound beauty” according to his wife Olivia, surrounded by family, the scent of incense and candles, and the sound of sitars. His doctor at Staten Island University Hospital said, “George is very different from many people in that he didn’t have a fear of death. He felt that life and death were part of the same process.”
George himself described it this way: “Death is just where your suit falls off and now you’re in your other suit.”
Why are most of us in Western society so damned afraid of death, while maintaining stringent unspoken protocols about its unacceptable offspring, grief?
Well, it’s quite simple. In her interesting paper Oppression of the Bereaved: A Critical Analysis of Grief in Western Society, Darcy Harris points out that we are so busy producing and consuming, we don’t have time for death. Also, we tend to be patriarchal in our structure, so there is a desire to compete and dominate the market. Says Harris, “Patriarchal society favors the male-dominant patterns of stoicism and denial of emotionality, which are often hard to maintain in acute grief.”
We are quite removed from death these days, until we lose someone close to us, for reasons that have to do with progress: infant mortality rates are low, most of us don’t live on farms where we might witness the death of animals, and death has generally moved from the home to the hospital and the funeral home. By the 1950s, the topic of death became taboo, particularly when it came to children, in terms of them either dying, or exposing them to the knowledge of death. And while we provide children with counselling now when a classmate dies, we are still raising them in a manner that keeps real death more distant than ever before in human history.
My first knowledge of death – it was such a bummer – was when I was 8-years-old and policemen arrived at our door at an odd hour one night to inform us that the 16-year-old brother of a friend who was staying with us had died in a car accident. I went with my family to the visitation and my mother urged me to touch the hands of the corpse in the coffin. “See, he’s cold,” she said, with an odd look on her face. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I guess Mom’s expression was a combination of dismay for her friend’s loss and perhaps a mask pulled on for me, a show of strength. In the nights following I got stuck on my bedtime prayer: “If I die before I wake”. I had some difficulty falling asleep. I remember thinking, We die? There is an end to this? I don’t like this idea.
But rejecting death doesn’t make it go away. And not allowing people to fully grieve, in the personal way in which their loss has affected them, is a cruel by-product of our material-obsessed culture. The normal and healthy expression of grief can be messy, longer-than-expected and laden with mistakes – oh yeah, that was my experience, and you either have or can read about it in my book Long Climb Back – but it must not be considered a source of shame.
The deeper we love, the deeper the well of grief, and how can that be shameful?
And as far as my own death goes, I think I’ll go with Harrison. I like the idea of getting another suit when gravity completes the process of pulling this one off of me.