Friday, June 6, 2008

Death "etiquette" -- as if there could be such a thing...

Here are some understatements: Death is as real and common as birth. Death is, actually, life's main event. Death is the ultimate unknown.

But we don’t want to think about it. We don't like to talk about it.

So, when death arrives in our lives via our families and our friends, we feel unequal, insecure and awkward about how to deal with it. Death strips your soul raw. Here are some gentle tips to help you through.

I live in a place where wakes and funerals are an accepted and crucial social event to honor a person’s life and make your love and support known to the grieving family and friends. My kids grew up going to wakes and funerals, and I would like to think they feel comfortable with death in a way that I didn't when I was a child. My parents were so uncomfortable about death they never went to funerals if they could help it.

Don’t shy away from dying people. Visit the dying. They have a lot to teach you. The dying are in a holy state, hovering on an invisible border. They are the closest you can be to divinity in your living, breathing life.

When my father was dying, my Mother and I spent hours sitting with him. He seemed to be very busy in his mind, doing "soul work." If I talked to him, I felt I was disturbing him. I was in despair. I asked a friend who is a pastor and who has sat through many death vigils, "What should I do? How should I be?"

His words comforted me. "Your presence is all that is required. You take your cute from your father. If he wants to talk, listen. If you wants you to talk, then talk. If he wants silence, be silent. But your presence is what is important. Don't feel you hav to entertain him or say dramatic goodbyes. Just be. Be there."

Go to funerals. Your presence gives comfort to the friends and relatives. Your presence is an honor to the deceased, bearing witness to the goodness of their life. You don’t have to worry about what you should say or do. Anything you say or do is perfect. It is your presence that is everything. An embrace, a hand holding says volumes.

Death does not mean an end to your relationships. Whatever relationship you had with the person in life, will be the same one you have in death. Yes, when someone dies, your earthly relationship with that person is over. You can’t sit at a table and share a meal, you can’t call them up for a chat on the phone.

But your emotional and psychological relationship with them never ends. Conflicts that you didn’t resolve with them during your earthly time together will reappear until you work through them. Your relationship is never over with the people you loved in your life.

Tears are a good thing. This is no time to be dry eyed. Cry as much as you can, as much as you want. You’ll cry for every reason – for what was resolved and what wasn’t. For what you said and what you didn’t. Because you’re sad for yourself, because you’re sad for their family. Souls can hear you.

Death is a maestro, the ultimate teacher. Every person’s death that you experience should bring you closer to life, and to your own life. Let death bring you closer to your loved ones, help you to mend broken relationships, release the hate and vonfusion in your heart.

Don’t judge other people’s death. Dying is a messy, human business. Since we only die once, dying is not something we know how to do. There is no right or wrong way to die. Some countries, like Holland, have legal euthanasia. Others countries have organizations, like Exit in Switzerland. There is no easy way out. It is just as hard. Just as in childbirth, any behavior that gets you to the end result is fine. Every person’s death is unique and to be honored.

Letting go is hard. Often, it helps, when a person is in the final stages, to assure them that they are doing great, that there is nothing to fear, that everything will be okay, that you will be okay, that they can let go. Often, dying people need “permission” to let go. Sometimes people die precisely when you leave the room.

My brother was plagued by the fact that he was not with our Mother when she passed away. She died in her bed, in her bedroom, in her home, cared for lovingly by my brother. He had gone downstairs to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee. When he came back to her room, she had passed. He felt guilty. I told him that I couldn’t die in front of my children, that my all-encompassing love for them would make it hard for me to leave. He took comfort in my words.

Don’t ignore your feelings about death. Acknowledge them. If you feel frightened, uncomfortable, whatever, live all these feelings, think about them. Death is the ultimate unknown and all our fears are justifiable.

Read books bout death, both clinical and spiritual. When my Mother was dying, I learned a lot from talking to the Hospice workers, and from reading a lot of material published by the hospice movement.

Grieving takes a long time. Expect death to shock you, to make you feel vulnerable, exposed and unimaginably sad. Grieving takes on different strengths, different faces and different stages. It can take years to “get over” someone’s death. And you never really “get over” a death of a loved one.

Often at first, when a friend or family member dies, you feel relief. This is natural. You have just seen this person suffering. And now, they are at rest. The grief will come later. The mourning comes in waves and in stages. It lasts longer than you think.

Let time do its gentle work on you.

1 comment:

mayajuliana said...

I appreciate your thoughts on this because this topic is sooooo taboo, just as bad as sex and money. Thank you for bringing death back to normal and expected humanity.