Grief for the Dying and Mourning

It seems like terminal illness is a far more common thing that we realize. Perhaps because there’s a tendency for both the dying and the mourning to hide; they hide their illness or their loss, they mask their pain and so we think it far less common than it really is. There’s some similarities and differences between someone who has lost someone to a terminal illness and a person diagnosed with the illness but one thing they share is grief.

As the video, Living with Dying says, “Love and death are the two great gifts that are passed on, and usually they are passed on unopened…”[1] One son talked about how he knew his mother was going to die for three years and he thought he was prepared but he was wrong. The size of our grief, one could argue, is proportional to the amount of our love. The manifestation of that grief can either be physical, emotional or behavioral. Some of the more common physical symptoms I’ve heard mentioned is “…we often have a perceptual sense of unreality. Other people may actually appear to be father away from us than they are; they may appear small or dark. And there is generally an intense preoccupation with the image of the deceased, sometimes to the extent of experiencing an hallucination.”[2]

Emotionally, people could respond in alignment to previous readings on the 5 stages or go through a wide spectrum of responses. Anger towards the living by those diagnosed (thus antagonizing those closest to them) can push away those who are trying to help and leave the terminally ill in isolation. More unique to those left behind are possible feelings of guilt or hostility. Finally, you have the behavioral responses: “…we experience a marked inability to carry on the habits of customary living.”[3] For those experiencing loss, it could be due to the fact that it’s lost meaning now that the deceased is no longer there providing much of our purpose. For the diagnosed, facing the illness forces an evaluation of how to best use one’s time and to face the effects of the diagnosis.

Ultimately, to those who are grieving, the loss feels like an emergency. I’ve had my own friends talk about their frustration at the world continuing to move around them when this huge tragedy had occurred; I felt similarly when I went through my first major loss. Do these people not know how different the world is, I thought? Did they not feel the axis of my world shift… Similarly, the world of those facing a diagnosis seems the same. They face an invisibility where their illness is treated but they aren’t necessarily seen and those they love continue to live as they lived before. Meanwhile, the future they envisioned has been stolen. Even worse, as one man said in the Living with Dying video, “Many Americans I know have no support system and it’s due to the fact that the American family has become fragmented.”[4] Some don’t even have anyone to notice their life being stolen by a terminal diagnosis.

As Robert Neale writes, there is a close overlap between these experiences for the one who is experiencing the death: “The task of the bereaved is also the task of the dying… First, it means that the individual who knows or senses that he is dying is also himself bereaved… The second is that those who suffer their own loss have the same task as those who suffer the loss of someone else.”[5] Therefore, the greatest similarities are that the dying person experiences much of what the mourning person does, but the mourner does not understand the full state of the person facing a terminal diagnosis.

 

[1] “Living with Dying.”

[2] Neale, Robert. “Transformation By Grief.” Pg. 73

[3] Neale, Robert. “Transformation By Grief.” Pg. 74

[4] “Living with Dying.”

[5] Neale, Robert. “Transformation By Grief.” Pg. 83

Advertisements

Reflections on Viorst and Dying

In “The ABC of Dying” Judith Viorst writes, “For how can we live as fully conscious animals, the only creatures on earth that know they will die? How can we, in the chilling words of Ernest Becker’s great book The Denial of Death, endure the awareness that we are “food for worms”?”[1] It is a provoking question and one that philosophers, theologians, psychologists, doctors, artists, and many others have searched for answers to over the millennia.

The theory of unconscious denial of death that Freud proposed, making the yawning unknown that awaits us on the other side of death possible to be ignored, is a popular choice by many. We distract ourselves with other more “manageable” anxieties and block off parts of life in an effort to convince ourselves that we can exert some sort of control over the future. Yet it is only in the juxtaposition to death, as she points out through the words of poets, physicists and theologians, that we fully see and experience life. The character from Memento Mori probably best summed up the sentiment in this, “If I had my life over again…I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practice which so intensifies life. Death… should be part of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever-present sense of death life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of eggs.”[2]

Viorst was forced to face her own mortality when she lost three women she was close to in the span of six weeks. Although she had once feared flying; it was no longer an issue. She realized staying off airplanes wouldn’t guarantee her immortality. Certainly, the best course of action in her mind would be to learn how best to die, if one must go through the experience of doing so. Perhaps this was her mechanism for coping with death.

She examines death in the abstract and the applied, using the example of Ivan Ilych. “The syllogism he had learnt from Kiesewetter’s Logic: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,” had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself…”[3] Full of memories, experiences, emotions, joys and grief. And in the example, Ivan is further isolated because his community won’t acknowledge his impending death. Viorst writes that this mindset against speaking of death is being challenged in more modern times through individuals like Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who wrote on the five stages she sees people pass through towards death.

The first stage is said to be denial, followed by the anger/envy stage.  Commonly asked within this second stage is, “Why me?” The third is bargaining, something offered if they can have just a little bit more time. The fourth is depression over present and future losses. A need for others to be present and sit with them in this time is called out. Last is acceptance; this is not a hallelujah moment but an absence of emotion and struggle. Instead of resisting their end they meet it “with a certain degree of quiet expectation.”[4] Not everyone makes it to this phase, or should, according to Kubler-Ross. Dr. Edwin Shneidman disagreed strongly based on his own substantial experiences with the dead and dying, saying: “…I reject the notion that human beings, as they die, are somehow marched in lock step through a series of stages of the dying process. On the contrary… the emotional states, the psychological mechanisms of defense, the needs and drives, are as variegated in the dying as they are in the nondying…”[5] Whereas Kubler-Ross felt that acceptance was often the implied end of the journey, Shneidman pointed out more often than not life was abandoned to death without any real readying, leaving loose ends. I have yet to have the breadth of experience with those in the midst of dying to be to discern for myself whose theory might be more accurate but I certainly think the knowledge of both helps me to be better equipped for whatever state I might identify a dying person to be in.

Viorst reflected on the ways three of her close friends chose to handle their death, and on the increasing interest in assisted suicide in society today, or even those like her friend who spend their time with the people they love the way they want to and then end it on their own terms. “The wish not to suffer, to stay in charge, to be remembered by loved ones the way they were motivates some to choose the hour of their death.”[6] While I understand our society’s propensity to run from suffering, it softly rings of the warnings I heard in the book A Brave New World, in which there is a society that avoids any pain, suffering or discomfort at the cost of maturity, intimacy, faith and intellectual depth. Interestingly, she points out later that Philippe Aries studied the history of death and “the concept of the ‘good death’ has been redefined, so that instead of its being a conscious, expected, ritualized departure, as once it was, a good death today ‘corresponds exactly to what used to be the accursed death’: Sudden death.”[7] Why, as a society, do we fear the death our ancestors hoped for and long for a death that was once viewed as a curse?

There’s another section of the dying population who wouldn’t take their lives yet also don’t view death as an enemy. “Death becomes a friend. It offers the chance to lay their burden down, whether the burden they yearn to lay down is the agony of a last illness; the helplessness, uselessness, loneliness of old age; the sufferings, at any age, attendant upon an unendurable loss…”[8] There are endless reasons why one might be ready to hand over the endless drudgery of their current existence for the hope of whatever death might offer. They don’t flee life, but recognize its inevitable end. One thing that Kaufmann postulates might make this easier is that we have a project of our own that we’ve seen to fruition; that we’ve in essence beat death in one place if we cannot beat it at retaining life.

This may be why some people experience such transformation near their death. Eissler even proposes: “The full awareness of each step that leads closer to death, the unconscious experience of one’s own death up to the last second which permits awareness and consciousness, would be the crowning triumph of an individually lived life.”[9] This is where we see the meek demonstrate courage and bravery or the shy become forward and outspoken. Their final moments are their last chance to be the person that they perhaps always saw themselves as becoming but were never brave enough to allow themselves to actualize within their day to day lives.

Immortality is the only way to counteract death, and this can be done through several ways. One is religion, which “Freud argues that such religious beliefs are illusions built up by man to make his helplessness in this world endurable. He writes that just as children depend on their parents to protect them, so anxious adults depend on gods and God.”[10] Another option is through nature, through the fact that we are part of an earth that continues on long after we do. We are made up of that ancient material and will merge back with it when we are dust. A third option would be through works or acts that influence future humanity; we see things like this in the great structures built, sculptures, works of art and literature, the rise and fall of nations, etc. Lastly, there is the biological continuation through progeny or even just humanity in general. While I can’t agree with Freud in that God is an illusion, I certainly see the drive for immortality in the behaviors of people daily. They want to leave a legacy, to be remembered, to have impacted the world. Perhaps this goes back to what Kauffman was saying. If a person has the sense they’ve achieved one of these levels of immortality, perhaps it makes it easier to go with death, feeling like they’ve already defeated it.

[1] Viorst, Judith. Necessary Losses. “The ABC of Dying,” pg. 306

[2] Viorst, 306

[3] Viorst, 309

[4] Viorst, 310

[5] Viorst, 311

[6] Viorst, 315

[7] Viorst, 320

[8] Viorst, 316

[9] Viorst, 319

[10] Viorst, 321

Reflection on a Death (Class Assignment)

Although it is not my most recent loss, it is a loss I have been thinking about lately because my sister just lost a student of hers and the heartbreak I hear in her voice and tears is an echo of mine 15 years ago. Shortly after my class graduated high school, someone I cared for hung himself. I don’t have any answers for why. He had a beautiful smile and a personality that drew people to him and I liked him in spite of his knack for getting my boyfriend at the time in trouble. I certainly wasn’t perfect; I wrote papers for money in high school for a while and he had been a great customer. However, it had ended with him getting moved up into a higher level class (perhaps because they couldn’t prove he was cheating). Then they failed him through the class tests and he couldn’t graduate. He didn’t blame me but he also didn’t get to walk with the rest of us; he would have to go to summer school. He was also in love with his girlfriend but, as teens tend to do, he did something stupid and so his relationship was on the rocks. Despite all that, there had been optimism in his voice when we had talked earlier.

I had just pulled up to his house and was walking in. His old black truck, which seemed to be a part of him, had its hood up in the garage and the shiny front part of the truck was on the kitchen counter because he was in the middle of fixing something. I don’t remember exactly what transpired except that my boyfriend and I were the last two people at his house and we had a disagreement in the street next to my Explorer about leaving him. My boyfriend insisted he knew him better than I did, that his friend just needed some time to cool off. I had a bad feeling and wanted to go back in. I acquiesced to my boyfriends’ wishes and we promised ourselves we’d come back later that night to check on him. We didn’t; I was running late for my curfew. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. We found out later from his father that he was likely dead within minutes of us walking out of his garage door.

I didn’t believe in God at the time and I had been struggling with the fragility of life. This phase of my life leads me to disagree with Sigmund Freud’s perspective that we each believe in our own immortality on an unconscious level. In our reading it said “So we not only have the desire to deny the fact of our own death, but may be unable to do otherwise.”[1] While I desired desperately the ability to deny my own death or the death of those I love, I was incapable of doing so. Additionally, there was a tremendous amount of guilt that weighed on myself and my boyfriend, who began pulling away from me and started doing drugs more heavily after that night. I drank when I could to numb what I was feeling for a while. I remember his visitation was open casket and I kept looking at him because I believed all of him was summed up in that body and yet it didn’t even look like him. There were more people than they expected to attend and I kept realizing as the months went by the huge ripple his death sent through my community. I still wonder if we’ve not lost anyone else in our class to suicide because we saw how painful it was for everyone during those months. I got a tattoo a year later, still feeling deep down that I was a murderer. I wanted to remind myself to never again ignore the call to a person in pain. My family and friends weren’t allowed to talk to me about death for a long time because it upset me so much. The belief that these people I loved so dearly would one day die and cease to exist, that their essence was lost and that at the end of the universe there would be nothingness… it was unbearable to me. I was envious of people who could believe in a God.

Looking back now as a Christian, this event still brings me great sadness but I am comforted by the fact that I believe in a God that is good. I am reminded that “…it is of the utmost importance that the minister involved have sorted out his or her views with regard to a Christian conception of existence… the careful pastor will not confuse Christian criteria with whatever social norms may have characterized his or her own upbringing or, on the other hand, the latest avant-garde views of what is proper or “liberated” behavior.”[2] Building on the belief that God is good I know that I have to trust God with my loved ones and it may not work out the way I would want it to but that doesn’t mean that God isn’t beside me mourning the loss with me.

Three questions were brought to the surface in Worth’s chapter, “Do we make too much or too little of death? Is awareness of our own death even possible? Is awareness even useful?”[3] I went through times where death was such a large part of my brain space that it caused anxiety attacks, and I would say in those spans, it was too much. Now the only time I put thought into it is when I mourn with my friends and family, notice the graying hairs on a relative, or hold my dog tighter as I get ready to find out if he has cancer. I don’t know if I make too little of death now, but I certainly treasure the time I have with life and mourn the loss of being able to spend it with people I love. Awareness of death is a sure thing for me, and while it may not be in its fullness, it certainly feels ample enough. I would not assume this is an experience that is common to all people though. Lastly, the usefulness of this awareness depends entirely on how it is used. For me, it was useful because I moved from a state of debilitation to a state of appreciation for life and relationship. If people stay in a state where death is debilitating is would never gain its usefulness. That being said, it should not be a thing to be avoided. I am of the philosophy that sometimes in life we must suffer to grow and I would say that exposure to and contemplation of death is part of that.

[1] Worth, Jennifer. In the Midst of Life, pg. 14

[2] Gerkin, Charles. Crisis Experience in Modern Life, pg. 47

[3] Worth, Jennifer. In the Midst of Life, pg. 22

God is Countercultural

These topics are hotly debated, but perhaps it is because they should be. I’m a millenial who grew up with mass shootings, I’ve lived as a Christian and non-Christian, and I do own a gun. But as a Christian, I have to consider what I am defending and protecting with my words online and in conversations. First, because God asks things of us as a follower and second, because we have the ability to bring people closer or further to God through our actions.

Sandy Hook. Orlando. Are we more apt to defend the rights of our guns or to demand some change? To say the status quo is no longer good enough? God, Jesus, calls us to the widow, the immigrant and the orphan, to mourn with those who mourn. Yet I see many who claim they are Christians first jumping to protect our rights instead of our people, and in the mean time we are creating more people who are mourning.

I love our rights. As a history major, I understand the danger of giving up rights out of fear or the desire for protection or security. I’m not saying the answer is simple or easy but we must look at our choices and as Christians, we should be caring for the victims more than our weapons. That doesn’t mean I’m saying hand them all over and melt them down; but we believe in improvement in our personal, spiritual and business life. It would be startling to think that some improvements can’t be made.

This, surprisingly or not, ties in to things like the death penalty. I don’t support the death penalty in cases where someone can be safely kept. This wasn’t always the case but my time with some Catholic nuns has shown me that everyone should be afforded every opportunity to repent and change their path; are we not all guilty in some way and worthy of being prisoners (if not of worldly law then certainly of God’s)?

I think if we examine other controversial issues like immigration, abortion, etc. we can start to see that leading with love and empathy might be the better foundation to build upon.

God and Us: Compassion Versus Pity

Compassion is made up of two Latin roots married together which means “to suffer with.”  This is an action word, it requires you to be in the midst of something. Beside the person in their state of suffering. What this can often look like is pity. The Latin root of pity is “piety” but most definitions (Webster) look something along the lines of “to feel xxx for.”

Does it sound like an almost indiscernible difference? Like they are interchangeable? If we think back to the most painful loss that we’ve every experienced, at that point we most likely wanted someone to mourn “with” rather than someone who felt something “for” us.  In many instances, a “with” versus a “for” can make a big difference. When I think of my best mentors, leaders, pastors, teachers, they were the ones that exhibited compassion and empathy, not pity. So where do we see this modeled?

In the book Compassionate Ministry, Bryan Stone uses the example of Jesus since he is probably the most perfect example of compassion the world has ever seen. Is it because Jesus literally suffered with every one of us, collectively gathering our sin from each of us and lifting it from us, bearing our burden. Jesus is more in the midst of our collective suffering than we are. We experience a fraction of the amount Jesus bears for the world. Jesus is with us. How then, can we model Christ? Let us look at the words of Paul to the Galatians:

Galatians 6:1-3 “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.…”

When Bad Things Happen to Good People… and God

This video is a lecture by Rabbi Harold Kushner and he knows something about this topic. The video is going to seem dated, but there is a lot to be learned from what he has to say. It is nearly an hour long but I encourage you to find time for the whole thing. Some of it might feel encouraging, scary, healing, uncomfortable or even dangerous. I would just recommend taking it all in. I don’t think you’ll regret it.