Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Unbearable Awkwardness of Dying

Tell all my mourners
To mourn in red —
Cause there ain't no sense
In my bein' dead
— Langston Huges, "Wake"

Last Saturday my friend Pat and I went to see Atul Gawande, the gifted surgeon and New Yorker writer, talk about the difficulty we have developed confronting the idea of death. Dr. Gawande's focus is the medical establishment, which is so consumed with prolonging life that it has forgotten how to deal with dying. His New Yorker article on the subject, "Letting Go," is filled with difficult truths all of us need to consider — click here to read it.

In the week since I heard him speak, my mind has been preoccupied with Dr. Gawande's insights, and I will write about what he said in the next few days. But today my thoughts have turned to more personal memories of death and dying.

When I was a little girl some families, including my family, believed young children were to be protected from news of death. And so it was that when my maternal grandmother died, no one told me about it. I was about four then, and it was summertime. We were at our beach house, and Granny McMeel was missing. My sister Terry and I were told she was visiting another of her four daughters, but when we returned to our winter home, she wasn't there either. This was the woman who had taught me to read by reading to me almost every night, usually from Peter Pan; now, like Peter and Wendy, she was gone. Out the window.

We moved to a new, bigger house later that year. One day I noticed Granny's cedar chest — that's what everyone called it, "Granny's cedar chest" — in our new basement. I began having bad dreams. Lying in my bed late at night when the house was dark and quiet, I was certain skeletons like the ones in old black-and-white cartoons were jumping up out of Granny's chest and running through the halls and up the stairs. I heard their bones playing like xylophones.

And then I was 11. My parents were vacationing in Florida and my sister Betsy, a newlywed expecting her first child, was looking after Terry and me. I was home from school with a cold, lying on the rug in our upstairs den in front of the old black & white Magnavox television, when Betsy walked in with her arms open and tears streaming down her face. She reached down for me and said, "Daddy died."

It was a terrible mess. On the day my father died, snow started falling. It was the March 1960 Nor'easter, said to be the worst storm since the blizzard of 1948. Most of the  East Coast was quickly locked down. My father's body made it onto the last plane out of Fort Lauderdale, but my mother couldn't get a flight. I tried to imagine my father alone in a box in the cargo hold, but it made no sense. And then there was the matter of my mother. Would she make it to New York in time for the funeral? We worried and whispered and said how good it was that dad's sister and her husband were there in Florida with mom. Meanwhile, aunts and uncles who knew about such things made arrangements — choosing the funeral home and the coffin. I remember people thoughtfully and carefully selecting the clothing dad would wear in his coffin. He was always a dandy.

For this death I was allowed to go to the funeral home. My father was a popular man with seemingly hundreds of friends. The funeral parlor was so filled with flowers that I thought I would choke on their aroma. In my family's Irish Catholic tradition, the dead are placed in open coffins unless there's a compelling reason to keep the lid closed. It is said that viewing the body helps us accept death, making it clear that body and soul have gone their separate ways. And truly, there was no way to pretend that this body, with its face heavily powdered and lips stitched together, still housed the warm, loving man I called my father. Even in retrospect, confronting the cold reality of death really was better than being told nothing.

In the end my mother did make it home for the funeral. After the burial, a few dozen people — most of them family — came to our house for a typical Irish Catholic wake with lots of eating and drinking, storytelling and laughter. Later, after the mob had departed and the quiet settled on us, we began the lonely work of living our strange, empty new life.

The two old, simple problems ever intertwined,
Close home, elusive, present, baffled, grappled.
By each successive age insoluble, pass'd on,
To ours to-day — and we pass on the same.
~ Walt Whitman, "Life and Death"


  1. Very beautiful and very sad. I love how you write about your family, and especially your father.

    What do you think our rituals should tell is about death? When our culture believes that life is what is full and death is what is empty, it leaves us little room dr meaning when a life comes to a close.

  2. Thank you for sharing that story, Chelie. I've heard Betsy & Mom's experiences. Each new story makes me feel like I know and understand the family a little bit better. I also like the nod to Milan Kundera. That book has stuck with me for a very long time.

  3. This is gorgeous and heartbreaking. It's hard to imagine the unintentional cruelty of letting a child worry and wonder about her missing grandmother. But clearly we haven't come too far in dealing with the issue, as Atul Gawande's article pointed out. I keep thinking of his line, "Hope isn't a plan, but hope is our plan." I look forward to your post on that.

  4. Thank you, @drmstream. I'm not a believer in afterlives, but I do believe in rituals. I think they give us context, a sense of how each individual life fits into the great chain of being. While I don't believe in a guiding hand or master plan, I do believe in a progression of accumulated learning. So I see rituals as actions that connect the past to the present and future.

    Rituals of death can also make us pause and examine life and perhaps make us value it more. At least that's how they affect me.

  5. Heather, trying to understand this family of ours is not easy. We don't talk enough about our own childhoods, and we know very little about earlier generations. Ask lots of questions while you still have people to ask. I wish I had!

  6. Thank you, Susan. People have such peculiar ideas about death. I can't imagine where the keep-it-from-the-children concept came from, but I know my family meant well. As for Atul Gawande, he's become one of my contemporary heroes. He spoke about the same themes he mentioned in his article, but he added more and made it more personal. He's a great speaker.

  7. I'm sorry you had to lose your dad at such a young age and with such dramatic circumstances. I think if there is anything we can learn from losing people we love it would be to love well while we are alive.

  8. Andrea, that is surely the truth and also the thing we tend to overlook as we rush through life.

  9. When my dad died, after a short illness, and with me and my mom by his side, I sat alone with his body while my mom talked to my younger sister on the telephone outside the private ICU room. I talked to my dad's still warm body, I felt his spirit still there but moving away from me. I hugged him, resting my body against his body. I kissed him goodbye. I thanked him for being the father he was. I am so grateful for those moments of transition and meaning; for that time of loss, and gratitude, and love.

    Thank you for this beautiful piece, Michele. I also loved Atul Gawande's article, and his sensibility. We are so divorced from death. We need to draw it back into our lives again. Extreme medical extraordinary measures that block us from our own relationship to death, and casts the dying adrift alone when they need acknowledgement and comfort, should be replaced with extraordinary measures to live well and die well in a circular harmony. "Ever intertwined and passing on the same."

  10. Forgot to say: I am entranced by your family stories!

  11. Thank you for your memory of your dad, Katherine. Being able to say goodbye that way — it's how it should be. As you obviously know, sharing the dying with a loved one helps us make peace with loss.

    One of the things Gawande talked about was medicine's orientation toward suffering today (through tests, chemo, surgery, etc.) in order to have better health in the future. But sometimes there is no future. Sometimes the prognosis is a matter of months or weeks. As Gawande said, in these cases the emphasis should be on having the best life we can for the time we have left. I truly admire the hospice workers who help the dying enjoy their time. They are earthly saints.

  12. What a beautiful, haunting, well-written piece. I look forward to reading more. I write almost exclusively about the "difficult subjects"-- illness, death, etc. Think that addressing these subjects is important not only for our own insight but also into that of others.

    My mother spent her career as a psychologist specializing in grief and loss and it never ceased to amaze me what lengths people would go to to "talk around" difficult subjects. I have seen that with cancer as well. One gift I know I hbe given my children is the ability to talk about difficult topics and our own family experiences with these subjects. It is something I am most proud of. Thank you for writing in this tradition of honesty.

  13. Your post was not at all a "bummer" was enlightening for me to see others who also carry the mysterious disappearance of family members with them. My Grandfather went missing. As a child I waited under the porch of their big sprawling home for my parents and the searchers to return with him, but they did not. Afterwards we went home and no one ever spoke of him again. I can also remember being in an adjoining room some years later when my uncle arrived and told my mother news that made her cry out. We eventually knew something bad had happened to her sister, and her three children had no more Mom..but we never spoke of it. In an Irish American family you didn't test those waters, you just knew it was a subject to not broach. Many years later like detectives solving a case we pieced together the truth that both had committed suicide.
    The rituals of death were missing with these two..and for the rest of us. The silence deepened and found its way into all meaningful family conversation.
    Interesting topic..brought back things always there but rarely verbalized.

  14. Thank you, Lisa. I admire the way you tackle the tough stuff; you have a great talent for combining honesty about painful subjects with humor. And those little people you're raising — whatever you're doing, it's great. I love reading your accounts of their wise and funny ways.

  15. I'm really sorry you went through that experience with your grandfather, Capecodgurl. Isn't it odd that Irish-American Catholics, who surround themselves with images of a man dying on a cross and always have that "gone to heaven" explanation at the ready, don't know how to talk about death to their kids? I want to find out how this started.