2015

Death & Dying

It’s not a matter of being cavalier about Death or Dying. Not at all. But the more people I talk to, the more personal accounts I hear of and read, the more I am convinced that our human arrogance about the end of life is quite exasperating!

There are deeply religious people who accept Death & Dying, whether it is someone very young or someone very old with a practical recognition and sense of peace. They rationalize that stance by sincerely and genuinely believing that it is God’s Will which determines when and how we die. My mother-in-law was of this belief; a pious woman who felt that arguing with God as to why He chooses to take certain lives, and when to do so, is blasphemy. That in no way negates the fact that she was greatly saddened at a loss, especially when it was that of two granddaughters: one in her early teens, the other barely sixteen, who died as result of a horrific car accident. It was, simply, her acceptance of God’s Decision that gave her the fortitude with which to console her daughters, as well as all of us in the family, and to continue with her duties and life with a calm and peaceful demeanor.

Not so many others, who upon learning of the death of someone close would exhibit the traditional tearing of the hair, beating of the bosom, wailing and sobbing, and cursing their luck, their fate, that miserable sentence handed to them. They oftentimes also question God, and occasionally rail and curse at Him.

There are, of course, all the other emotions in between these two examples.

It used to be when I was a young adult (seems like eons ago!) that we studied philosophy during which existential issues like Death & Dying were discussed and debated. We also read books and dissertations by philosophers; poems and sayings that focused us on the “naturalness” of death as another – and the final – passage of life. They hardly do that anymore these days. It is not a subject people are comfortable discussing. Why not?

I also grew up in a society where children were exposed to death from very early on, especially in the little towns and villages. We were not shielded from it. When I was barely six years old and spending part of summer – as usual – in my grandparents’ home in Kousba, Northern Lebanon, my great grandmother, Tarrooz (one of the Arabic names for Therese, or, the Virgin Mary) passed away. She was in her nineties. That evening, all my cousins and I attended all the commotion as my grandfather, her son and a doctor, attended to her and as all the relatives and neighbors kept coming and going well into the night. The next day, she was transported on her bed to the adjacent Saydeh (Our Lady) Church. We were told to stay up on the balcony overlooking the church’s nave as the mourners arrived and took their places in the pews. Around Tarrooz’s bed were lit candles on candelabras and chairs in which sat the traditional hired women dressed top to toe in black wailing and praying loudly. Their role was to induce everyone to cry – especially her closest kin – as one of the means of healing. We, of course, had no idea of the solemnity of the occasion and were looking with wonder and, from time to time, giggling!! After the long Greek Orthodox ceremony, the casket was carried and the cortege was marched through the main village streets and up to the cemetery. We were allowed to walk for a while, but were taken back home before reaching the cemetery. It was an amazing experience for me. Later on, and during different summers, there was always a funeral or more in the village and I was either allowed to attend, or had to simply look at the passing cortege from our balcony and get to sprinkle the coffin with the traditional rose water and flower petals, which was very thrilling! Such occasions prepared me intellectually and philosophically for accepting death and learning how to deal with it later on in my life.

When a young person dies due to disease, an accident, suicide, overdose or any cause it is tragic and very disconcerting to everyone involved. It is, moreover, terribly heartbreaking when it is three-year-old Palestinian Ali, burnt to death by Israeli terrorists! That subject needs a blog of its own. Today I am talking about older people’s death. That is, anyone seventy and over.

Nowadays, it seems to me at least, that we are being made to feel almost ashamed of dying. The main reason for that is because most people hardly ever die of “natural” causes anymore. Our end of life is a passage that finds most of us either in a hospital, or in a hospice, often attached to breathing machines and tubes and whatnot. (Give me Quality of Life rather than Quantity of Years Any Time, Any Day!) And the general sayings after someone’s death are: He died fighting his (disease)! She lost her battle with (disease)! That makes us feel almost guilty about dying, for how could we lose? Battles are supposed to be won, not shamefully lost! (Incidentally, is it any wonder that we are a nation constantly on the war-path? Does everything have to be a “fight” or a “battle?” We “fight” for our marriages, “fight” for our jobs and all else, and on to “battling” disease and “fighting” for our lives! It is, indeed, a scary and worrisome uniquely American mindset!)

Anyway, I recall a relative calling to tell me that his mother, a woman I loved dearly, had passed away. She was well into her late eighties. “This is a tragedy!” He said. Now, I understand the emotions he might have been going through, however, someone dying at that age is by no means a tragedy, is it?! It is sad, for a loss always is, but it is certainly not a tragedy. What I’m trying to say is that we must maintain a realistic perspective on Death and Dying and stop using language and euphemisms that make it seem frightening, alien and unnatural.

There again though, this important passage of life has been commercialized by Big Pharma and Funeral Homes and Services.

It would be quite nice if when we are dying – as is bound to happen anytime – we would receive only palliative care so that we are not in any avoidable pain or distress. And it would be much more sensible, as well as ecologically preferable, to have a simple cardboard casket and the simplest send-off possible, after which all concerned would have a toast and a drink, and then carry on with their lives joyfully. No dressing in that awful black, no flowers (what a waste! Donating whatever one wants to a charity is so much more sensible), no pretense, no hypocrisy, no fanfare, preferably cremation, not burial. Question: Are funerals to honor the dead, or another opportunity for the family to display their grief, or merely another status symbol? In most cases, I think, they have become that last and distasteful option. Why? What for?

I have no statistics, but I have randomly asked many people: How often do you visit your grandparents, parents, or loved ones grave sites? Surprisingly, very few ever do, if at all. And, usually, these visits occur in the first year or two after the death and hardly ever after that. Does that mean they miss or love their dead person less? Not at all! It just goes to show that, these days especially, tombs and grave yards should become a thing of the past. One more needless “tradition” we need to shed. Traditions are precious, and they are every generation’s way of teaching the young about values whether they celebrate birth, marriage or death. Therefore, we should have children participate in these events and not shield them, for instance, from looking at a dead, or dying, person, touching them, kissing them or talking about them. However, traditions need to be constantly updated, especially in our fast-moving and changing times. Even the ultra-traditional Catholic Church now allows cremation! Impressive! Unfortunately, like all other traditions, as well as most institutions in our present twenty-first century, humanity has not yet re-calibrated itself to mesh with the incredible changes on all levels that have been taking place in our world.

Also, when we speak of the dead, please let us not put on a sad face (or, the perfunctory mask!) and feel that we have to say something regretful and cheerless. When my children and I talk about their father – as we often do – we laugh about some of his idiosyncrasies, we talk about him with love, respect, ease and fun; we remember his good and bad with fondness, not with a mournful stance. We do the same about my parents, my brother, and my aunts who have all died.

Moreover, if we really want to honor people, let us do so while they are alive and not after they die, for it is meaningless then.

And to all people, but, especially, to the arrogant amongst us who are going to die just as we all are, Omar Khayyam said it well:

‘Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days

Where Destiny and Men for Pieces plays:

Hither and Thither moves, and mates, and slays.

And one by one back in the Closet lays.

And Mark Twain reminded us of a very profound thought that we should all heed:

“All say, ‘How hard it is that we have to die’ – a strange complaint to come from the mouths of people who have had to live.”

And, really, doesn’t it need much, much more Courage to Live one’s life fully than it is to simply Die? Think about it!

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2 thoughts on “Death & Dying”

  1. I have learned that grief for the death of a loved one is probably a most deeply personal and unique experience for the bereaved individual. In many cases, especially when the loss of a young child or of a young parent is sudden, the occasions are rare for “laughing about idiosyncrasies” or speaking of them with “ease and fun.” This is my personal feeling. Had you asked me how often I visited the grave site of Ramsey in the past 8 months since his death, I would have told you that if I didn’t visit at least twice per week, I would feel more sorrowful. Although he was cremated and his ashes buried, his grave is not just a place for a box. It is a monument to his life, and a sacred space where I can sit and quietly reconnect with his spirit which lives inside me.

    Also, although I used to find it unpleasant to see people in mourning wearing black for months and years, in the weeks following my brother’s loss, I just couldn’t bare wearing anything but black…I surprised myself with this inner experience.

    Personally, the worst thing is people’s imposition of their RELIGIOUS beliefs upon the bereaved. It made me crazy when friends and family, with the sincerest intentions, would tell me “this is God’s will,” or “he is in a better place,” or “he is with Jesus,” or “he is with your father,” — not knowing or understanding, or accepting, that my faith regarding life and death is quite different from theirs. Thank, Buddha! 🙂

    Death is a very delicate and tough topic. You are quite courageous to open up a dialogue about it.
    Thank you, Hala!

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