Posts Tagged ‘death’

Having someone whom you love die is difficult at the best of times. Not only do you miss them a dozen times a day, but you are struggling to continue without them. But, if that is not enough, you have to deal with people – all of them well-meaning, but many of them annoying regardless of their motives.

If my experiences of grief are any indication, here are the sort of encounters that may tax your patience as you grieve:

  • Suddenly, your life is one continuous conversation about the deceased. Facebook and email can reduce the repetition, but people will still want you to repeat basic information about what happened many more times than you care to give it. You may find yourself longing to have a normal conversation, and escape for a while.
  • We are such a death-denying culture that at the first indication of it, everyone descends into cliches and euphemism. “They had a full life,” people will tell you, and, “At least they didn’t have any pain” if the person died unconscious (as if they could somehow know). Oh, and it’s no longer a memorial service – now, it’s a “celebration of life.”
  • When you break the news of the death, almost everyone will ask, “Is there anything that I can do?” Probably, you will be unable to answer this question, because you don’t really want anything, unless it is for a miracle to restore the dead to life.
  • People with religious tendencies will hand you copies of cheerful and cheesy poems about how the person who died is happy in heaven and you shouldn’t grieve. These offerings are supposed to console you.
  • The employees of funeral homes and similar businesses often seem to think the way to cushion your shock is with an unctuous sleaziness, full of insincere concern and sympathy, and a setting with a conservative grandeur that is reminiscent of the movie palaces of the 1930s – and almost as shabby.
  • If you hold a religious ceremony, avoid clerics who didn’t know the deceased. While they may do their best, often the results are embarrassing. You may not get someone like Father Movie Critic, who turned my father-in-law’s funeral into a review of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, but don’t be surprised if you do.
  • Don’t be surprised if a service is seen by drama queens as their personal stage, as though the service is really all about them. Given any chance whatsoever, they will monopolize the microphone, and throw themselves sobbing into any arms that happen to be nearby. Often, the intensity of their grief is in inverse proportion to how well they knew the dead person.
  • People will promise or propose almost anything in the aftermath of a death. Much of what they say will be said without much thought and they will soon forget it, so do not remind them of it.
  • After the service, people will expect you to be ready to carry on with your life. Since services are generally held within a few weeks of the death – often, within ten days – you almost certainly will not be ready for anything, but there is nothing you can do except try to cope.

In any of these situations, you might be tempted to rant or verbally flay those around you. For instance, when someone told me that the death whose aftermath I was enduring was sad, I wanted to phone them up and scream, “Sad? The ending of Casablanca is sad. King Lear entering with the dead Cordelia is sad. This is a bloody tragedy!” Instead, I just unfriended them on Facebook.

The truth is, most of the people who do the things I mention here mean very well, and will only be hurt and surprised by such outbursts. The behavior I describe here are just some of the things that you have to endure and get past, day by day. Still, it is bitterly ironic that so much that is meant to be sensitive and caring only ends up picking at you like a shirt in which a hundred mosquitos are trapped between you and the cloth.

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A recent Facebook app offers to tell you how you’re going to die. Unfortunately, it is nothing more than a fortune-telling application. That seems a wasted opportunity to me – not that I expect any predictive accuracy from such a thing, but more personalized answers might tell you a bit about your character and habits.

So, in that spirit, here’s a list of the ways I might expect to die:

I will die at 64, after going on a long jog on a cold and rainy day in late October. Like I always do, I failed to notice that summer was ending and I went out dressed in only shorts and a singlet. Needless to say, I was soaked and shivering when I returned three hours later, but I no longer had the physical strength to fight the fever that sent me immediately to bed.

I will die at 78, senile and in a nursing home. The nurses thought I was cheerful enough, even if I talked too fast and was ungodly energetic for a person of my age.

I will die at 92 while on an exercise bike. I might have been all right if I had stopped when the first pains hit my chest, or called the gym attendant over. But I always was stubborn about finishing my intervals when exercising, and I still had another ninety seconds to go.

At 57, I am out for a late night walk when a couple of teenagers pull a gun on me and demand my money. Unfortunately, I am not carrying any money, and my determination not to be a victim makes me try to stand up to them verbally. The trouble is, what I really needed to do was to stand up to them physically and keep my mouth shut.

I will die at 81, of no particular cause except that every organ in my body is worn out. Since I maintained a remarkably heavy exercise program for a person of my age, I was deeply asleep at the time, dreaming of high school, and felt no pain whatsoever.

I will die in bed at the age of 109. I was smiling, because I had filled the promise I had made to myself when I was 9 of living to see Canada’s bi-centennial. Of course, there wasn’t much left of the environment by then, and the country had long ago proved ungovernable, but I was pleased all the same.

I will die at 61, choking on a piece of meat that I tried to swallow too fast. My last thought is how Earl Godwin died the same way in 11th century England, and of how at least nobody can draw a moral from my death the way they tried to do with his.

When I am 86, I am found at the keyboard of my computer, finishing my sixth novel. I was very late in publishing, but my small output of fiction enjoys minor cult status for a few decades before being forgotten then rediscovered a couple of centuries later.

I die at the age of 4,365 due to a clerical error that delayed the transfer of my consciousness to its newest artificial brain. It would have been my 134th transfer, counting clone bodies and temporary holding tanks. My last words are, “What’s next?”

Okay, maybe I am whistling past the graveyard with these scenarios. The truth is, like many people, I don’t really believe in a world without me. So, regardless of whether Death is Terry Pratchett’s skeleton or Neil Gaiman’s Goth chick, I’m going to be surprised when we finally meet.

But, should Death try to schedule an appointment, I plan on being busy with something else, no matter how old I am. And that, I think, tells more about me than any scenario I can imagine.

(With an acknowledgement to Harlan Ellison)

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I spent yesterday afternoon pacing the corridors of a hospital, waiting on the results of an operation. That was the fifth or sixth time I’ve spent a few hours that way, nervous and trying to control my imagination, and it doesn’t get easier with repetition. Nor does familiarity make the hospital any more of a restful place.

Part of the problem, of course, is that very few places – if any – are comfortable when you’re in the lockdown mode of a crisis. Life gets ludicrously simple in a crisis, narrowing to two basic motivations: Doing what you can, and hanging on from moment to moment. Politics, your usual scruples or tolerance for other people’s vagueness – all get thrown out during crisis. You could start a nuclear war the next street over, and the fact would be largely irrelevant during the crisis. At the most, it would be just another damned thing piled on top of everything else.

However, I’m also convinced that hospitals are by nature uncomfortable places. For one thing, they’re full of hundreds of people, all rushing around on the trail of their own agendas and overflowing with their own anxieties. Other places have their crowds, of course, but in many places where we’re used to crowds, such as a mall or a university, the average person has less intensive feelings to add to the complexity. I imagine all these colliding priorities could be seen under the right conditions, like the streams of light in a time-lapse photo, or perhaps like particle collisions with some sub-atomic camera lens.

Even more importantly, I’m with Henry James in The Turn of the Screw: How a building is used creates its own psychological environment. There are places like the gatehouse that is all that remains of the BC Penitentiary that have seen too much human misery, deserved or not, to ever be places in which you can relax. And, conversely, there are places like Vancouver’s Sun Yat-Sen which are shaped so that any emotion except a tranquil contentment is difficult.

Not every place develops such a spirit, and just what details its spirit resides in is difficult to explain, although perhaps feng shui attempts to do so. But perhaps it’s a form of erosion, as the dominant emotions in a place wear at the corners and scuff the floor, as in a public building that never closes, which somehow retains a sense of restlessness.

But you can sense the creation of the spirit, if you look carefully. When a building is new, it generally lacks its own individuality. Then, one day, for reasons that are as hard to observe as the details, a critical mass is reached, and the building has its own spirit, not in a supernatural sense, but in the most mundane meaning of the word you can imagine.

In the case of a hospital, I suspect that the dozens of daily crises and dramas are what is gradually sculpting the hallways and rooms – these things plus a vast and personality-less indifference. For all the intimacy of health care (or perhaps because of it), we make medical procedures impersonal. Doctors and nurses practice a certain distance, both for their own sakes and to preserve the dignity of patients, and to this foundation, the need to organize adds a level of even more impersonal bureaucracy.

You can suffer and easily die at hospitals, not just because hospitals are places where people go to do those things, but because both are handled – despite the best efforts of the best medical practitioners – as a routine, and routines are simply not circumstances for emotion. Your friends and family might grieve you as you go, and maybe some of your nurses and fellow patients. But, not far in the background, the bureaucracy is willing to strip the sheets so that someone else can use the bed and to process your body so that, as quickly as possible, it is no longer the hospital’s concern.

In this sense, hospitals are far worse than other large public buildings like hotels. Hotels, too, are used to tidying up after death so their owns can get on with business, but, at least in hotels, staff might recoil from the reality of death and some visitors might avoid a room if they know that someone has recently died in it. But, at the hospital, few ever know that they are being ushered into the setting of a death and a tragedy, and the staff members, for their own sake, cannot let themselves remember very much.

All the same, a trace remains on the building. More than the complexity of conflicting emotions, more than the anxiety, the most basic of human drama slowly sculpts the hospital of the cleanest, most efficient hospital, sculpting an atmosphere of anxiety beyond any hope of exorcism. If you are a visitor, as I was yesterday, you flee the hospital, when you can, like the survivors flee a haunted house.

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