Regrets of Death and Dying | Blink

27 Feb

Last week, I had my first adult experience of death in America. It wasn?t unexpected, a cousin of mine had been hospitalized with?Leukemia since August (we weren?t close). The unexpected part was what came next. While I am familiar with funeral customs in other cultures, I had no idea what to expect in America. Would there be a mourning period? An immediate burial? Should I send a gift or card or flowers or money? What do you say? To whom?

How did I make it to adulthood without learning these basic customs? When my elderly relatives died I was excused from the funeral because I was either too young or I lived too far away. I thought that as an adult I would have access to more aspects of the death and dying process?I was wrong.

Like I said this was not unexpected, my mom called me to the hospital when they knew the end was near. I arrived less than an hour before she died. My mom asked me if I wanted to go to the room and then said I didn?t have to and when I said I would go back she wouldn?t let me go in the room because ?it would be too hard?. In the end she decided I should watch my dying cousin from the hallway. Now, I have seen death and dying in other countries. I am not afraid of sick people or dying people or dead bodies. I told my mom this but she insisted on shielding me anyway. For her sake, I kept my distance.

Shortly after the death, there was a prayer circle in her room. This was the only time I saw her. The family said they didn?t want to watch her go downstairs to the morgue?so we left for lunch at my grandparents house. My grandfather actually suggested we eat at TGIFridays, which people vetoed. There was little discussion of death for the rest of the day. Her 12 year old daughter was asking to go to a laser tag sleepover party. People thought it might be a good idea to take her mind off of things or maybe she should have to stay home and mourn? Eventually, she went to play laser tag with her friends, just hours after her mother?s death. Is this normal? I don?t know. It isn?t clear what she was expected to do instead.

It was decided that there would be a funeral service in the church and a brief ceremony at the cemetery but not at the graveside. No one would be there as she went into the ground, again it would be too painful. The emphasis throughout the week was hiding death, avoid talking directly about it. This refusal to directly acknowledge the death led to a funny (sad) miscommunication with my sister. ?My sister was returning from a vacation in Disney World when my cousin died. My mom called her crying and said something like ?it?s over?. Later I was at my sister?s house and she asked how my cousin was doing. Apparently, she didn?t get the euphemism. I told her our cousin isn?t doing she is dead. Oh.

Not only did everyone try to hide the physical reminders of death there was also a clear attempt to hide the emotions of death. My uncle (father of the deceased) is not an emotional man (retired Coast Guard). When it was clear that his daughter would not live past 37, he leaned over to hug her unconscious body. He started to tear up and asked for a tissue because his sinuses were bothering him. The men in my family did their best to remain stoic while the women tried not to cry; when they inevitably failed they apologized. My mom relied on Adavan to protect her from these unpleasant feelings. She offered it to anyone who wanted it, which I thought was awkward because my cousin was addicted to prescription pain killers (and had recently relapsed). But this wasn?t drug abuse, the death of my mom?s first niece was causing anxiety hence the anti-anxiety meds.

I regret never taking a death and dying class in college. I have a sense that rituals are important and they can tell us something about society, as Durkheim says they are really societal self-worship. ?What does it mean that our rituals of death have seemingly deteriorated? We have so many ways to celebrate life yet we hide death (at least in my family). This was a particularly difficult case because my cousin was not a sympathetic character. This was not a clear case of someone who had lived a good and long life. She was young. She had late-diagnosed bipolar disorder and a well-developed drug addiction. She spent significant time in jail, or as my family says ?Europe?. She struggled to regain custody of her children and get her life together. She relapsed. Her life was hard to celebrate. Her death was hard to witness. So, we minimized the ritual. We talked about other things. We hid our feelings behind lame excuses, apologies, and drugs. Is this the current state of our death rituals?

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