Note: BWIWD = Back When I Was Dying. See previous posts December 9-15. At the end of the series I will collect all the chapters into an e-book.
THE SOCIAL CONTEXT OF MY DISCOVERY, Part 5
Unfortunately, fully forty years after Elizabeth Kubler-Ross began her monumental work to sit with the dying and demedicalize our departure from this life, natural, peaceful, even joyful death is still the exception. It’s not just physical pain that the dying person must endure; they must contend with the gulf that opens between them and their family and friends who still fear death. Paradoxically, the fear and lack of awareness of family and friends can be the final straw that cuts the cord and allows them to slip out of the body.
Fortunately, in contrast to the uneasy disjunct between the one who is dying and their frightened familiars, it is no longer unusual to hear of deaths where the one closest to the dying person leans down and whispers, “It’s okay, you can go” — and within minutes, or hours, they do. But even so, a hospice director told me recently that many hang on to life longer than they would prefer — because their friends and family don’t want them to die, thinking that this is the way that they show their love!
Though well meaning, they do not realize that what they call “love” is actually attachment, a consequence of desire in the material world where everything seems separate from everything else and we feel alone, lonely, and longing for home. The greater our feeling of separation, the greater our desire for union, the more we suffer when the object of desire appears unavailable or is snatched away.
The state of attachment is most pronounced in the brief euphoria of romance when we “fall in love” with an Other. No wonder we seek romance, over and over again, and then, when fusion dissolves, bemoan its demise! This kind of “love” is addictive. It feels paradisical when present, a brief immersion into the oneness of being that we all vaguely remember — and then, when yanked away we feel devastated.
Our process of grieving a primary loss of any kind is as little respected as the dying process itself. “Hurry up and get over it!” We hear ourselves or others say. Come back to life, don’t get stuck in grief. Take a pill, work harder, do something, anything, to avoid the descent into an abyss that feels so awful that, when we inadvertently find ourselves near its rim, we’re afraid it will suck us in. That once we start howling, we will never stop. That to fully experience our grief would kill us.
Fear of our own deep grief circles around to fear of death.
So we do what others do, pretend to get over our grief. Pretend even to ourselves. We lie, dissemble, busy ourselves with endless piles of details, junk ourselves up with alcohol, legal and illegal drugs, bury ourselves in stuff — anything to distract from the serious business at hand.
For grief will not wait. Not really. We can think we’ve squashed it effectively, but the unconscious effort to do so takes all our energy, and leaves us depressed, at a loss, exhausted, unable to freely feel. The play and exuberance of joy, our birthright as beings, seems to refer to an entirely other universe.
The very thought of grief makes us cringe and back away. It does not fit into our cultural insistence that we smile and have a nice day, or at least hold on and make the best of things. And when we do not take the time to process and integrate great loss, then we end up shut down, dead to love’s whisper. And we fear growing old, afraid that our bodies will lose attractiveness and no one will “love” us!
Thus, a society that denies death and grief also hates aging. And since we’re always aging, when should we start to hate ourselves? Over the past century, society’s view of the “prime of life” has pushed back from the 40s to the 30s to the 20s, to the teens. We all want to be teenagers! Even little children, who have been prematurely sexualized, through abuse or fashion or both.
So, in effect, our individual and collective fear of death has gradually drained value out of the natural cycling of life’s stages to all but the narrowest of adolescent windows, since, by the time we’re 30, even 20, we’re already afraid we’re washed up, “too old.”