No Peace for the Living
People die every day, but in frenetically busy, youth focused America, death is almost never celebrated as a welcome end to a long and productive life. Instead, it is feared and hated, and although it is ruefully acknowledged as an inevitable consequence of having been born, as far as possible, it is kept at a distance. In America, most people who die are mourned to some extent by almost everyone who knew them, but except for the immediate family and closest friends, the mourning usually only lasts until the funeral is over, if even that. This is a country where the living just do not want the dead to hang around any longer than they have to, and where grief is considered by many to be a private affliction—like pregnancy—that is supposed to end conclusively after a reasonably tolerable amount of time.
Unfortunately, because most Americans are uncomfortable with death, adults here not only try to hide from death, they also try to hide death from children. This may seem merciful and proper, but because we are shielded as children, most grown-up Americans really don't know how to deal with death and dying. Worse, most of us do not know how to interact with the people who've been touched by death, nor how to deal with the changes death makes in our own lives. We especially do not know how to cope with intense personal grief, which contrary to expectations doesn't just go away in six months or a year—and maybe not ever.
An inexperienced person may believe that dealing with death, or with the living who are affected by death, is easy, but few things in life are more difficult to get one's mind around or as potentially painful and destructive. For a person who has had no prior experience with death and must deal with it suddenly and without warning, life can feel incredibly cruel and insanely chaotic. Of all the emotions, in my experience grief has been the most intense, long lasting, and the most ultimately debilitating. Like malaria, it can lie dormant for years until activated, which can happen at the oddest moments in response to the most innocuous stimulation, even decades after a loved one dies.
What makes it worse is that grief can be enthralling. Its intensity is so great and the emotional depths it plumbs so deep that little in our experience compares to it; it can be both overwhelming and addictively alluring at the same time. The loss of a loved one can hurt so badly it is almost a sensual experience, which, if visited often enough, can easily become an obsessive guilty pleasure.
When you learn your lessons, the pain goes away. — E. Kubler-Ross
Coming to Terms
I met Death when I was 11 years old, and it has been no stranger since. After one visit many years ago, I found myself thinking often and deeply about death and dying,
and about living, but I was disoriented and very confused, and for the most part I was unable to make any sense of the thing. I still don't truly comprehend death, nor do I have a good sense of its purpose in the natural cycle of things. I just accept death as what it is, inevitable and capricious, though not malicious--it is not my friend, but it is also not my enemy and its purpose is not to punish, nor to cause pain. It just happens, it is the effect, not the cause. Which in its own way is an answer too, and the one I have found peace with until I have reason to seek deeper truths or different answers. I believe I no longer fear dying, though it is entirely likely that when I am forced to inhale death myself I will quail. One just never really knows.
What I do know is that over the past three or four decades, I have formed some definite opinions about death and how to deal with it. In August 1997, I organized my opinions into a set of '42 Rules for Dealing with Death and the Living,' which I posted on a BBS writing forum named The Spoon
. The list has grown and evolved since then, but most of the original rules are intact, which is meaningful in some way, I suppose. I've posted the updated list here for no other reason than it occurred to me to do so, and it was good to revisit and rethink.
These are my 'rules.' They are not a regurgitation of other people's ideas, and they are not just idle notions. Each is the distillation of a story, and is grounded in a foundation of experience, resentment, or regret, most of it mine. Almost anyone could build their own stories around them. You may have already. If you already know these things, you have my sympathy because they are not the kinds of things one wants to learn by doing. If you've not lived through such times, you still have my sympathy, because I'm sorry to say even knowing what to expect will not make it less painful. As Judith Viorst wrote in Necessary Losses
, "Death is one of those facts of life we acknowledge more with our brains than we do with our heart. And often, although our intellect acknowledges the loss, the rest of us will be trying hard to deny it." For me, there are no truer words. . . .
57 Rules (was 56)**
1. Do not pretend a dead person has just gone away. Admit the person is dead. Say it out loud several times a day if that is what it takes to convince yourself. Call it what it is: Death. The End. Finito. Gone. Over. Dead!
2. Let young children attend and participate in the funeral of a person they knew and cared about. They may not remember much about the funeral later, but they will surely remember if you do not let them attend, and their feelings toward you will not ever be the same afterward. Ever.
3. Tell children the truth about death and about the dying person's manner of meeting it. Do not make it too harsh, but do not gloss over it either. Do NOT let children assume or think the dead person will come back, or has just taken a trip and could come back if he or she wanted to.
4. Children are not stupid, only inexperienced. Explain the financial and social consequences of the death to them. Let them know that life will change, and that it may be hard, but that it will be manageable. This is especially important to an adolescent child of a dead parent.
5. Do not lie to a dying person.
6. Do not kill a dead person's dog because it is an inconvenient possession. It is a betrayal you will regret forever. Do not ask someone else to kill a dead person's dog. If you must dispose of a loved one's pet, don't be selfish—find it another home.
7. Do not wait until tomorrow to tell a person the things that are important. As trite as it sounds, the tomorrow you count on doesn't always come. Trust me.
8. Do not act as if people cannot die. Always prepare for the possibility. Every time a person walks out the door, it might be the last time you see him or her. Remember that and it will help. Always stop to say goodbye, no matter how busy you are, even if you are angry.
9. Do not tell a person that a death was God's will. Even if true, who appointed you God's messenger? Unless it's your job to say such things, don't. It doesn't help and you're just being unintentionally cruel.
10. Do not pretend everything will be ok when both of you know that for a little while it will not.
11. Always express sympathy if you feel it. If you hurt, say so; if you do not understand, admit it; if you feel like crying, just do it. If you don't feel sympathy, look harder inside and try, but don't fake it. That's worse than saying nothing.
12. Just because you think the world is better off because a person died doesn't mean it's true or that other people feel the same way. Keep your dignity, be honest and truthful but don't gloat. It makes you look and feel small when you show overmuch pleasure at another person's death.
13. Think often about the people you loved who have died, even if it hurts. Eventually, even though the sadness will remain, the dull ache of despair and emptiness will wear off.
14. Expect the shine to wear off the memories at some point. No one is perfect, no one ever was perfect. We all have flaws. It is not sacrilege or cruelty or callous to talk about a dead person's flaws, it acknowledges that the person was real, not a plastic dashboard saint.
15. If you have to tell another person that someone he or she cared about has died, do not make a big production out of it. Take the person aside, to a private place if possible, and quietly and plainly tell the person the news. Don't embellish, don't qualify, add nothing. Just say, "Dad died today in an accident at home." Then quickly and briefly say what you know about how, e.g., "He collapsed while eating," "he was hit by a truck," "he fell off the roof." Then stop talking. Be prepared for an emotional response. Deal with it. Make sure the person is ok before you leave.
16. Save a piece of clothing from a dead person you loved. If possible, wear it whenever the situation calls for it. Use it, make it your own, pass it on.
17. Do not make shrines out of a dead person's belongings. When the person lived, it was just stuff. Now that the person is dead, it is just a dead person's stuff that belongs to you. Use it or give or sell the stuff to someone who will use it.
18. Do not make any decisions about what to do with a dead person's belongings for at least a couple of months after the death, but take longer if you need to. Yes, you need to move on, but there is no real rush. Take your time and be sure.
19. Don't let other people pressure you into making important decisions too quickly. Stand your ground, set boundaries, keep people at bay—especially family, who often have their own agendas, even if they don't realize they do. Seek professionally disinterested guidance about estate, finances, taxes, disposal of belongings, and so on. Do not
let other people, especially family, take over your life. You are not handicapped and your life is not over. Be careful about assigning Power of Attorney.
20. Do not save too many pictures. Not every picture is worth keeping, nor is every memory better with a picture than without. If you let some of the sharp edges get blurred, some memories get better.
21. When another person tells you that someone important to them died, ask how it happened, then stop talking and listen. If the other person doesn't want to talk about it, it will be clear, otherwise, this is a chance for that person to remember. Be attentive. Even if painful to hear, it could be you who wants to talk sometime.
22. If you have the chance, talk about death with a dying person before he or she is unable to discuss it. Talk about death with spouses, children, important relatives, and close friends while they are still alive.
23. Read books about death, investigate death, visit cemeteries, and think about your own death. It will help keep things in perspective.
24. Keep your estate in order. A will is a simple, yet important item. It takes only a few hours to verify insurance forms, to catalog belongings, etc., but the effort can save your survivors YEARS of anguish and frustration. If you could care less about them, leave it all to charity and save everyone a pile of trouble.
25. Be considerate! Make a living will. Make sure you have written down and notarized your wishes. Do not force others to make decisions on your behalf that they do not want to make or that they cannot make for emotional or spiritual reasons.
26. Lock the deceased person's bedroom and hide the jewelry, medals, toys, or photo albums. Never assume family will respect property or propriety; many people just want a share of the loot, and feel they have a right to take it. Some people just want a memento, and will not care if they have a right to it.
27. Don't steal a dead person's belongings just so you will have a memento. Stuff you steal is cursed, and no matter how small or inconsequential the item, the memories associated with it will be forever tainted by your larceny, even if you are certain the former owner would have wanted you to have it, or would have given it if you'd asked. Do not accept and keep stolen items, it doesn't make it ok if it wasn't you who stole it.
28. Always attend the funeral service of someone you care about unless you are sure you will be able to live with the memories you have. Do not feel obligated to attend a service if you are satisfied that you have already heard everything you want to hear about the deceased person.
29. If you are asked to attend a funeral, try to be there. Your presence is deemed important by the person who asked, and if you beg off for some lame reason, it will likely not be forgotten.
30. Funerals are for the living, not the dead. Don't act the fool at a funeral. Save your arguments about sidebar issues for afterwards. If you can't say something nice about the deceased, just say nothing. If you have to say something, keep it brief. Not everyone at the funeral will feel the way you do, no matter how universally despised or loved you think the person may have been—though nice words are usually more welcome than unpleasant ones.
31. When you are grieving, do not feel guilty for wanting to care about yourself more than you do about another person, but also remember that when a loved one dies, everyone who loved that person is grieving, not just you. Do not expect more from those people than you are able to give, and do not expect them to think of you
first. Their grief is as potent and painful as yours.
32. Do not tell a survivor 'it was all for the best.' It may not be true, but even if it is, the person will already know it and does not need your confirmation of the fact. Besides, who asked you?
33. Wait until the body is in the ground before you leave the cemetery. Then you will always know the person really is gone. Throw some dirt on the casket. Thank the Honor Guard.
34. Always respond to sympathy cards. Always respond graciously to expressions of sympathy, no matter how badly put or seemingly insincere. Most people do not know how to deal with another person's grief, and are simply doing their awkward, stupid best.
35. Do not buy baby furniture until you have the baby in your arms.
36. Give the baby a name. Always.
37. Always let the mother hold her stillborn child, and do not be in a hurry to send it away. She'll never have another chance to hold that baby so the feeling has to last a long time.
38. Just because a death doesn't seem important to you doesn't mean it's not important. If you can't empathize, keep your opinions to yourself. No one wants to hear them. Really.
39. Never underestimate the power of pleasant memories. Share them with people who cannot find their own.
40. Never leave a dying person alone who doesn't want to be alone. Never leave alone for long a person who has lost (or is losing) a loved one, no matter what he or she says.
41. Talk about a death as soon as possible, but do not push it. Some things may take years to surface. That's ok. Just make sure other people know they can talk when they want to.
42. Tell the survivor you are sorry for his or her loss, then stop talking. Shared silence is better than empty platitudes.
43. Do not compare another person's troubles with your experiences, your friends' experiences, or the local news. The survivor just doesn't care about any of that right then and it really doesn't help.
44. Visit a dying person often. The last time may have been the last time.
45. Do not be afraid to express fear of death. Most times, fear of death is as much the fear of dying as of death itself.
46. Do not be afraid to acknowledge the humor in somber moments or to laugh at the absurdities of ritual. Dignity and solemnity have their place but we are deeply emotional creatures, and sometimes, laughter is the only alternative to uncontrollable bawling. Many times, it is not possible to tell when the one leaves off and the other begins.
47. Tell the dying person you will remember him or her. Then do it, for your own sake
48. Write down your feelings and hide them away. Then, when you think about it, pull them out and read what you wrote. It helps to think about who you were.
49. Write a final letter to the dead person. Tell him or her whatever you never did, then put that letter away. Sometime later throw it away. You will know when.
50. Visit the grave at least once a year, for a while, then only when needed. The deceased is not there until you arrive, but the keys to the person's revival are in your head and the locks are the grave site. If there is no grave, use a picture and take it somewhere pleasant and private to look at.
51. Be realistic. Be strong as soon as you can, and get on with life as soon as possible. The world may be sympathetic, but it will not wait for you.
52. Die when its time. No life is worth impoverishing a family, no life is worth eternal care in a nursing home. No one is so important that loved ones should spend the rest of their lives paying off the debt incurred keeping another person alive.
53. Let a loved one die when it's time. Your desire to keep a person alive should always be subordinate to the dying person's desires, pain, and quality of life. Do not be greedy. It will be your time soon enough, and then you can be together. Pull the plug, turn off the machines, and wait.
54. Die at home if you can. Bring a loved one home to die. Hospitals are supposed to be places of healing, not of death. Who wants to die far from home in a sterile environment? I want to die in the middle of dirt field listening to birds and watching clouds float by in a blue sky.
55. Be prepared. When someone you care about dies, even if he or she is released from intense pain, and death truly is a blessing, you are still going to hurt a lot and for a long time. It is not easier for knowing it's coming or even when it really is for the best. Just take everything one day, one hour, one minute at a time. Be prepared.
56. Trust in God. Everything bad that happens to us is not a sign of evil purpose or callous indifference, and we are always stronger for having learned hard lessons—if we pay attention. We are not given to understand everything while we live, but God does care and he does listen, even if he doesn't always give us what we want. Truly.
57. No matter how blasé or jaded or emotionally mature you are, sometimes the news of an unexpected death will hit exceptionally hard, even if you didn't know the person very well. There's no reason for your reaction that you can discern, no sense that can be teased from the tangle of your emotions, and there's nothing for it. When that happens, be glad. It shows that your humanity and compassion haven't atrophied, and that you are still connected at some level to the other souls who share our world. It's a small enough consolation to be sure, but it does help.
"I have learned there is no joy without hardship. There is no pleasure without pain. Would we know the comfort of peace without war?....If not for death, would we appreciate life?" E. Kubler-Ross, The Wheel of Life, p 18.
** 57 now (was 56). I will add or delete as experience dictates. Life is nothing if not fluid. Only death is certain.
- Necessary Losses: The Loves, Illusions, Dependencies, and Impossible Expectations that all of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Grow
© 1986 by Judith Viorst, The Free Press
- The Wheel of Life
© 1997 by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D., Scribner
- On Death and Dying
© 1969 by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D., Macmillan
- How We Die: Reflections of Life's Final Chapter
© 1993 by Sherwin B. Nuland, Vintage Books,
[ 'Fragmented & Distracted' is detail from a modified photo of a painting titled Portrait of Hans Frisch by Ernst Kirchner that hangs in the McNay museum in San Antonio; 'Grief & Despair' is a heavily modified photo of a wall mural at the American Indian Museum in Washington, DC, combined with photos of southwestern native decorated clay skulls from the same museum; 'The Unknown' is Christmas lights through the bottom of a glass; 'Death Head Sculpture by Lotus' is detail from a ceramic pot created by Lotus Bermudez (http://www.claymatter.com). ]
Rule #57 and four images were added on 29 Jan 11. Updated on 24 Nov 16.