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Between Life and Death

Today’s guest post is written by apprentice funeral director Patricia Fitchett.

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I’m good with dead people. What kind of funeral director would I make if this were not so? Dead people don’t “freak me out” (most often asked question) nor do I become depressed through my dealings with them. They are quiet (duh!) and peaceful and I find a great sense of serenity knowing that no pain is present in them.

I’m pretty good with people who are alive.  They rarely “freak me out” (although there have been times) and my depression comes not from people, but from a lack of kindness or compassion. My friends and family are a precious gift.  It is the netherworld between life and death that causes me the most angst. I am very uncomfortable in the face of uncompromising pain or irreversible illness. A helplessness and uselessness overcome me and I don’t know what my role is.

As I write this, a person I love is existing in this netherworld. After a car accident, she was hospitalized and her injuries were severe enough that she was placed on a ventilator to keep her alive. Now if you have never been in the presence of a person undergoing mechanical ventilation, your frame of reference would be what you have seen on television. On TV, a person lays peacefully in bed with a tube in their mouth while air silently inflates their lungs. In reality, a ventilator has a very distinctive sound. There is clicking and whooshing and an unnatural inflation of the person’s body that is in no way reminiscent of actual human breath.

My first exposure to this was in 1996 when one of my sons was comatose. I will never forget the chilling sights and sounds of the machine that kept his tiny body alive and his necessary organs functioning. One of the most joyful moments in my life was when he started to breathe spontaneously and a refreshing “humanness” returned. Although the road to recovery was a long one, this step was the most significant.

All that came flooding back as I stood by my friend’s bedside and watched this noisy behemoth doing her breathing for her. Nothing can describe the pain of looking at someone’s unmarked perfect features and knowing that although they look like your friend, a distinct component of their humanity is absent. Life is breath after all and it is never more poignantly apparent than when breath is taken out of the equation.

Hospice nurses see this sort of thing all the time I suppose. They have inured themselves to be of service during that purgatory-like time between life and death. Although I have the utmost respect for nurses in general and hospice nurses in particular, I could never do the job that these brave and strong (and oftentimes wacky and irreverent) women and men do every day. I don’t have the fortitude to be present in the face of life’s ultimate transition.

That being said, I am honored to be someone with whom my friend’s family has chosen to share this sacred time. As painful as it is to stand by her bedside and witness the palpable grief pouring from her beloved partner, her family and her friends, it is a privilege to be in the presence of such strong love. Their anguish reminds me of the words of Kahlil Gibran who wrote “When you are sorrowful, look again in your heart and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” And my friend is nothing if not delightful.

I don’t know what will happen between the time that I write this and when it is published. She may die. A miracle may happen and we will delight in seeing her recover. Whatever happens will be part of the grand plan of God or the Universe that brought us all into connection with her and so all will be well. The words of the poet Mary Oliver keep running through my head (in my friend’s kind, loving voice of course, because she introduced me to Mary Oliver’s poetry):

“To live in this world, you must be able to do three things:

 

to love what is mortal;

 

to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it;

 

and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go”

The time has come.

(UPDATE: The day after Patricia wrote this essay, her friend Georgette passed away.  In memoriam, Unitarian Universalist minister the Reverend Georgette Wonders, 1952-2014.)  

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Patti Fitchett is an Apprentice Funeral Director with Casey Family Options Funerals and Cremations of Racine Wisconsin. Patti came to the funeral business as a lay minister and found an affinity for being of service to the families of Southeastern Wisconsin.

Ten Examples of Disenfranchised Grief

Grief shared is grief diminished.  When an individual dies, that death throws a web of relationships out of balance, causing the mourners to learn how to live in the new normal.  That new normal is best found together in community.

When grief isn’t shared.  When there is no community to share it.  When it isn’t recognized by society, then grief becomes complicated.

There are losses in our society that — for one reason or another — aren’t recognized.  This kind of grief is a disenfranchised grief.

Here are a couple forms of grief that often aren’t validated by society:

1.  Grief from miscarriages. This is a silent grief.  A grief that few people share; and when they do share, few people show compassion.  This is a grief for one who had no connections in life. No schoolmates, no friends, no co-workers … all of which translates to no funeral. A grief that can’t be shared.  A grief to be borne solely by the ones who conceived. A grief that is carried by the one who may now feel guilt upon silent grief because she miscarried.

This is a grief that is often carried alone. A grief that is too often complicated by guilt. A grief that is private and difficult to share. A grief for a nameless soul.

2.  Death of a pet. Pets become part of the family; and when they die it’s almost like losing a family member, except no one in the community recognizes your loss.  ”It’s just a dog” is both true and false.  Yes, it may be a dog, but that dog was one of the truest friend you’ve ever had.  It was loved and it loved you.

3.  Grief from abortions. This topic has become so political that it has lost its human element.  Abortions are by nature a loss.  And some (many?) mothers who choose abortions will grieve, even though society tells them that “it was just a fetus.”

4.  Grief of the supporter. When death occurs, roles quickly play out.  There’s the main mourner(s) and there’s the supporting cast.  That supporting cast — those who take care of the main mourner (the spouse of the deceased, the children of the deceased) — are often very close to the deceased themselves.  But because they are the supporters, they simply aren’t allowed the time to grieve.  They are the strong ones.

5.  Grief from suicide.  Suicide is such a difficult, tragic and complicated death that those who are left behind are often not sure how to grieve … or if they should even grieve at all.  To complicate the issue, outside society can often look at suicide as such a taboo that they don’t recognize the grief of those surrounding the suicide.

6.  Grief from the death of an Ex. Whether it’s the death of an ex-spouse, ex-lover or ex-boyfriend/girlfriend, if the deceased is the “ex” there’s an assumption that you aren’t allowed to grieve, because that relationship “has already been severed.”

7.  Grief over a loss that isn’t a person.  Businesses fail, marriages fail, dreams go unfulfilled, you (or a loved one) loses a function due to sickness (such a dementia).  The sweat equity that goes into a business; the hopes and passions of a marriage; the hard work and sacrifices that come with pursing dreams; and the slow death that comes with a disease like dementia; these are all real.  And when society tells you, “buck up”, you need to know that you have permission to grieve.

8.  When you grieve differently than others.  We all grieve differently because we each have a unique relationship with the deceased.  Sometimes, though, the way we express our grief is different from the way your family, friends and community expresses their grief.  Perhaps you cry “too much” or perhaps you cry “too little.”  If you find that you express yourself differently, you may also find yourself unintentionally ostracized.

9.  Grief from an “invisible” or misunderstood illness.   Empathy is often seen as coddling for those who suffer with “invisible illnesses” like fibromyalgia, or misunderstood illnesses, like depression and bi-polar disorder.  So the sufferer is left to suffer alone.

10.  Children and grief.  While some parents may feel obligated to shield their children from death (a practice I see all too often), parents should be careful not to remove their children from the community of grief, and so revoke the child’s right to feel.  Not only should we recognize that death confrontation provides our children with incredible teaching moments, we should also realize that children do indeed grieve.  They are connected.  They love.  They feel.  And so when death comes, they grieve.  Depending on their developmental stage, they will grieve differently than adults.  But as long as they are apart of our family, of the community of the deceased, they have the right to grieve with us.

 

When disenfranchised grief occurs, there can be multiple problems that can result: depression, withdraw, self-esteem issues, substance abuse and even psychosomatic illness.

If you have experienced grief that was disallowed by society, it is important to remember this: YOU HAVE PERMISSION TO GRIEVE.  YOU HAVE PERMISSION TO GRIEVE IN YOUR OWN WAY.  YOU HAVE PERMISSION TO GRIEVE IN YOUR OWN TIME.

And, you’ve been the one who has disallowed another’s grief because you don’t understand it, or you feel the need to “shield” them from death (i.e. children), it’s important that you learn to EXTEND PERMISSION TO THOSE YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND.

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Have you ever experienced disenfranchised grief?

Have you even been the one who has disenfranchised someone else’s grief?

Why You May Never Heal

1144Pop psychology has implied that our grief can one day “heal.”  That one day, we’ll come to a place — after going through an extensive emotional process — where we’re back to normal, as if the brokenness we feel has been mended.

In Kubler-Ross’ model, she listed five stages:

denial,

anger,

bargaining,

depression,

and acceptance.

Many of us (myself included) have been taught that Kubler-Ross’ five stages are in fact stages of grief; or a process that a bereaved person goes through after they’ve experienced the death of someone close.  But Kubler-Ross’ model described the stages she saw in people who were dying; not a prescription for those going through a grief process. 

Pop psychology has made Kubler-Ross’ model to be a model of grief and assumed that throughout the whole grief process, the bereaved should be experiencing what Freud called “decathexis”, which is a removal of emotional energy from the deceased; a detachment. Freud suggested that during and after “decathexis” we will take those emotional energies and reinvest them into another object or person in a process called “recathexis.” Essentially, we find other people to love … and use them to fill the “love hole” left by the deceased.

The assumption in pop psychology’s and Freud’s model is that the end of the grief process (healing, acceptance) is a form of detachment from the deceased.

But, I think they’re wrong.

Anna Lamott writes,

“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”

Instead of saying that the end of the grief process is detachment and healing, I think we should say that the healthy end of the grief process is adjustment. It’s adjusting to the fact that your loved one is no longer here to share life experiences with you. It’s adjusting to the loss of the future, but there’s never a detachment from the past.

We simply have on-going bonds with the deceased. They will forever be apart of us and instead of trying to “heal” and find “decathexis” (although I don’t think Freud’s idea is categorically wrong), we must learn to adjust and dance with our limp.

Over time, you will learn to adjust to the death of a loved one. A part of you has been lost and you will never find it again, so you must learn to live without it. But, don’t confuse your adjustment for healing. You may never heal.

This from Jandy Nelson over the loss of her sister, Bailey:

“My sister will die over and over again for the rest of my life. Grief is forever. It doesn’t go away; it becomes a part of you, step for step, breath for breath. I will never stop grieving Bailey because I will never stop loving her. That’s just how it is. Grief and love are conjoined, you don’t get one without the other. All I can do is love her, and love the world, emulate her by living with daring and spirit and joy.”

Maybe the reason we never heal is because our love never dies.

10 Requests Funeral Homes Should NEVER Hear

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The other day someone emailed me and asked, “What are some odd requests that families have asked funeral directors to perform?”  Honestly, it seems like every other day we’re asked to do something “odd.”  These “odd requests” are a burden that every funeral director has to bear.

 And yet, there are some odd requests that are exceptional.

I asked my Confessions of a Funeral Director facebook page a similar question and here are the top ten oddest requests.  If you aren’t accustomed to PG-13 topics and are grossed out by anatomy talk, before you get offended it’s probably best that you stop right here and and don’t continue reading this list which is morbid and kinda gross … but, nevertheless, part of the experience of being a funeral director.

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On Keeping Death Always Before Our Eyes

Today’s guest post is written by Micha Boyett.

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I have this joke with my husband about who he’ll be allowed to marry if I die: Heidi Klum, of course. I want him to achieve all his life dreams.

Sometimes we laugh over which of his three brothers I would marry if we lived in Biblical Old Testament days and I was forced to carry on his bloodline (of course I would only get to choose between brothers because I’m making up the rules). I refuse to comment on which one I’ve chosen. I’ll let them arm wrestle for the prize.

The point is, we talk about dying sometimes. And we should. I don’t want it to be some taboo topic between the two of us. As a mom of two, it’s almost impossible for me to not think about the impermanence of all this life around me. My kids are growing at a rate I cannot believe. My oldest son is somehow almost six years old, and I feel the loss of his babyhood in the deepest parts of me. I have lost his infant-giggle, his chunky body, his cuddles, his toddler mind. Now, he is an almost-graduated Kindergartener with Kindergarten-sized friendship troubles, secrets, and frustrations that I can’t completely understand. He’s also learning to read and discovering his passion for science and nature. He’s developing a conscience of his own, working hard to persuade his parents that our love for eating meat is harmful to the Nature he loves.

In short, this is the story of every human on the planet. We live and grow and, one day, leave the care and nurture of our parents. It’s beautiful and it’s tragic. For every thing gained, another is lost. This is the work of Time: A Planet Earth whirling in its spot in the universe—day and night, day and night—bringing us to one another and removing us from one another. My son is growing up. I am losing him and gaining him—his real self—which, heartbreakingly for his mother, is separate from me.

As a person of faith, I first discovered the writings of St. Benedict because I was struggling with this notion of Time. I was a new mom, already feeling the simultaneous devastation and joy of motherhood. And I was also an anxious American, with a calendar packed full of stuff I ought to do and was failing to accomplish. When was I supposed to exercise/read/have a spiritual life when my kid was demanding me at all moments? I’d read somewhere that the Benedictine monks believe that there always “enough time in each day” and I wondered what that could possibly mean. (And I hoped they would give me some magic secret to getting control of my wild life.)

As I studied St. Benedict’s 6th Century notions of community and prayer, I came to an instruction that has remained with me, these years later. Benedict reminded his monks that they should live in such a way that they, “Keep the reality of death always before [their] eyes.”

What does it mean to live that way? Not with some morbid death obsession, but to notice that this moment—here, right now—is a gift? Everything is passing, and that reality is both beautiful and devastating. Somehow, the fact that we are always in the process of losing each other allows us, if we let it, to love more deeply. Recognizing our coming-death teaches us to cling to the life we’ve been given.

I’m not really sure what it means to live with the reality of death always before me, but I think it has something to do with gratefulness, with awareness. And I think that’s where prayer—however we define it—begins: in the place where we pay attention, see the people around us with compassion, and hold both death and life in the same tender hand.

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Micha (pronounced “MY-cah”) Boyett is a writer, blogger, and sometimes poet. Her first book, Found: A Story Questions, Grace, and Everyday Prayer releases today. A born and raised Texan, Micha lives in San Francisco with her husband, Chris, and their two sons. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and at michaboyett.com.

 

 

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