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My TEDx Talk: “Embracing Death”

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The North American leap from a culture of healthy death acceptance to a culture of death denial has been no leap at all. It’s been a journey of small steps. And this journey has, in part, been enabled by both the professionalization of death and the funeral industry. In this talk, I explore options that help us pursue death acceptance by taking back death care responsibilities.

 

How Heaven Can Hurt Grief Work

I have some problems with the idea of heaven.  I know, you might hate me for saying that.

The Barna Group says 81% of Americans believe in the afterlife.

The Washington Post quotes 75%.

The Council of Secular Humanism states 55% definitely believe in life after.

Anyway you look at, the majority of us believe in life after death.

My problem has less to do with the idea of the afterlife and more to do with HOW we use it. The afterlife is powerful; and like most powerful things, its easily abused.  The easiest abuse that arises is that we can pay more attention to the life after than the life here and now.  As the saying goes, we become so heavenly focused that we become no earthly good.

This plays out especially during death and dying.

The “Don’t grieve, deary, your husband is with Jesus” cliché death-related responses hit right at the heart of what I’m trying to communicate.

To start with, religious believers have a very difficult time accepting their grief as legitimate because many worship a god who is impassible … who is without emotion.  We emulate what we worship and nothing is unhealthier than humanity trying to act like their unemotive deity during times of distress, pain and death.

Compound this unemotive deity with the belief that death isn’t really real … that death is the pathway to another life … that we shouldn’t grieve because “your husband is with Jesus” and we have a recipe for disastrous dishonesty about our pain in death.

Religious people tend to downplay tragedy with clichés like:

“It’s God’s will”

“God meant it for good.”

“We don’t always understand God’s mysterious plans.”

And in the same way, we use the powerful antidote of the afterlife to downplay our grief and pain during times of death:

“At least you know he’s in a better place.”

“You can be happy to know she’s in the arms of Jesus.”

All this speaks to repression, delusion and the tendency to skip the first four stages of Kubler-Ross’ model and go right to a faux form of “acceptance.”

And this is why I think it’s unhealthy.  It’s unhealthy because it can too easily take away your grief work.  It’s a “get out of pain for free” card that all too many play to the detriment of their personal growth.  In the same way that I disdain a person buying a fake online PhD, so do I distain this attempt to skip the labor of grief, the growth of grief and the personal evaluation that inevitably comes with death.

Heaven’s the trump card.

The “Easy Button”.

We become so heavenly minded that we’re no good at grief.  We can become so heavenly focused, that we forget the here and now.  We see death as unreal, as almost fake; and we become just like our view of it.

 

Blessed are the Fighters, for They Shall Inherit Good Funerals

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Last month we had a large service for Tommy, a 40-something father of two, brother of two, half-brother of three, step brother of one, son of two parents, and step-son of two step-parents. All loved him – his entire blended family and the 600-plus people who came to his memorial service.

After those 600 people expressed their condolences to the grieving and exhausted family, the service began. It’s become a good trend to allow a sharing time during the service, and this service was on trend. It gives family and friends the opportunity to eulogize (though often it devolves into an open mic to say whatever the hell you want about the deceased).

The unorthodox,

frequently unrehearsed,

sometimes funny,

often revealing

short little eulogies change the pace and welcome back the dead in both the audience and in the casket. At services like the one today, people have been waiting over four hours in the pews for the visitation to end. They are hungry, tired, and grieving, and a hot head blowing his air in the form of a sermon can put them in a daze faster than a punch to the face.

But these listless and lackluster mourners miraculously perked up when the family stepped up to the pulpit to share.

The deceased’s dad told the story, when — at the age of 10 — Tommy played hooky for a couple days. After Tommy’s dad got a call from the school principal, he hurried home to find his son fishing in a little thing “you could barely call a stream.” When he asked why Tommy had been skipping school, Tommy responded that he’d been getting picked on at school. Tommy’s dad did what any good dad does – he taught Tommy how to fight. Apparently, he taught him too well.

This theme of “Tommy was a fighter” found its way into each of the five spontaneous eulogies: Tommy liked to fight.  Sometimes physically, but always figuratively.  Tommy knew what he wanted and he’d fight for it.  He’d fight for his family, for his friends and, even though he’d eventually lose, he fought for his life.

Over the years I’ve noticed something about fighters: they get the good funerals. Seriously. Fighters stand for something. Fighters value and believe in something. For every one enemy, they have five friends. People-pleasers, teacher’s pets, and “yes men” have the boring, we’re-all-here-because-we-have-to-be funerals. But fighters? They have friends till death and beyond. Their friends stand up and share crazy stories at the funeral.

Tommy’s friends will be there for his kids, supporting them with time and even money if needed.  In a way, Tommy’s fighting spirit will live on in his friends and family.

****

There’s a simple recipe for a good funeral. It goes like this:

1.  The deceased LOVED others.

2.  The deceased FOUGHT for those she/he loved (I’m NOT talking about the fist to face type of fighting, I’m talking about the figurative passionate pursuit of something we love and value … the pursuit of which is often bereft with hardship and pain and struggle).

Fighting does something to us.  The struggle does something to us.  To borrow a line from Fight Club, “How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?”

Fighters know their limits.  And they know what they value.  And they know how much they’re willing to risk.  They’re confident in who they are.

So, what do you fight for?  And who do you love?

If you can answer those questions, let your funeral director know that when you die, she/he should be prepared for one helluva funeral.

 

They Cried Too Much

The haunting image of David Kirby's death, taken by journalism student Therese Frare in 1990

The haunting image of David Kirby’s death, taken by journalism student Therese Frare in 1990

We are having two of the busiest months on record. Just today, we conducted four funerals. This morning, a few of us were working a church funeral while my dad was working one at the funeral home.

We were in the middle of the church funeral when my dad phoned me, “Hospice just called.  We have a house call.” He needed me to leave the church funeral right away. Hospice has given families the wonderful option of keeping a loved one who dying in the comfort of their home instead of spending their last days at the cold, mechanical hospital. However, when someone dies at home under hospice, it means we have to drop everything and go on that call. And that is exactly what I did.

After a 20-minute drive, we pulled up to a house packed with all of the deceased’s family and friends. The man — emaciated — was in his 40s and had died of bone cancer.

Walking into these types of situations is like walking into another world. They’re all on a different schedule. Some haven’t slept in days; others haven’t worked in weeks, as they waited for their loved one to pass.  Many have expected miracles only to feel the darkness envelope them in despair. Time has a different meaning. Everybody is crying, holding each other, generally more compassionate than they normally would be.

This particular situation, though, was a little over the top. The daughter of the deceased was lying in the bed with her deceased father and refused to leave, which set off a chain reaction of emotions and tears.

I have had people run after us yelling, “Bring back my Mama!” as we drove away, but I’ve never seen someone lay in the bed with their dead father, refusing to leave. The daughter’s boyfriend was crying so hard he could barely breathe and had to be held up by some of the family members. He would suck in a gulp of air with one huge breath, then let out a burst of tears and sorrow for about 30 seconds, only to suck in another breath, thus preventing himself from hyperventilating.  He and other were weeping.

There’s a difference between weeping and crying.  Crying is having tears streaming down your face.  Weeping is when you get snotty nose, your body starts convulsing, you often burst small veins and arteries in and around your eyes and after you’re done with the process, you need sleep.

“You all are weeping too much,” I found myself thinking. “Come on, this is only death. He probably wouldn’t want you to act like this anyway. See what love’s gotten you into? You’re making yourselves look like a bunch of over-emotional, sentimental, touchy-feely human beings. You have actually allowed death to affect you. Death isn’t that hard. We all have to deal with it. If you had put him in a nursing home, you wouldn’t have had to stop working.  You would have gotten regular hours of sleep, then you could have prevented this outburst of emotion. Maybe then you could have approached this more objectively. Right?”

Wrong.

I forced myself to correct my thinking.  As I said before, it’s like walking into another world – but as I watched, I realized that this was a world I wanted to stay in. By the end of our time there, I was a part of them. They were hugging me and crying on my shoulder, and I couldn’t help but think how right this world was. I felt like I had touched Real, and my soul treasured it.

In a rare moment, I saw a community honestly express the horribleness of death.  In a rare moment, I saw how death and dying create community by allowing us to touch each other’s humanity.

To be human is not to be closed off, detached, emotionless. Being human means the opposite: connecting, feeling, and — at times — weeping. Remaining detached is only an illusion.

On Sharing the Silent Grief of Miscarriage

Miscarriages cause a silent grief.  A nameless grief.  Often a disenfranchised grief.

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.

*****

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I’ve seen all too many women (and some men) try to be strong after a miscarriage only to find the grief manifest itself over the next couple months and even years.  This is a very real grief and it’s not to be brushed aside.

It’s often traumatic.

Often bloody.  Painful.

Often lonely.  Powerless.

I remember a bible professor express the need for prayer to my class because his wife had just miscarried.  Despite the fact he was asking for prayer, his request was quite smug and short, as if it wasn’t a big deal.  Being that my class was a Degree Completion Course, there was a number of older women who quickly asked, “How’s your wife doing?”

He responded, “Oh, she’s fine.  It’s not a big deal.”

To that another lady quickly rebutted, “It might not be a big deal to you, but it is to her.  And if you have that attitude, it will be a bigger deal in months to come.”

Sure enough, she was right as months later the Prof. shared with the class that his wife was suffering from depression and was entering counseling.

The grief from miscarriages is very real and it doesn’t matter what trimester the miscarriage takes place.

“Women themselves will say, ‘How can a loss at 20-plus weeks be the same as a loss at six weeks?'” said Emma Robertson Blackmore, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center who has studied moods during pregnancy, post-partum depression and the effects of miscarrying. “But research says the level of symptoms and impairment is the same.”

*****

Over the course of my 10 years in funeral service, I’ve seen the parents of a miscarried / stillborn child do two things that seem to be very healthy:

1.)  Name their child.

2.)  Plan a funeral for their child.

I have to admit that the first time I worked a funeral for a couple that miscarried, I thought it wasn’t worth my time.  But that all changed when I saw the utterly disheartened grief on the face of the mother and expecting father.  They were devastated.

We performed most of the services for free, and I imagine most funeral homes do the same, but honestly, especially for miscarriages, there is no need for a funeral director, but there IS a need for a gathering with your closest friends and family … those who love and support you … to express their love for you.  It’s one of those seemingly selfish things that’s entirely unselfish.  Because it’s a time for others to recognize the loss, grieve with you and have an opportunity to pour out their love for you.

Name the child.

Don’t let the child be nameless.  For both the child’s sake and for your own sake.  Name the child so that you can have a more defined grief process.

And even if the the child was miscarried years ago and you suffered in silent grief … it’s never too late.

Even if it’s just you and your spouse, or you and a close friend, have a small service where you remember and reflect on your hopes and dreams for a future that ended too soon.

Grief shared is grief diminished.  It’s time to share.

And it’s time we take miscarriages / stillbirths very seriously.

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