Dancing Skeletons, Skulls, and Funeral Services

I participated in a fundraiser over the weekend. (I’m not sure how much I actually participated, to tell the truth — I just signed up for a table to display my books.) The event was to raise money for hospice and bereavement classes, which are causes I believe in. I’m all for helping people get through their final days as easily as possible and especially to offer comfort and support to those left behind. It’s not just that grief slams into the bereft, making it almost impossible to breathe, but they have to deal with all the horrendous “death” chores such as planning a funeral and filling out the required official and financial paperwork involved in “removing” someone from the world.

A couple of the participants in the fundraiser were businesses offering funeral and mortuary services, which fit with the purpose of the event since they were trying to make it easier for those left behind by getting people to “preplan” their funeral arrangements. (I’m restraining myself to keep from ranting about the silly jargon of the death business, such as the redundant “preplan” and the totally ridiculous “cremains.” One rant per post is enough.)

The only trouble with having representatives of the funeral business at the fundraiser is that this was not a serious event. It was a fun Halloween event geared toward children as well as adults. One of the mortuary booths played down their services, mostly providing pamphlets and pens for adults while offering various treats to the children, but the other funeral services participant went all out, decorating their booth with dancing skeletons, skulls, and cartoonish graves.

Perhaps the hushed and grave intonations of old-time funeral directors no longer have a place in our anything-goes society, but still, death deserves respect — for the sake of those left behind if for no other reason. Skeletons and skulls are one thing when they are used far from reality such as in Halloween festivities, but to mix such cartoonish symbols of death with the real thing just struck me as going way beyond taste and tact to downright tacky and insensitive.

They of all people should have known that for some people death is not fun, not a business, but an all too real horror.

(These photos show some of the decorations I’ve been referring to.  The top photo came from the wide border of the tablecloth. The others were a couple of the tabletop decorations. Lest you think I am being too critical, I am the not the only one who found the decorations inappropriate.)

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Pat Bertram is the author of the conspiracy novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+

Grief: The Twenty-Seventh Twenty-Seventh

My life mate/soul mate died of inoperable kidney cancer on the 27th of March, 2010, and today is the twenty-seventh twenty-seventh I have managed to survive. Some such dates are fading — I no longer count the days or weeks, no longer count my sad Saturdays (he died on a Saturday, and always on Saturday, I feel an upsurge of sorrow), but I am still very aware of the day of the month he died.

This twenty-seventh month marks a big change. For the first time in my long odyssey, I am more grateful for what I had with him than I am sorrowful for what I didn’t have. I can even smile when I think of him, though I don’t think of him as often as I used to. For the first two years of my grief, he consumed my thoughts. It was as if I were afraid to stop thinking of him, lest he disappear completely from life and memory. Despite that vigilance, my memories of him are fading, and while I still feel the sorrow, still feel the immense hole in my life, I am forgetting the particulars. Forgetting, even, what he looked like.

This forgetting seems like a death in itself, but I can’t keep him here by thinking of him. Though I wish with all my being that he were strong and healthy and living, he is gone. And I am not.

In recognition of this, I have put away the only two photos I have of him. I could not bear to look at the pictures for the first fifteen months after he died, but I gradually inured myself to the sight of them. For a while, the images brought me comfort, but now they only remind me of my sadness. Maybe someday I will set out the photos again; meantime, I am learning to survive without this crutch. The photos might not be a crutch so much as a reminder, or maybe simply something to talk to, but whatever these pieces of paper are, they are not him.

I am still beset by tears and fears, and there’s a chance I always will be. His death seemed to open a crack in the EveryThing, and I could almost feel the winds of eternity. Some of the wildness of my grief and the accompanying panic came from this contact with a truth I am not yet capable of understanding. I don’t know what I will become because of the experience, but even though I don’t feel any different, I know I have changed in some fundamental way.

I am weary of trying to find my way, weary of trying to work around the immense hole he left behind, weary of trying to emphasize the good in my life. Perhaps one day, I won’t have to expend so much effort to find ways and reasons to live. I will simply . . . live.

Dreaming of the Dead

I don’t often dream about my deceased life mate/soul mate, but last night was an exception. Perhaps my bloggerie yesterday, where I mentioned a revelation I had while walking in the desert, instigated the dream. The revelation — that having a sign from him wouldn’t change my life, that I’m already doing the best I can to be the best person I can be — was a pivotal point for me. Or perhaps it was because I’ve been going through the movies he taped and have thrown away some I know I will never watch. Whatever the reason, it was good being with him again for a few minutes.

I don’t think the dream was a sign from him, nor do I think he actually visited me. In fact, I knew it was a dream while dreaming.

In the dream, we were going somewhere on foot, and I realized that it would be cold before we got back, so I went inside to get a coat. In my closet were two of his coats — a jacket and a trench coat, which I have in fact kept. As I was pulling the jacket off the hangar, I remembered that I had gotten rid of most of his things after he died, and I panicked, wondering how to tell him that his stuff was gone. I left the room, and met one of the moderators of the grief group I had attended. He asked how I was, so I explained the situation, then I added, “It’s a good thing this is a dream, otherwise he would be really angry.”

In the dream, I was glad not to have to tell him his things were gone, and I’m glad I don’t have to tell him in real life. Even though he told me what to do with most things, he never told me what to do with his tape collection, and I don’t know what he would think of my throwing any of them away. But he is beyond caring about such things now.

Part of me wants to get rid of everything that reminds me of him — which would mean getting rid of everything I own. But part of me thinks there might come a day when having our things around me might help connect the disparate parts of my life — the years with him and the future years without him.

It still seems bizarre to me that a person’s things outlast him. In this age of obsolescence, you’d think it would be the other way around. Besides our household goods, his tape collection, and various things I have not been able to get rid of yet, I have a great many papers  in his handwriting — recipes, the list of video tapes, a foot-high stack of notes from his studies into health and nutrition, and various other notes I come across from time to time. Oddly, for something so personal, an unexpected glimpse of his handwriting doesn’t sadden me, which is a good thing. I’m sad enough as it is.

“I don’t worry about a thing because I know nothing is going to be all right.”

A friend told me about an old woman who was the most joyful person she knew, though the woman had suffered grievous losses in her life. I couldn’t fathom how the woman could be so joyful, and yet now I can. . . . almost. Perhaps the woman knows that everything comes to an end. Perhaps she knows that the little things are important. Perhaps she has found herself in all of the losses.

Or, like me, perhaps she has an awareness of death, of knowing, deep down, that her life will end, maybe even badly. Since I’ve become steeped in the grief culture, I’ve heard stories of terrible deaths, either doctors keeping people alive past any usefulness or alertness, or the person’s own will keeping them alive long after they wanted to be done with it. I’ve heard stories of so much pain and suffering that it’s amazing any of us ever manage to smile let alone be joyful in such a world.

We all know we are going to die, but after the death of someone we are profoundly connected with, we KNOW deep within our psyches. People tell me not to dwell on death, and I don’t. It’s more that the knowledge of death now is a part of the very fabric of my being and can never again be unknowable. This knowledge makes life on Earth seem both more and less significant, which adds a strange flavor to my days. I don’t know how this knowledge will affect me long term, but there is freedom in knowing that things will end.

I heard a song today by Mose Allison. “I don’t worry about a thing because I know nothing is going to be all right.” It sounds cynical, but it isn’t necessarily negative unless you give up and stop trying to do whatever you can. Does it matter what success you had here on earth when you are dead? Does it matter how many toys you had when you died? Of course not. It only matters that you lived.

It’s like writing — all stories are the stories of someone’s life, and as such, end in death. What we as writers do is end the book at an upbeat point for a happy ending and an ironic place for a more tragic ending, but still, life continues on past those significant moments.

I know how my life is going to end — the same way all of our lives are going to end. It will end in death. I’ve always been a bit of a worrier, but with death on the horizon (the far horizon, considering my longevity genetics) worry seems a bit foolish. All that counts is today — not future successes or failures, not future acquisitions or losses. Just today.

There is peace in that, maybe even joy.

Wondering About Life And Death And The Meaning Of It All

I don’t think I had survivor’s guilt after the death of my life mate/soul mate, but I do feel bad that I’m leaving him behind. I get a second chance at life, new friends, new vistas, new experiences, but he has been denied that. And in fact, he was denied all those things long before his death since his protracted dying kept him from doing much except struggling to get through one more pain-filled day.

He often told me that when he got incapacitated, I had to put him in a home and walk away. Just forget him. I know he’d want me to do the same thing now that he is dead, but I didn’t walk away when I had to put him in the hospice care center, and I can’t walk away now, and for certain I can’t just forget him.

But perhaps I am looking at the situation backward. His being dead is still the thing that drives my sadness — sadness not just for me but for him. And yet . . . what if it is he who left me behind? Perhaps he has gone on to a wondrous new life, in which case my sadness on his behalf is misplaced. And maybe none of this has anything to do with me. Maybe it’s not up to me to worry if he was cheated or not, or even to wonder if he’s in a better place. Despite our deep connection, he was still his own person. Maybe I’m poking into something that is his alone.

Just as I have to accept that my life is mine alone now.

About a year before he died, I hugged him and accidentally touched his left ear. I know now cancer had metastasized all the way up his left side and into his brain, but at the time, all I knew was that he pushed me away, wincing in agony. Something shut off right then, and a voice deep inside me said, “He might dying but I have to live.” For all that year, we went our separate ways, he to dying, me to living. Then, six weeks before he died, he made the connection with me again. He needed to talk about what was happening to him so he could gather courage to face what was coming, and during that daylong conversation, I remembered why I fell in love with him all those years ago.

Because of that disconnected year, a year where I felt dissociated from him and our life, I didn’t expect to grieve, but here I am, two years and seven weeks later, still struggling to deal with the wreckage of our shared life, still sad, still wondering about life and death and the meaning of it all. When life makes sense, death doesn’t. When death makes sense, life doesn’t. It would be nice to talk to him and compare notes about what we’re both doing, but so far he’s remaining silent.

One thing has changed recently. In between the moments of angst and wanting it all to be over with, in between the pinchings of grief and not caring what happens to me, that determination of several years ago is making itself felt.

He might be dead, but I have to live.

I just wish I knew how.

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