Thursday, July 12, 2012

Dealing with death

by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.
This is an uncomfortable topic simply because it is seldom discussed, and, too, because it affects people in different ways at different times during their lives.  You may think you deal with it the same way each time it affects your life, but that is unlikely to be true.  Every response is different depending on their relationship to you.  There are so many variables involved: how close the person was to you, your own health, happiness, and security, and how many other tragedies or traumas you are having to deal with at the time.  That isn’t the end either.  How did the person die?  What are the circumstances surrounding the event?  Where is the funeral (and viewing) to be held?  Who will be (should be?) invited?  And many more questions, too.
I did not see my father die; however, I was asked out of class at the University of Michigan and called to identify his dead body.  Now, I admit I was not close to my father, so this was not as traumatic for me as it could have been — and, honestly, it took me little time at all to get over his death.
When my mother died she was in California, and I was in Ohio, so there was a great physical distance between us.  Although we had had regular weekly calls to keep in touch, even the number of those calls had diminished in her last several years.  She was over 90-years-old, and had chosen to die by not eating.  Although I had been close to her throughout my life, I had grown away from her (somewhat) because of the many years of physical distance; thus, her death was, in a sense, a reward for a life well lived and success in what she wanted.
My wife’s mother died, and it was a major, significant occurrence, but we knew she was ready to accept it.  Her physical disabilities were great (and getting worse), and she, like my mother, had lived a terrific, fulfilled life.  There is seldom a “right” time to die, but it is true that some times are better than others.
There is a strange irony in dealing with death.  It is explained at Healthy Place: America’s Mental Health Channel in an essay, “Helping yourself and others deal with death.”  The essay says: “Bereavement is a powerful, life-changing experience that most people find overwhelming the first time. Although grief is a natural process of human life, most of us are not inherently able to manage it alone. At the same time, others are often unable to provide aid or insight because of discomfort with the situation and the desire to avoid making things worse.”  So, it’s hard to deal with it alone, but others can’t help for fear of making it worse.
The older I get, the more fragile I see how life is.  That is, I have noticed our whole world is fragile when you consider how many factors have to be exactly right (distance from the sun, proper atmosphere, available water supply, etc.) for life on earth to be sustained.  What occurred in Japan in March, 2011, by the earthquake and resulting tsunami, forces us to acknowledge this realization once again.  Look how many people died in the blink of an eyelash — and these lives could not be saved.
There is little I can do to prevent these horrendous occurrences and, in the same way, there is little I can do to prevent the death of those around me.  All I can do — and it is a small thing — is protect my own life, and to the extent I am capable — protect the lives of those closest to me.  To stay in good health myself is an important factor in this.
Here, then, is what I have learned about dealing with death.  First, I have found that more is learned about dealing with death through experience than through preparation.  Just because you have lived a happy, healthy life, does not mean you are prepared to deal with death.  The best way to recover from the death of a person close to you is just to take your time.  Persevere.  Your willingness to continue on will help you get through it (time heals — but it doesn’t always heal completely!) — in addition, of course, to the support and understanding of those around you.
Second, there is no “correct” time for grieving or for healing.  It is different for different people, and it is different under different circumstances.  There is no “proper” amount of time.  There will be times of stress and difficulty as one encounters birthdays, anniversaries, and other ceremonial occasions.  But, as the essay at the Mental Health Channel website (referred to above) says: “The key to handling grief is in what work is done over time. It takes time and work to decide what to do and where to go with the new and changed life that is left behind.”  The more that one can return to working the more help they will get for working through the grief.
Third, I have discovered that my memory tends to raise up the good and diminish the bad.  That is, I have found that the memories I have of those close to me who have died, are good memories and need to be remembered and appreciated.  At the Mental Health Channel website, it says, “In learning to let go and live a new and changed life memories tend to come back more clearly. Growth and healing comes in learning to enjoy memories.”
Fourth, and finally, the best way to deal with death is to share your experiences with others — especially those who are accepting, empathic, and patient.  Most of the funerals I have attended are actually celebrations.  That is, it is a chance for the people attending — many of whom who have not seen each other in a long time — to enjoy the camaraderie and share the time together in an exuberant, enthusiastic manner.  Sure, there is a certain sadness in the event, but that grief should not destroy or undermine the chance to engage, support, and take pleasure in others.  Funerals may have their maudlin moments, but they do not need to consist entirely of overemotional, tearful, and sentimental expressions.
Each time I hear about the death of someone I knew (whether I knew them well or not) — Ken Knitt, Armand King, Dan Camp, Milton Bennett, Richard Wilbourne (to name just a few) — I am reminded of a quote from Aeschylus: “There's nothing certain in a man's life except this:  That he must lose it.”
I once heard an apt quotation on the television show Roseanne : “If you spend all your time worrying about dying, living isn't going to be much fun.”  Norman Cousins had a slightly different twist on a similar thought: “Death is not the greatest loss in life.  The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.”  Do I think about death?  Seldom.  Do I want to die?  No.  I am indebted to the deep thinking, popular American philosopher, Doris Day (he says with tongue firmly planted in cheek!), who said, “The really frightening thing about middle age is the knowledge that you'll grow out of it.”  But most of all, I love the quotation attributed to R. Geis, “I wouldn't mind dying,” he says, “it's the business of having to stay dead that scares the shit out of me.”
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A short essay, Dealing with death: How to find peace,” by Piper Cox at EzineArticles  is both helpful and insightful.  The last part of her first paragraph reads, “Death is a difficult thing to work through. It leaves you feeling so empty and alone. But there are ways that you can find peace after the death of a loved one.”

At, the essay there, “Dealing with Grief; There is Life After Death,” offers seven discussion points: 1) Shock and denial, 2) Pain and guilt, 3) anger and bargaining, 4) depression, reflection, loneliness, 5) the upward turn, 6) reconstruction and working through, and 7) acceptance and hope.  There is some valuable information here.
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Copyright July, 2012, by And Then Some Publishing, L.L.C.


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