(Aka a very cheerful post for your morning’s enjoyment!)

A little while ago, I wrote about the so-called “grief process” and how it seems to me a totally artificial construct. This observation is just one of many in an on-going (and largely internal) discussion about death and dying in our culture.

In short, death makes most people extremely uncomfortable, and we really have no way of dealing with it. Thus, when we ourselves inevitably experience death or dying (whether it be from the dying or the living side of things), we have no idea how to deal with it. Often, the emotions become destructive both to ourselves and those around us.

Somehow, I managed to reach the ripe old age of 26 without directly experiencing death or illness. My beloved godfather passed away very peacefully when I was 24, but other than that, the closest I came to this realm of experience was when a friend of a friend was killed by a drunk driver. We had all just turned 21. Even by association, this loss devastated me, and ever since then I have dreaded the thought of losing someone close to me.

In the past year, that thought has become reality. Almost overnight, I became deeply familiar with a whole range of emotions that I had previously only observed second-hand. Unfortunately, when the time came to actually deal with these emotions, I found myself wholly unprepared to do so. I thought I would be ready for it, having known from an early age that my dad was much older than most and would probably not be around as long.

Um, wrong. Whether he was 85 or 35, it still hurt like living hell when the time came to deal with his mortality. Ditto my grandmother.

Why didn’t anyone ever tell me it would suck this much???

The problem is this: in my experience, no one ever actually talks about death. We allude to it by using euphemisms or referring to it indirectly, but none of us ever actually talk about the actuality of death or dying, how it feels, what it means… none of it.

Instead people uncomfortably ask you about how your loved one is doing, or how you’re doing, then they pat you on the back/arm/shoulder and quickly change the subject, relieved to have done their duty. And off you go, feeling worse for having alienated yet another person, yet not knowing what else to do. In the end, your grief becomes internalized, and is forced to find another outlet – many of which are much more destructive than the original emotion.

On a larger scale, our culture has emulated this internal process by completely isolating death and illness, shoving it all into tidy boxes marked “Hospital” or “Graveyard” and not letting it intrude elsewhere. Problem is, this doesn’t get rid of the issue on a societal level, either. It just makes it all the more difficult for those of us left alive to actually deal with the emotions brought up by these Big Issues.

So how do we deal? I think the answer is this: community. Since society at large denies us an outlet for our grief, the only way that I can see to stop this destructive internalization is to have some other environment where you feel comfortable enough to externalize your emotions.

That’s a long way of saying: you can’t do this alone. So don’t even try.

Recently I watched my future Jewish family-in-law deal with the loss of a beloved uncle. During his final illness, they all dropped everything and came to his house, sat by his bedside, cooked for everyone, played with the kids, shared stories and laughter and tears. Following his death, they sat shiva for him for an entire week, continuing to share every emotion that came up, regardless of its intensity or propriety.

In this manner, they collectively experienced and dealt with their grief. Moreover, instead of trying to pretend like things could go on like before, they acknowledged and welcomed their grief and its presence in all of their lives. As a somewhat impartial observer, I couldn’t help but compare this to my own recent experiences. It all seemed a great deal more healthy and realistic than the usual way of doing it, i.e. shutting everything into a box.

Since losing Baba, I have tried to grieve both ways. I tried the business as usual approach, which A) didn’t make me feel any better and B) made me massively destructive both to myself and those around me.

For the past week, I have tried the other approach: I have sat with my grief, I have let it run its course through me and around me, I have spent most of the day in bed wearing my pajamas and surrounded by Kleenex. (This latter was mostly because I was also extremely ill, but the two seemed to go hand in hand. It was like my entire body was in mourning, with my nasal passages being the most enthusiastic participants.)

And which felt better? Quite frankly, although it felt like total shit at the time, I have to say it was the latter.

I have sat my shiva, and I feel better. My heart, and my nasal passages, have yet to calm down completely. But somehow I know that the worst is over, the darkness is past, and I can continue my life with a new hope and a deep, loving memory of the one I have lost.

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