March 22, 2005
Living with Death
There are a lot of ways that people deal with death. Most often what we are feeling is a loss of someone close to us. Or anger at the way a good personís life was taken too soon. When we are not going through it ourselves itís easy to say what a good, bad, right or wrong way to deal with it is, or even if Ďdealingí with it is an appropriate word to use, as if something is wrong with us and needs to be fixed.
I know in my mind that when people die from this physical life, they donít just disappear but are transformed into another state. The body is dissolved and the spirit or soul goes on. But thatís not always comforting to us when we continue to live without the person that died. All kinds of thoughts go through my mind, like recognizing my own mortality and how I donít really know when my time will be up.
Sometimes the way people die is very tragic to us and seems unfair. Young children die of a disease, or a mother in her 30ís gets breast cancer and dies, leaving her children behind or a kind, gentle man who is really doing wonderful things in the neighborhood gets gunned down a block from his house by a person in a neighborhood gang. This week a young man shot nine fellow students in Red Lake. It is tragic because it seems like they should have their whole lives ahead of them yet. But we donít always get a full life, whatever that length of time is supposed to be.
I donít know Ďwhyí death happens, can anyone really explain it? Can we really understand it until we go through it ourselves? Many people have tried to explain it. Sometimes these explanations can be a comfort to us. For instance, understanding that itís all part of the circle of life is one way of explaining it. All living things are born, live and grow, then die and become the seed for future life. We see this in the way plants grow from a seed, then reach itís maturity, releases itís own seed, then die away, become mulch, which fertilizes future growth or provides food for other living things. It all happens so naturally.
But sometimes even if we can grasp and understand the meaning of life, or the intricacies of all living things in the galaxy itís not comforting at all because we are experiencing pain from a loss.
I do know that we are designed to have feelings. We bond with other people, we love, we hate, and we overflow with happiness and sometimes with sadness. This is also natural. We are certainly capable of emotions and do experience them, whether we admit it or not. In my experience, itís not healthy to deny our emotional experiences. That to me is a lie, which leads to more pain and suffering although we may not recognize that pain and suffering as the consequences of not living truthfully.
Up until a few years ago I did not recognize or allow for this in my life. I never made the connection between living truthfully and allowing myself to have emotions, especially sadness, grief, loss, anger, and so on, which many people often consider Ďnegativeí emotions that need to be eliminated. There was a trigger event that led me to my way of living with death.
I might have told some people about my experiences with being a Scout Leader or a youth leader. But I have mostly kept it to myself. For about 7 years I put my heart and soul and resources into running the program and working with the boys and their parents. This was a great experience, but also overwhelming. Even with the few others that were true hard-chargers, we couldnít maintain a quality program without sacrificing something. We kept trying to get the parents involved, but it was difficult. As a result all of us leaders put in heroic efforts to keep it going. By the time I stopped doing it, I was dedicating 3 or 4 nights per week working on something Scouting related, plus monthly campouts and a weeklong summer camp every summer. When I finally stopped doing it I wasnít relieved. I was sad. I was worried what would happen to these boys, and I was feeling guilty for stopping. When I told the few dedicated leaders that I was going to stop leading this unit, they were also devastated, but realizing the short-staffed situation we were in, no-one wanted to take over my position. The whole unit folded with about 40 boys losing out. But I couldnít continue working the way I was, and I saw the deterioration of the quality of our program so I did what I had to do. It was very sad. I was so involved, then it came to a stop. All of it. I didnít know what I was experiencing until one of my coworkers said to me, ďYou have to give yourself time to mourn.Ē That hit me like a ton of bricks. That was it, I was mourning my loss. When we pour our love into other people or things, we feel a loss when they are no longer part of our lives. I lost about 40 members of my family at once. I went through depression, anxiety, sadness, grief, whatever you want to call it, and didnít understand why I wasnít relieved to be done with it. I had to go on living with a large part of me missing.
Mentally I knew that these boys and their families would all move on. Some would find other programs to join. They would all grow up and become adults without my aid. But emotionally I was mourning. When I finally allowed myself to mourn and recognize and feel the loss, I eventually accepted it and was healed of my pain. And the healing process was probably faster and more complete than if I tried to deny myself this loss. I didnít just deal with it; I learned how to experience loss and to live with it.
And just as I experienced a deep loss, those boys did also. They all handled it in their own ways. I still think itís an unfortunate and untimely death, maybe even unfair to the boys. But it happened. It takes time to heal hurt like that.
About 3 years into the program as a leader, an old-time scouter named Bob Plant passed away. Everyone knew him in the scouting world and I could hardly claim I knew him better than they did. I was only involved in scouting for a short time, but he was involved for something unbelievable like 30 years. Maybe Iím forgetting the actual number, but it was a lot. He was well respected and helped to mentor a lot of boys and adult leaders. Bob was a woodcarver and he gave me my first woodcarving knife and took the time to show me how to use it, which I still use. But now his handwritten name is worn off the handle and the blade is worn down slightly from keeping it razor sharp as he taught me. He was also the man who got me into Scouts by telling me that he believed I would be a great leader. I spent the next seven years trying to improve my skills and myself, and be able to show him he was right. When Bob passed away, I was very sad. I felt the loss of a close friend and mentor, which he was to many people.
The boys in our scouting unit had to learn about death also. I had to set an example. Often at the same time we are trying to cope with loss and continue living our lives, we are expected to comfort others who are also experiencing a loss. What do we say that can comfort them, when we are not comforted ourselves? As far as I can see, the best answer is, itís ok to feel sad and cry about it if we want. We canít always explain why people have to die at any specific time, but we can allow ourselves to recognize and feel our pain as we begin the healing process. It helps to allow ourselves to mourn while we continue living.
And then there is the recognition of our own mortality. When we see someone close to us die, we recognize at some level that it could be us. Especially if we are older and see someone younger die. I have taken this to heart. I realize Iím lucky to be alive. I could have been a victim of a shooting or have been hit by a car, and I still could get cancer or have some other complications like heart disease. When I see someone close to me die, I know itís real and inevitable. But thatís not always easy to digest. When I was younger I had a mentality that I was invincible. Life was an endless summer. But experiencing the loss of someone we love is a rude awakening. I remember when my Grandmother died of Cancer. It was a traumatic experience for me. I was in elementary school when it happened and I had to help take care of her when they moved a hospital bed into their house. I didnít realize at the time that she was home to die and that the cancer would never be Ďcured.í I did not know how courageous my grandmother was facing that and not being able to tell me that she was going away. I cried a lot then. When we face our own mortality, most of the concerns of this life seem to be a little less important. My grandmother tried to spend as much time with us as possible, but she was so sick and weak and the radiation was killing her. When she was at home in that hospital bed, I helped feed her and helped change her bedpan. I think in retrospect that was one of the most difficult times of my life. I did learn something about helping someone maintain their dignity while dying. My grandmother was embarrassed to have her grandson help her eat and use the bathroom. And she didnít want to be remembered that way. I also learned that I would die someday also. But at that age I didnít think it would be for a long time, at least until I was old like grandma. But later as I grew I realized Grandma wasnít really that old when she died. My parents started having children when they were really young, right out of high school basically. But my older brother and I spent a lot of time in those younger years with my grandma and grandpa. I have a lot of favorite memories with my grandma. After my grandma died, I spent a lot of time with him learning how he carried on without grandma. He taught me how to make malto-meal, because that was one of the meals he could make on his own and it became one of our favorites together. I wonder how many meals he ate with Malt-o-meal and buttered bread. He also made a lot of oyster stew because he loved it and knew how to make it. I learned to love that too. Grandma used to make that.
Over the years Iíve experienced other losses and have lived on without someone I loved. I know that even with the medical technology advances of today, that I could still have an accident on my bike and die, or get shot by some crazed gunman, or get caught in a building that a terrorist decides to use for a statement. But unlike before when I was afraid of my own death, a subtle acceptance has crept over me. Before, fear made me Ďhandleí death more like something to be avoided at all costs. Now I have learned how to make Malt-O-Meal and Oyster Stew and get on with life. That doesnít mean I donít miss that person, it means that I accept their death as part of life and know I donít have to fear it. I only hope I can be courageous like my grandmother when I go. Or if I die from a freakish accident or act of violence, then let it be quick and painless. I would still like to maintain my dignity I think, and not be remembered as weak and unable to care for myself. In the mean time, I know that life in this form could be very short, and how I live with death is just as important as how I lived with the people I loved when they were alive. I accept it but still cry and allow myself to mourn. I miss them and keep memories of them in my mind and heart. I donít stop loving them but I realize that we wonít be interacting in the same way anymore. I no longer fear their death as I did before and I have learned to appreciate the time right now that I have to live my life and try to make the most of it.
Posted by carl1236 at March 22, 2005 5:54 PM | Life