Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Let's talk about death.

For the next week I'm going to blog about the subject of death, bereavement, end of life planning and living life fully. This is a subject I want to fully immerse myself with, become comfortable in talking about and deal with my own issues and ideas surrounding death and living life fully.

Let me begin with addressing my knowledge of death. To many people, I understand that death is a rumour. I live in a culture and have been raised in a culture where death no longer occurs at home. No one in my family passed at home nor do I have any knowledge of friends or family members of friends passing at home. Death seems to be segregated into hospital rooms, hidden behind curtains or palliative care wards. Most of my friends and many family members have never seen a dead body and death is very rarely a topic that comes up.

I have no early first memory in becoming aware of death. That is to say I don't have an experience that suddenly made me aware of death. My earliest experience I can remember is when I was approximately the age of three. Every morning one of my parents would come into my bedroom and feed my two goldfish that lived in a fishbowl atop of my dresser. While I was not in my bedroom both of my parents entered at separate times and fed my fish unbeknownst to the other. This overfeeding caused both goldfish to die. I remember seeing them floating on their sides at the top of the fishbowl and immediately felt sad. My dad explained to me what happened and I felt betrayed by my parents, how could their simple oversight lead to such a disastrous outcome.

Several years later, in the summer between grade three and four a childhood friend of mine passed away in an accidental death. I remember seeing the news reports of the rescue efforts and felt like I was watching a movie, I remember thinking that just like in a movie everything would work out for him and he would be fine. He was not fine and I attended his funeral that summer shortly before school began in September. This was the first time I saw a dead body, it was nearly as frightening as the film "Stand by me" where a group of young boys discover a dead body in the woods. In fact, I thought he looked completely normal, like he was just sleeping. He had a vest on in his casket and at that time I remember thinking in my child head that he looked funny wearing the vest, it was not at all like what he would wear in life. I remember the vest so clearly because I was watching his chest for movement, as kids you pretend to be a corpse and you can always tell the faker because they're breathing, the chest rises and lowers. He was not faking.

I did not cry at the funeral but I felt bad for his family. I didn't know how sisters or parents well, I had only played at his house once or twice. I remember he had very beautiful older sisters and I have no memory of ever seeing them at the funeral or after, the same goes with his parents. Children at school rumoured that his parents broke up, most certainly they postulated from the stress that losing a child had on their relationship. Now, I don't know that for a fact but pause for a moment to think about how other children in grade four recognized the impact of the loss of a child. Now, it is more than possible that they may have heard these comments from their parents, but still even then, they heard it, understood it, internalized it (in that they deemed it necessary to share with their friends) and propagated it by sharing the idea with classmates. I also quickly came to realize the phenomenon of people wishing to attach themselves to the drama of our classmates death. Classmates that knew my deceased friend but didn't really hang out with him suddenly were his best friends and had such deep connections with him that his apparition visited them at night while they were in bed saying "goodbye". At the time this frustrated me, I had a lot of valuable memories about my friend but never spoke out about them because he was gone and those were moments that we shared, that I had to remember of him. Those are the stories I would have liked to hear from classmates.

Shortly thereafter I was nine and my grandfather passed away. I remember him fondly. My fathers father, Timothy, for whom I'm named after lived like most elderly Canadians who can, in Florida during the winter. I was not able to say goodbye to him nor to attend his funeral. A few years later my grandmother passed away in her hospital room. A curtain separated the two bed hospital room. Her hospital bed was beside the window and I sat on the other side of the room, the curtain was drawn and I looked away out of respect for her as she passed. I remember catching a glimpse out of the corner of the curtain where it meets the wall and saw her face just after she gasped a last breath and passed. Her mouth was wide open, her skin colour was grey and the once delicate woman with a dry sense of humour and sharp attitude was instantaneously gone. I was okay with the passing of my grandmother, I saw her for some time in the hospital and was able to spend time with her before she passed. She was ill but had a good attitude, I remember her having my mother help her fill out her voting information, her last civil duty as a Canadian. I remember her justifying her voting decision in the federal election to my mother and I laughed to myself. This period of transition was important I believe, there was no shock, I was told she is not well and she will pass.

For some time after this I thought of death as something I do not want to happen to me. The end, black nothingness, a place where I will no longer be present for my family and friends, where they will no longer her there for me, somewhere scary that I will go completely by myself. From a young age I refuted the notion of heaven, hell, reincarnation or the after life in general. I simply didn't believe it and didn't feel it. More on that later.

At the age of seventeen a close friend of mine once again passed. I remember him being sick and going away for the weekend to a hospital far away that dealt with his specific heart condition. The last time I saw him was Thursday night or Friday during class, heard a little bit from him over the weekend and then early Monday morning, I had awoken before my alarm went off, was laying in bed enjoying the sensation of waking slowly when my phone range. I answered, his mother cried and told me that he he had passed away in the hospital. In the moment I felt awful for his mother, I think it was my gut reaction of hearing her cry and be overtly hurt. She was a tough woman, a single parent who ran a successful business with a nice home and refined tastes. She was cool and good looking. I was now seeing a totally different side of her, I could hear the anguish in her voice and I tried the best I could to comfort her over the phone. She asked two things of me, first if I could call our mutual friends and let them know and second if I could play a Dave Matthews song (his favourite band) at the funeral. I humbly agreed.

My friend was a devout fan of the high school band I played in, he helped us book shows, showed up to all of them and was in general a super fan. I never knew if this was because he genuinely loved the music or if it was because he was just a good friend. Regardless, it was appreciated.

The funeral was sombre, a traditional Catholic ceremony with a closed casket there were many glorified stories of our friend and many tears shed. We had a conversation in the parking lot conversing about how this is what he would have wanted for his family, our friend a self-professed atheist reeled against everything that organized religion stood for. However, he was sensitive and deeply concerned about how his family would see his death. I believe this is a particularly progressive individual who had already thought about his own death because he had previously been close to death. As I mentioned he had a heart condition and required a transplant a year before.

Him and I would talk late at night as I would noodle around on my guitar and he would sketch, we would talk about philosophy, girls, our favourite movies (I wouldn't want you to get the wrong impression and believe our conversations were all about deep subjects) and of course death. We would talk about his heart transplant and the little bit that he knew about the donor, how he felt affected by her generosity and that he found he was more sensitive to people and empathic. He identified this as a change in his being due to having someone else's heart in his body, he believed he was taking on some of this woman's attributes (or at least what he believed were her attributes). I listened with awe and an unquestioning ear. I interpreted his new found empathy for everyone and everything as little to do with the characteristics of the woman who gave him her heart (literally) but that my friend has a near death experience and was now living his life with zeal.

My friends death affected me and my friends deeply, I felt angry at times like his life was stolen from him. There were two rows of pews. We, a group of his closest friends, the "guys" sat in the front left row of pews in the funeral home. His closest family members were to sit in the right pew but weren't there yet. We reminisced about our friend, shared stories and shook our heads at some of the ridiculous situations we had been in with him over the last few years. Our friend had a habit of exaggerating himself, no matter what you had done or what great feat you had achieved our friend always had one to outdo you. More often than not he would start his response to you with "Oh yea, well I've.." or "Yea but I've.." We all used to roll our eyes at him but we remembered his stories fondly. As we sat sombrely on this pew in front of our friends closed casket, waiting for the funeral home to fill a silence fell over us. I said gently "Yea, well I died." We all laughed and cried a bit.

I still miss my friend all the time,

1 comment:

  1. Your friend sounds like he was pretty amazing. Thanks for sharing your story of him.

    Unlike yourself, my experience with death has been really distant. Nuclear unit aside, my family is all in Germany. So whenever a relative (so far only elderly) has passed away, I didn't really have to face or acknowledge it. Might seem nice, but because I haven't been able to attend funerals there's a bit of a disconnect, making closure more difficult. I know cognitively, for example, that my Omi has passed away. But because I didn't attend any services, for all I know, she's still sitting in a lawn chair somewhere in Germany bopping her stockinged feet and humming along to German folk music. (Not sure now why she sat in a lawn chair indoors, but she did).

    I also wonder how the grieving process has changed for people now that, as you pointed out, death doesn't really occur in homes anymore. I feel like alternate settings are so clinical and cold, but selfishly wonder if it isn't nice to not have that memory at home.

    Thanks for touching on a difficult topic - I look forward to reading more.