The Taboo Topic of Death
Death, With All It's Baggage
How unfortunate in this day and age, death is still a taboo topic. We don't discuss it, we don't talk about what it brings up...abandonment, fear, pain or the desire to die ourselves with the thought of another's death. In this society, we seem to have a handle on funeral arrangements, wills, estate sales and attorney costs. Our extended family has become the retirement community, convalescent centers and hospice. I am not belittling these organizations by any means; they are the replacements for what use to be family. I understand that the definition of family has changed over the years. We no longer have the time, resources, the accessible distance from or connectedness to our families. So, instead of finding ways to stay connected in life and in death, we avoid both. This of course, sheds light on where I stand with my family and the topic of death.
I have been afraid of my parents dying since I was five. You see, my parents were older than all my friends parents, so naturally they were going to drop dead at any moment. They were both in their late thirties...ancient. Nowadays, late thirties is a perfectly normal age to be having kids. My mom had me just before her thirty-seventh birthday. I was of course, totally reliant on my parents, as with any child. How would I survive without them? I am sure that I was thinking this, on some level, when I came flying out of the womb. I believed I would not survive if they died. My parents were totally healthy, active and full of life. We took vacations, skied, swam, played tennis and they golfed. There was no indication that their lives were going to abruptly end, nor did I know anyone else with this malady. Yet, the thought of losing them was always in the back of my mind...if it wasn't staring me in the face.
I remember sitting on the top of the stairs as a child, waiting for my mom to get out of the shower. I was beside myself hysterical, feeling alone and completely out of sorts. My house didn't feel like my house. The lighting was wrong and no one could console me. I felt as if I was in the twilight zone. I was breathing too fast and crying; I'm sure I freaked my mom out. Today I know it was a panic attack, but back then it was the worst fear I had felt. I kept asking myself why I was on this earth and where did I come from. It was as if knowing this would stop the enormous fear I was experiencing..who and what am I and why was I chosen to be here. My parents were my life line to this life and I knew there was no way around losing my them; I could not stop their deaths from happening. I needed my mom to physically hold me right then and there or I was going to cease to exist. Pretty lofty thoughts for a young child.
Now, I didn't grow up in a religion, nor do I feel I was deprived for not. However, I think a foundation of some sort of higher power would have been beneficial at the time and possibly helped with those questions and the fear I had. It has since been suggested that I relied on my parents as some rely on a higher power. So in essence, my parents dying would be the loss of that higher power and the removal of my stability as a human on this earth. They were the ones that had me, wanted me and loved me. What a cruel joke to take them away from me. Now I tend to jump way to far into the future with ideas that seem way too much for me to handle. For instance, how am I possibly going to be able to do a thesis for my masters degree? My friends suggested I concentrate on the AA degree that I was working on at the time. Get my point? So, I may someday have the tools, courage and faith, to handle my parents passing. Who thinks of this at the age of five on? My most memorable dream was the sudden crumpling of a white piece of paper standing on end. I would wake up crying from the ferocity of that paper being destroyed. I tend to believe that was symbolic of life ending as I knew it.
It was not from a lack of trying to fit into a religion, that I didn't have one. I grew up in Utah and was surrounded by Mormons...alas, I was not. Utah is the state they landed in, as it was the state my dad was transferred to by his job. I was born a year after my parents moved there, so it was all I knew. It was difficult to feel apart of, as I was on the outskirts of a whole community. On one hand, it was not something I really wanted nor believed in, but what child doesn't want to fit in with friends...the pickings were slim if you were looking for any other denomination or lack of. There were extensions, I guess you could call them, of the church called wards sprinkled throughout the city. There was even a bible study building attached to my junior high. I tried ward basketball, Sunday school and even sat and waited for my neighbors to finish family home evening which occurred every Wednesday. But it did not stick. What I envied was the importance of family. Not that we didn't do things together as a family, but I was always a comparer. I look back now and wonder, what went on behind their closed doors. What I didn't like was the exclusion of people that weren't of their religion. I was never good enough without the title. Suffice it to say, I gave up trying. I was even at my friends one day and I said out loud I didn't want to be Mormon. The mom asked me to leave. Her daughter said that was ridiculous. I always remembered my friend sticking up for me. Isn't that acceptance suppose to be a part of faith?
I went to another church, this time the Presbyterians. That is what my parents were, not that it was practiced a lot. I had gone to preschool there, tried Sunday school and after school activities. Again, I didn't feel apart of and didn't want to. I was so uncomfortable being in large groups of kids as it was. I felt like another outsider, not having participated regularly. Maybe if I was made to go consistently as a child, I would have fit in more.
What was unfortunate was, no one talked about death. It is a part of life and we deny its very existence until it is in front of us; whether it is a family member, friend or our own mortality. In other cultures, I believe it is embraced, celebrated and a part of life. Even our media and celebrities go to extremes to ignore getting older. Facelifts and botox until we have no expression at all, seems to be the norm. What's with not knowing if someone is having a feeling because their face doesn't move...yes, very attractive, I think I want that when I'm old. I have to admit, I find the vampire movies very appealing though, specifically for the reason that they don't die of old age. So much better just to have your head removed in one quick motion.
My parents are now in their late seventies and still alive and kicking. However, their age is starting to show and the trips to the doctors are more frequent as the interest in doing a great many things has decreased. They tire easily, recuperate slower from sickness and surgery and their over all appearance is more fragile. My fear of losing them has again resurfaced. I don't think it has ever truly gone away. What will I do? I know everyone loses parents and eventually dies themselves...a part of life. I would like to not feel like the world is ending because they pass and leave me behind. Not that I want to avoid grief, or maybe I do. Maybe it is the idea that I still won't survive without them. I will slip away to avoid feeling and not want to come back. The relationship with my higher power is still difficult for me.
I am at the age now where losing a parent becomes common place. We face our own mortality because there is no longer anyone standing between you and death. The buffer is gone when your parents are. You are next in line. We stand and watch, helpless, as our parents fade and become the shell of the person they once were. I dread that almost more than their passing. The strong, opinionated, sturdy, smart, seemingly fearless caretakers that raised you, are now the ones needing to be taken care of. Such is the circle of life and the growth we acquire from it. There is nothing easy about getting old. With age comes wisdom however, and I wouldn't trade that for the fountain of youth. I am comfortable with myself, for the most part, and I never that confidence growing up. I walked around as if I had no skin. I was sensitive to everything and everyone from the get go. I had no defense against the outside world, as I looked for acceptance from anyone who looked likely to give it.
My other issue, is how to accept my parents fear of dying. I assume they have fear. My mother struggles with the concept of a God. She says she doesn't believe in anything, yet she reads all about it, looking, I think, for something to hold onto. My dad is harder to read because he just doesn't say anything. I have projected my fear onto them. I suppose I could bring up the taboo topic, but it would make their mortality all too real and I may find out how much they fear death. How awkward anyway...how would they feel about me bringing up their deaths? How would I feel if my daughter was to approach me with the topic. Would it look like I was just waiting or would they feel the need to take care of my fear. I also could find out they aren't afraid, but I don't know if the risk is worth it. I have to take some kind of action soon, before I live to regret not saying or doing anything. Sitting in the fear has always been worse than walking through it. Can I do that with death too?
I look back at the loss in my life and realize I have survived it all. When I was young, my dog was hit by car. Since then, I have lost a lot of special pets, some violently, some disappeared and some died in my arms. I had many acquaintances and few friends in my drinking days. Over the years I have been kept abreast of many deaths in that crowd. Most have directly or indirectly died from the disease of alcoholism. My aunt had cancer and I watch the doctors take her off life support. I was drinking at that time and utilized alcohol to numb the fear and pain. Lately, it seems there is a death a month. A friend I did a lot of healing work with, just lost her battle with colon cancer at the age of 46 and another friend just lost her husband from complications with shingles (If you are over fifty, get vaccinated). It has been a struggle and maybe the answer is to continue to talk about it. My ultimate goal is to be fully connected and trusting of my higher power. Entering this world, we are caught by another's hands, hopefully with love, if we are fortunate. We alone, experience our own unique feelings of loss...we also come into this world alone and go out the same. I hope to be comfortable some day with my mortality. I would like to look death in the eye and embrace it with a sense of willingness and peace. The fight is an inevitable loss. Maybe we aren't alone coming or going after all. I would like to think I have angels that guide me in and out of this life. I certainly have been given angels in this life; they are called family and friends. I do know I can't take them with me either. I don't suppose any of them would volunteer...
I am older now...older than when my parents were, when they were ancient. I have a child of my own that I hope finds comfort in a higher power she can trust and lean on. If and when she comes to me with questions and fears about her own mortality and others, I hope to be able to be truthful in my feelings. They say if you have faith, you have no fear. I don't believe that. I believe fear is what drives us to look for faith. If we had no fear, why would we need a higher power. There is a saying...God doesn't give you more than you can handle, but he gives you more than you can fight. So in essence, you need him. Acceptance is the key... I think I will continue to pray for acceptance and trust I can lean on something bigger than me and I don't cease to exist when I depart this life. The child within can be taken care of regardless of what happens and she will continue on. She will be loved wether she chooses to see it or not. I choose to think that she will.