Stars and the Final Frontier

I reacted unexpectedly to a line from “Star System,” a poem by Clive James. “Time is a cliff/You come to in the dark” he wrote, and I became instantly aware of how difficult it was to control my facial muscles as I fought a lighting strike of emotions in the middle of a hotel lobby. In the past three years, seven people I know have died—four of them under the age of forty. Needless to say, processing all that turned out to be a trip down psychology lane, over the cuckoo’s nest, down the rabbit hole, and through a mental house of horrors.

Everyone grows up with a different view of death and loss. For some, it’s simply a natural component of life. It’s a daily occurrence, and dead bodies are no longer shocking. For others, pets, grandparents and loosely phrased discussions of “Heaven” are the extent of their framework regarding the journey back to dust.

I grew up with what I thought was merely a factual view of death. Certainly I was no stranger to it. By the time I graduated from high school, I’d been to funerals for an aunt, a close family friend, a grandma, two of my friends’ parents, two classmates and countless others. My context for most of these services was fairly simple: They lived, and I knew them, and—due to my family’s beliefs in God and an afterlife—I would see them again. Many people believe this, and I don’t think it’s necessarily harmful, although I no longer subscribe to the idea of deities, angels or eternal celestial residence.

In any case, each death held “learning moments,” in which someone said or did something that changed prior existing constructs within my brain’s “death schema.” For example, people are often hesitant to talk about a recently deceased loved one (after the funeral), for fear of upsetting the surviving family and friends. This is not only bogus, but often completely counterproductive for those trying to grieve, and one might venture, is even a bit disrespectful to the person now gone. My clearest memory of someone striking down this mythology was when a friend’s dad died on her sister’s birthday.

For the next few weeks following his death, I found myself accidentally referencing things that would “remind” her of her father. I complimented her shirt, and she told me “Thanks. It’s my dad’s.” Still not used to him being gone, I replied, “Tell him he has cute taste in clothes,” rather jokingly, then remembered—in the way that someone feels the shock of a sudden drop on a roller coaster—that she couldn’t tell him anything anymore. Hating myself and fearing that she would burst into tears, I apologized profusely. She just smiled. “It’s okay,” she said. Later that week, I cracked a time travel joke and inserted a line from ‘Back to the Future.’ Her face lit up. “Michael J. Fox was my dad’s favorite actor!” she said. “I think it’s because he was short and funny, like him.” Again, I feared that this might somehow turn her into a puddle at some point, but it didn’t.

As the months went on, I noticed something strange. She brought up her dad often. She talked about things he liked and memories she had, and it occurred to me that true grieving involves a lot of intentional, mindful remembrance. Unsurprisingly, this friend who was wise and mature beyond her years not only honored her father’s memory but was able to successfully navigate the process of losing him so suddenly. Since then, I’ve made it a point to remember that many people need to talk about the deceased, rather than just “move on.” Truthfully, no one just moves on after they lose someone they once depended upon and loved, even though it may appear that way.

Only a few weekends ago, another friend of mine reminded me of a saying regarding death: “You die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.” I’d heard that before; He hadn’t. We talked off and on for the next hour about what it really meant, and if that was the driving force behind those seeking notoriety and the others who seek to create a family line. Is it philosophical or biological or both? We never reached any conclusion, but ended up listening to the rest of The Nerdist podcast on which the saying was mentioned.

Another misconception that people seem to have about death is that it’s best to keep everyone comfortable after the fact, to just sweep it under the rug. Suppose for a moment that my mention of Michael J. Fox had instead triggered tears from my friend. Would that necessarily be a bad thing? After all, sometimes the memory of someone who isn’t her anymore might naturally cause an overwhelming sense of sadness. That’s healthy. Grieving isn’t over when the memorial service ends and everyone walks out to the parking lot to find their car.

Religious sympathy cards in particular often contain verses meant to sustain the person with images of Heaven and the Great Hereafter, reminding the reader that “God has a plan.” Whatever your beliefs are, and no matter how tender-hearted your intentions, I would argue that skipping straight to talk of Heaven and divine orchestration is unwise. Why? It fails to take into account the most important reason why we attend funerals: We lost someone. We will miss someone. If you believe you will see someone again, in a very long time, it does not dull the pain of the moment. The reason Heaven is such a comfort for so many is because the idea of a final disconnect can be agonizing. We need to give ourselves permission to address that loss and discuss the person whom we miss. Phony or immediate “comforts” be damned.

With the weather finally giving even the residents of gloomy Seattle a glimpse of hope for a glorious summer, I realize that death is hardly a timely topic. But, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, it is one of two things certain in life. The other certainty? Taxes.


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