On a warm Wednesday night in the foothills of Northern California, 20 men and women gathered to share their stories about death. Death of loved ones, death of friends, and death in general as it has impacted their lives.
Many faced the subject with apprehension. When invited to select a single word to describe their feelings about the event at the start of the evening, words like “terrified,” “ambivalent,” and “apprehensive” were shared by the group.
Yet, as the group split into smaller groups of 4-5 people, animated chatter and even laughter could be heard echoing across the back patio and into the house. One group even nicknamed itself “a sisterhood of death,” a friendship forged in the furnace of talking about one of the most difficult and taboo topics in our culture.
Death is so different for everyone. Some face it, some try to run away, some fight it, some come to accept it as a part of life. Over the course of the evening, we heard it all. The slow decline of parents and grandparents, the sudden, shooting-star-like death of a young person, that momentarily blinds you with its intensity and sadness, the unexpected illness that carried away a spouse.
We have so many rituals around death: from sitting shiva in the Jewish tradition, to bringing large quantities of food to the grieving family (“Methodists,” one participant assured us, “always bring food.”) Losing a loved one is, as another participant put it, a club that no one wants to join. Yet it is important for those who have experienced death to commiserate and “show up” for those experiencing it for the first time.
A family friend of one participant showed up with grocery bags of food, explaining that “you have to have something to give everyone to eat and drink.” Sure enough, people began arriving at the house, just looking to talk about the person who had died and to be with those they left behind. Grief makes people hungry, and food can be a source of comfort.
Death, even when it is expected, has a surreal quality to it. Both in instances when the body was present and when it wasn’t, people were struck by how unreal the whole experience was. A once prized wedding ring, set with diamonds, lost its value with the death of the wearer who had treasured it for many years. A woman related being a young girl and seeing her aunt laid out in the house during a wake, unsure of what death meant even as she witnessed it firsthand.
Death, ultimately, is a loss of control. It happens to you and you do not get a say in when or how it does. But finding ways to humanize it in the interim, to support others going through it, to make your wishes known to loved ones about what you want at the end of life, are all important ways to reclaim the end of life experience and make it one we share.
Another word someone shared at the beginning of the event was “alone.” Hopefully, this is one word we can separate from the end of life experience.
[Photo Credit: Sam Caplat on Flickr via Creative Commons 2.0]