I wonder if people enmeshed in palliative care become desensitized to death the way those of us who work in human rights do after we’ve seen so many awful things humans tend to do to one another. Our fights for justice, I think, are sometimes one step removed from the human face of it, because they have to be. Desensitizing death in those cases is the only way we can get back up the next morning and keep at the work without going crazy.
Death is normalized in modern America (maybe it always has been, though)–and not just to those who work in human rights or palliative care. It’s around every corner, lurking, as a metaphysical reality closely linked to the “real” thing, as if the two could ever be separated. And it’s so present and so frequent that we live as if it’s not there, setting aside appropriate amounts of time we’ve determined are “normal” to give it attention and avoiding or ignoring it the remainder of the time.
And I don’t mean, I don’t think, the car accident you read about today or the violence on the news or the drug overdose, and all manner of everyday occurrences that bring us that one step closer to visualizing and understanding death as a reality in our lives. Instead, when I say that death lurks around the corner or that it’s frequent and present, I think I’m referring to the way it so deeply influences how we view and even live life without ever even once considering any of that as having anything to do with death.
We all experience that influence differently from trying to control everything that happens or doesn’t happen to us to cherishing special moments with loved ones to the way all the risks we take as well as the ones we avoid really are just another way of living out how we interpret the short time we’ve been gifted, granted, or graced.
This is another one of those things that’s like, well, yeah now that it’s written out, it doesn’t seem complicated or deep. There’s no profound thought in recognizing that the way we live our life is tied to our expectations, fears, or to what faith may say about how we handle death. To me, though, it’s less about trying to find something profound in there and more about just trying to wrap my head around taking pause long enough to ask, really ask of myself, “How is death currently influencing my life?”
There’s that old Platonic adage, that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” or something along those lines, but the examined life is perhaps, very simply, just death–there’s nothing more fundamental that we have to confront and cope with than death, be it our own mortality or the world’s.
I’ve been upset the last few weeks that every time I think of my sweet puggle, Daisy Mae, since her death a few months ago, the most pristine, vivid image I have of her isn’t her first Christmas or her sleeping soundly on the couch or cuddling with her in bed: the most vivid thing that comes to mind are those last few traumatic moments as she took her final breaths. That’s not to say I’ve lost the good moments. It’s just that I wish her death wasn’t HDMI resolution while the other moments are 1990’s antenna television, if that makes sense.
And it’s not just Daisy. The most vivid image I have of my grandfather isn’t the hours we spent painting together or taking walks in the woods or sitting on his couch talking about the war: the most vivid image I have of him is feeding him peas in the hospital maybe a week before he died.
Maybe that’s not death so much as it is trauma: the most vivid memories I have in my life are the most traumatic ones. In some ways, those are sometimes also the most unclear or the most easily warped while also being vivid. I’m not sure how to explain that: what is remembered is vivid but the construction of it seems a little loosey-goosey: I think I know exactly what happened during x event, but do I?
Trauma is trauma, though, because there’s a kind of death experienced: a sharp shift, paradigmatic, where there’s a clear before and after the event in question. And there’s probably nothing more crystal clear in having a before and after than maybe a birth or a death, all of which are traumatic in some shape or form.
Then you throw into the mix that all forms of ritual in the religious experience seem rather obsessed with reenacting that before/after dichotomy–whether it’s in the early naturalistic sense of before and after the flood or before and after the harvest or before and after sunset or sunrise, or whether it’s a more modern theological take of before and after the resurrection of the dead or before and after forgiveness or before and after grace.
The whole world, our entire existence, is oriented around this transformative moment that no one really knows what to do with even if they say they do. Beware, in fact, of the ones who say they do. They’re just overcompensating their fears with false assurances rather than embracing, with humility, the scarier but perhaps more precious reality that the unknown remains just that.
Maybe normalizing death isn’t just a coping mechanism. Maybe it’s also a kind of acceptance. You throw your arms up in the air, say something like, ’tis what ’tis, and then you move on and go about your day, because the real beauty surrounding normalizing death is that, even in the face of it, life–for someone, something, somewhere–goes on.