D is for Death

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This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project. It’s the first one for the letter D.

My interest in death is a relatively recent one. While I sometimes joke that I might have become a gothic if I was willing to devote more time to perfecting my appearance (clothing, make-up, hair), I could never identify with this subculture’s obsession with death. Sure, I enjoy a good vampire story every now and then (not that vampires are technically dead), and I’ve worn my share of skulls and crossbones, but that’s about it. Death just wasn’t anything that happened in my life.

And when death first did happen in my life, when my grandfather died as I was about 16, it still left me pretty cold. I hadn’t liked him in life, we never were close, so his death didn’t actually concern me much. I do remember silently (and rather cynically) telling him “do it better the next time round” at the funeral. I think I had the impression he hadn’t been a very happy man as I knew him, and he also didn’t seem to have made my mother (and her brother?) very happy. He wasn’t directly abusive, as far as I know, just not emotionally available. Still, death remained detached from my life.

When my grandmother died, I was 28. Her death was a long and slow one, and it began when her dementia got more and more pronounced. She had been a very important person during my childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, and I loved her very much. We mostly lived in the same city (except for three years when my family relocated due to my father’s job situation), but I had moved away for good at 21, so I only saw her a couple of times a year. Her world became smaller and smaller, until she stopped leaving her apartment altogether (except for rare accompanied visits to the doctor). Looking back, I wish I had known more about dementia back then so I had been able to better understand her world in those last few years. As it was, I just felt that she slowly disappeared into a loop of forgetfulness and only peeked out of that very rarely. I did what I could to make her look at me once again with that very particular twinkle in her eyes. In the very end, she had to move to a nursing home, where I visited her once. I remember pushing her outside in her wheelchair. She eventually said (as she had done several times before on different occasions) “I think the dear Lord has forgotten me,” which I took to mean she wouldn’t mind if he summoned her into the Heaven (her imagery, not mine) sometime soon. So I told her something to the effect that she could go if she wanted to because I somehow believed she needed that permission (no idea why, really).

Anyhow, eventually she did die. I expected myself to cry and be very sad because she had been so important in my life, but I found that I didn’t feel much at first. She had been very old (90+ years), she had been on her way out for years and years, so this was hardly a shock. Especially since I had the feeling she had been ready to go for quite a while. I found the funeral pretty terrible. It was held in a chapel-like room of a funeral home, by a pastor who hadn’t known her and who had written his speech after interviewing one or two of her three sons. There was only a sentence or two about her attitude towards us grandchildren, which felt completely out of balance to me – after all, she had been a grandmother for nearly half of her life, and a very active and present one at that! I was completely surprised to learn that she had loved to sing, and silently promised that I would accept the heritage of the singing (a promise which I still have to fulfill – but I’m slowly inching my way towards that, starting from a position where I’d never sing in anyone’s presence). It was a Christian funeral, and that felt very alien to me. That said, I was surprised how moved I still was and that I actually started crying in the end. I didn’t think of myself as much of a spiritual person back then, but I clearly remember “sending” a spiral to balance/counter the sign of the cross the pastor made at the end. It went right through the cross. Again, I have no idea where that impulse came from.

In the late summer of 2008, my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He got chemotherapy, he got surgery, and for a while it all seemed hopeful. I still massively increased the frequency of my visits with my parents (whom I had seen maybe once or twice a year before) and ended up going there every other weekend or so. In that winter, he went back into the hospital, and I remember the whole family visiting him in there on Christmas. I sat by his bed, talking to him, and he gave my an article about “modern” ways of organizing work he thought I’d be interested in. I made him an envelope full of collages that were meant to show him what memories of our shared life I cherished and that I loved him just the way he was. I told him I was proud to be his daughter and that I loved him. I also saw him cry, for the first and only time. That moment still has a very special place in my heart.

There was talk of him moving into a hospice, and my sister and I went to check out the one in my parents’ hometown (a wonderful place that felt completely right to me). We also thought about  bringing him home again, but I don’t think that ever really was an option for my mother. I don’t remember any medical details, just that there was to be another surgery, and that I had a very bad feeling about it, fearing he wouldn’t survive the operation. I even opened a thread on a tarot forum I was a member of and asked people to pray and send good energy to him. The outpouring of love from total strangers was incredible, and I felt very blessed by it. Anyhow, for whatever reason, the surgery was postponed a few days, and I still believe that this was partly why he did survive it. So that’s how he started the year 2009: fresh out of surgery, but with the devastating result that his whole belly was full of metastases and that the surgeons hadn’t even tried to remove any of them. That was when death finally became a resident in my life.

A few days later, the whole hospital had to be evacuated so that four old war bombs in the area could be safely defused (or detonated). That didn’t add much to a peaceful recovery from that surgery for him. After the bomb action was over, he was transferred to the palliative care ward. I’m not entirely sure why he didn’t move into the hospice but I think it was considered too strenuous for him. (I’m surprised myself how little I remember of the medical facts and related issues, but since I got most of the information by phone, and my auditory memory is not the best, that might account for some of that. And then I think I was simply focused on other things, like the emotional situation of everyone.) About a week later, I went to a workshop to build a frame drum (I hadn’t even successfully journeyed back then, but for some reason I knew I needed to make a drum). The following Monday, I received a letter from my university, telling me that my Master’s thesis proposal had been accepted and that I now had four months to write its 80-100 pages. What timing.

The next day, I got a phone call from my sister that I should come to my parents’ hometown because it looked as if my father would die soon. I threw a few things into a bag, called my workplace, my Beloved called his, and off we went (my Beloved driving us). I think we were about half an hour from the hospital, still on the autobahn, when my mother called and told me that my father had just died. I said I definitely wanted to see him and that they should wait for me there. We hung up, and a few minutes later, the clouds right in front of us opened up in a peculiar shape and I saw a beam of sunlight in beautiful colors. I was certain that this had been a sign from my Dad, saying goodbye to me.

We arrived at the hospital, were greeted by my sister who took us to his room (I hadn’t been there before). He was lying in his bed, his hands on his chest, one on top of the other, his chin supported by a plastic thingie to prevent his head from falling forward. He was oddly yellow. I went over and touched his hands, looking at his dead face, which looked like him and yet not really like him. We hung around in the room for a while, eating bland cookies and drinking tea or coffee. It was a very liminal time, with him being both there and gone. Eventually, we went home to my mother’s place, taking a big plastic bag full of his clothes (not sure why I remember this detail so well).

After that, there was a flurry of activity. A funeral home had to be called, a date for the service had to be set, an obituary and funeral service invitations had to be worded and designed, clothes had to be picked, etc. My parents had decided and prepared a lot of things beforehand, so it was a comparatively organized and smooth process. I felt strange about using the same funeral home that had handled things when my grandmother died, but I didn’t argue (the experience of having someone try and sell their “prettifying dead people skills” to me/us was still pretty jarring to me). Since my father wasn’t a member of any church and didn’t believe in any god (as far as I know), we had to decide what to do about a speech. I offered to write something and read it myself. Then my sister also wanted to write and read something. And then we decided to ask a cousin of my father to add a third part of the speech and say something about their youth which we as his children of course hadn’t witnessed. My sister initially found she was overwhelmed with the task of writing a speech, despite wanting to do so, and wanted to use somebody else’s words instead. Eventually, I was able to coach her in writing in her own words and helped her edit the text to something that flowed nicely. It was very odd how easily my mother, my sister, and I were able to agree on the fundamental things, given how very different our personalities are and how often we disagree otherwise. It was a beautiful experience.

On the day of the service, I felt very official. I knew I had a role to fulfill, and a part of me felt that I had taken on parts in our family dynamic that had previously been my father’s (my mother did a similar thing in a different way when she started wearing his sweaters, his wedding band, and used the frame from his glasses when she had to get new ones for herself). I felt very much like my father’s daughter, more than ever before. I was incredibly grateful that we had had time to say the important things, that we had gotten some extra time by the postponing of the second surgery, and that he had been in my life. I smiled, I nodded to people, I checked in with the funeral home people who were in charge of starting the music and the end of the service, and I generally provided structure for everyone. My father’s cousin started the service, telling stories of their youth, stopping to cry a bit, and weaving a thread to the present. He ended by putting a tenderly wrapped potato onto the coffin, because that was something my father had mentioned to him when he asked him about something he missed. I was deeply touched by that gesture. My sister was next, and she did wonderfully, especially since public speaking isn’t something she’s used to. She also stopped to cry at some point. As the older sister, I went last. I stood behind the lectern, looked out at all these people who had known my Dad and cared enough about him to come to his funeral, even if I didn’t know at least a third of them, and started reading. I was glad I didn’t also cry, but somehow that was not the time for it. Instead, I beamed all over my face because I was so grateful and the service was so perfect. I ended with announcing the music my father had picked himself: What a Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong. After that, people lit candles or put down a rose on/near his coffin, and slowly we all went outside. I smiled some more, I shook hands, I talked to people, and we were told over and over again how beautiful and moving the service had been.

I was proud of us and how well we had done. I was surprised by how right I felt in the role of the speaker at this funeral. I was stunned how unusual our DIY service apparently had been, when it seemed the only way to do this properly to me (meaning, that a funeral speech should preferably be held by people who had known and loved the person who died, not by some random professional who had no real connection to anyone present). I was equally stunned to hear how creepy or, well, unusual many people found the idea of touching a dead person. And ever since then, I have had a strong feeling that I was supposed to do something “around death.”

I paid more attention to things one could do in relation to death. I read stuff. I started to find dead animals that I had to take care of in one way or the other. And in late January 2011, I finally went to a volunteer fair to check out the local organizations that provide hospice work. It seemed that I was supposed to work with the dying and their close ones. I found one organization that enabled me to start visiting people (all of whom had serious dementia, which taught me a whole lot of Very Important Things in itself) in a nursing home they cooperated with. I ended up visiting three people once or twice who then died. In two of the cases I also met some of the family members and talked to them in the function of a hospice volunteer. This work has always left me very fulfilled, even though (or probably because) it had not been about me at all. My job was to give my time and attention to whatever I found on any given day. My job was to stay and be there and listen. And I found that I did surprisingly well, given that I’m often more of a talker and “fixer” than a listener and someone who just accepts things/people. There are also some side effects that I didn’t plan on. I’ve become more conscious of the value of life. I’m even less willing to waste time with things I consider pointless. My priorities have shifted. I also eventually realized that I started hoping that everyone would have the chance of saying goodbye to life and loved ones instead of being ripped from life completely unexpectedly. I’m also not hoping for a sudden (read, unexpected) death for myself anymore.

The actual hospice training was meant to start in late fall last year, but I changed organizations immediately before that (I had found that while the original one was fair enough, the new one is a much better fit for me). So that’s what I’m doing right now: getting properly trained to volunteer with that new hospice service. The course will run until the end of March, but – due to my experience – I’m officially in their files as an available volunteer already, which means they could call me any day and ask me to start visiting someone again.

To this day, I am not quite sure why death suddenly became a topic I need to work with, but my gut feeling is very clear on that (there were umpteen other volunteer jobs at that fair alone that I also found interesting and worthwhile, but it was clear they weren’t meant for me). So, basically, I’m just trusting the Universe here to let me know where I need to go. Maybe a part of this has to do with death being such a taboo in most of the Western world. Maybe I can adapt my skills in creating ways for people to talk about taboo subjects that I acquired around the topic of sex. Maybe I will only find out later what this is all about. And that’s fine with me. For the time being, I just need to know that it’s the thing for me to do.

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8 responses »

  1. This had me in tears, Cat. The service for your dad sounds beautiful, so personal and intimate. I’m awful at dealing with death. I keep pushing it off. I was just lucky that so far I didn’t have too much experience with it. However, my parents being 77 and 79 turning 80 and both not in good health I know that sooner or later I’ll have to deal with it. Especially as I’m the only child still living close by. My brothers all live further away. I hope I’ll have your strength when the day comes. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Thanks for posting this. Like Satu, I keep “pushing off” the death of my own beloved parents (and other loved ones), because it horrifies me so. And in fact, death is the main reason behind my eventual involuntary loss of religious belief and change in philosophies over human reproduction. I don’t think I can ever get to the point of accepting Death as transformation, the natural circle of life, etc, etc, and live in defiance of spiritual paths–and modern tarot practitioners—who try to tell me I should. The death of the individual consciousness is a monstrous thing to me, and I can’t pretend I feel otherwise.

    “Maybe a part of this has to do with death being such a taboo in most of the Western world. Maybe I can adapt my skills in creating ways for people to talk about taboo subjects that I acquired around the topic of sex.”

    This is what I thought of, as well. You already have a special “gift” talking about things that make people uncomfortable (because even in a glossy, commercialized sex haven like the modern West, people are still uncomfortable when things like gender are inserted into the discussion).

  3. Cat, that is a beautiful post. So far, only two people close to me died. My grandfather, who like your grandma has spent the last 10 years falling into deeper and deeper dementia, and a childhood friend of mine (my first ‘crush’ at school), who died of Leukemia in 2012, when he was 21.

    My grandfather was a funny man and has been much missed, but the shock of his death wasn’t so great. He spent such a long time sick and so disconnected from the world that I believe he found peace. My other grandma (not his wife, the other one) dreamt of him right after his death – she ‘sees’ things – and told my father that he said he was fine wherever he was.

    As for my friend, although I hadn’t talked to him in a long while, his death caught me by surprise. He died about one or two months after starting treatment. He did have time to say goodbye, but he always believed he’d get better…

    Ever since he died, I try to remember that life passes quickly, and that although we need to live both the good and the bad things, we must not believe that they are eternal. We must not cling to them. Everything passes – we pass too. We need to learn our lessons and move on.

    In my family, we say that you never leave a person you love with a word of anger or hate. Always of love, so every day you can remind them of how important they are to you.

    Thank you for this beautiful post, and for sharing your story with us! I hope your work with Death and its manifestations help you in your journey. :-)

  4. That was such a thoughtful post, Cat. It brought back memories of my own parents’ death – the process of dying and its aftermath. Like you, I find some details really hazy in my memory but others ring out clear as a bell. They both died quite young and it has made me more determined to enjoy life in the time that I may have. No point wasting it in miserable situations. :)

  5. Thank you everyone for your comments!

    @ Satu: I’m very moved by how much you have been moved.

    @ Chiriku: I find it fascinating that death brought me much closer to spirituality and that it had the opposite effect on you (by the way, I don’t think anyone has the right to tell you what you should believe). Myself, I’m perfectly fine with seeing physical death as a part of an endless circle of shapeshifting, which is also where science and spirituality come together beautifully for me. I seem to also believe that the Dead (the souls or consciousnesses, as you will) continue to exist in a different reality, which is at least partly accessible to me (in specific circumstances). I’m not sure if I believe that all Dead stay in that world forever, but then I feel no urgent need to make up my mind about that, so it rests on the big “Maybe” pile for now (see my previous PBP post for more on that).

    @ Marina: Thanks for sharing your own stories. The paradox for me is that I’m more present and more joyful in my life since death has become a part of it.

    @ Sharyn/AJ: Yes, I also notice a difference to other blog posts. Maybe it’s because these thoughts have had time to settle and there aren’t as many unanswered questions that currently occupy me than there are with last week’s topic. At any rate, the sheer amount of comments on this post certainly tells me that I’ve been able to communicate something relevant. I’ll try to do so more often!

    @ 78mirrors: It’s good to hear I’m not the only one with such fuzzy/clear memories.

  6. This is a beautiful post that really spoke to me, thank you so much for sharing. Since my dad passed (he also had cancer), my attitude to life shifted, too. I’ve been thinking about volunteering, too; your post has made me consider it in more depth.

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