I’m currently in a class on caring for those at the End-of-Life. At the beginning of this course, we were given an assignment (which you can do yourself) to give us a baseline as to our feelings and experiences around death and dying, and begin cultivating an awareness of how we cope with it.
I thought I had a good sense of my relation to death in my life, but this really clarified and confronted me in some profound ways. I saw just how unacquainted I am with death, and struggled to recall times it had entered my life.
The first death I knew of was my great-grandmother, with whom I had an oddly strong connection. But I was 10 or 11 at the time and heard about it from my mom, I think, while we sat in the car in our driveway. I remember numbness and confusion, not really knowing how I was supposed to feel. I felt solace in how religious she was, and I felt a responsibility to carry on her “legacy”.
But still, we did not return from Virginia to Texas for her funeral. This meant that my first funeral for a little boy at my church who had drowned. I was maybe 14 at the time. I did not know him, nor his family, and had no connection with them other than we went to the same large church. I went more out of curiosity and was confused at how detached I felt.
My biggest acquaintance with death was that of my grandfather. It was the first dead body I saw, and I was present for the hospice care and process of dying and grief over the course of a couple of weeks or so. But I will have more to say about this death another time.
Overall, it was incredibly revealing and humbling to see that in these moments I consistently experienced guilt and shame, believing that I “should” be feeling more than I did. Time and again, I remember how detached or “on the outside” I felt, and how I used my mind to will myself to tears and grief, only to move on fairly quickly.
On one hand, I could see narcissism in this and judge myself. On the other, I have come to see how this could be protective and helped build resilience–so I probably ought to be gentler on myself. I’m learning there’s no “right” way to encounter death.
I also had to wrestle with how little it has stuck with me when social work clients have died over the years. I’ve had a good number of them pass away, though it’s always been out of sight and nearly always sudden and unexpected–an overdose, a shooting, an undiagnosed medical condition, possible suicide.
The emotional boundaries and power dynamics between case manager and client, as well as the constant turnover of caseloads, means that it’s often felt more like just another client falling out of treatment rather than the tragedy it is. There have been a couple of hard, tragic deaths, to be sure, but that environment doesn’t tend to forms the kinds of bonds that would really shake me.
Ultimately, I see I want to be affected more. I want to be more empathetic and present to death, loss, and others’ grief. And in this season (and in this course), I already see this happening.
As my own mortality has hit me harder and harder, I have noticed a growing sensitivity. Deaths in film and TV strike me more deeply. My stomach churns when I hear of another shooting death in my city, rather than just glazing over it as just another stat. I am more immediately arrested and brought to the moment when clients tell me of people they’ve recently lost. I’ve been able to sit and let the space expand to allow others’ grief to be present, rather than trying to heal it, offer “wisdom”, or just turn to practicalities.
Perhaps this is just preparation for middle adulthood. Perhaps this happens to most people at this stage of life. But whatever it is, I hope this continues to deepen. I also hope (as will be explored in other posts) that the presence of God meets me in this process more tangibly than it has thus far. We shall see.
What have been your experiences with death? What are your ways of coping, and what emotional realities arise when it comes into your life? Feel free to share below.
Art Credit: Gustave Klimt, “Death and Life”
One thought on “When Death and I have met”
Hello, Paul. I’m a friend of your father’s, and closer to his age. I’ve had the opposite happen – I’ve grown more accustomed to death lately.
I was 8 when my grandfather passed, and it was my first funeral. It had a profound affect on me, that haunts me to this day. If he had survived his brain cancer, I would be a different person. He adored me and I felt adorable. After that, I had a huge self-esteem nose dive that affected my choices and life events. I’ve regained that now, but it took years to feel that loved again.
In the past year, I’ve lost co-workers, friends, neighbors etc. to this stupid virus. On top of that, mass killings are so the norm now, that it’s not the punch in the gut that it was back in Waco, Oklahoma, Columbine days. The skin grows thicker, the heart harder, sad to say.
And it is a protective layer we cloak ourselves with. If we didn’t, especially me as an empathetic soul to the nth degree, we’d never get out of that fetal position on the floor.
My brother is currently going through cancer treatment. The cancer is curable, but the cure has almost killed him. Yet, I can clearly plan for that next step, without losing my grip. Great bonus for him, but it does still take it’s toll on me with lost sleep, stress and inability to concentrate on my job. Just throw another layer on that, will ya?
Thanks for the article. It’s been awhile. I’ve missed your writing.