When I look at the image we have adopted for death here in North America I am surprised that my own picture of death; my own relationship with death is totally different. I hold death as a wise grandfather an almost exact opposite to the more commonly held vision of a grim reaper. I consider death a successful birth while the medical system considers death a failure.
How the heck did I come to this image of death as a wise and inspirational grandfather you may well ask? Well let me tell you.
My first experience with death that I can recall was with my Grandpa Joe. The details are a bit sketchy but it didn’t go well. I recall he fell at home, broke his hip, went to the hospital and never came out. The funeral was weird too, and the adults didn’t want to answer my simple ‘kid’ questions.; “Why is Grandpa’s skin cold?” “Why is he wearing a suit and tie?” “ Why does he have makeup on?”
It was awkward and no answers were forth coming. I felt like a pain in the butt and the adults all looked stunned. It was a bit like I was an unwanted child at an adult affair – I was sent outside to play with the other children.
That was it. Done. Never spoken about again.
So, I guess I pushed all that stuff down and out of my mind. I don’t recall any other deaths very clearly at all. Uncle Eric passed away, as did his wife Kaye and my memories are not at all clear, Kaye died first and Eric followed months later I think. There was a car accident and a few of my hockey buddies were killed – weird not much was said in the locker room, it was like they just stopped showing up to play. I remember a few pets, Sam our beagle and Ginnie our poodle; being put down and all of a sudden not at home any more with nothing being said. This just seemed to be the way it was, someone died and life went on as ‘normal’.
I filed it all neatly away in my mind and body never to see the light of day again at least until my dear sister Jody died on May the 5th, 1988. The whole ball of dying, death, and grief I had neatly tied up and hidden began to come undone.
This death, Jody’s passing, was a huge for me. It was the first family death I had to face as an adult. I had to tell my parents that their daughter had died. I was a pallbearer; I had to face Jody’s extended family and friends, a funeral home, a church service, and a burial in the cemetery in Ste. Catherine’s Ontario. I had to adult up. I remember ‘holding it all together’, keeping a stiff upper lip and thinking how crazy that was. She is my sister, she is dead and I am lowering her body into the ground – I felt like bawling my eyes out and yet held it all back.
After all was said and done I went to a therapist to get some professional help with my grief and loss of my dear sister. Death was still bad and wrong and needed to be fought at all costs. Oh, I bargained with my therapist, I negotiated with God; I offered the Universe all my money. I offered God my Ping golf clubs that included a one-iron I was told only God could hit. I offered my therapist my life if only Jody could live. All my bargaining was to no avail. There was no deal to be done. Jody was dead and I needed to deal with that reality. So I did, and in the midst of my grieving I stumbled on the most remarkable gift – my own wonderful life that I could live my own way.
Jody died and I woke up out of my North American slumber! A year later I quit my Bay Street job, moved west and started a career in social services.
This was my first real experience of discovering a gift left in the shadows of a death! I miss Jody to this very day and yet I am grateful for her passing; her death woke me up into my life. Well perhaps death wasn’t quite the enemy I thought it was.
Ah, the old fella’ had been sick for awhile, a long life of drinking, hard work and hard play took its toll on Lloyd’s body. He simply started to break down. He died in the hospital after the family and he agreed to unplug him from life prolonging machines in 2004.
I will always remember what Dad said to me during our last conversation.
“Son, keeping me alive like this is not loving kindness.
If I live I live. If I die I die.
I want to go out on my terms.”
Lloyd’s funeral felt way different than Grandpa Joe’s. Yes, there was a viewing same as for Grandpa. There was a service same as Jody. Family, friends and church were involved too, people speaking eulogies, food at home afterwards. It was actually very much the same as Grandpa’s funeral now that I think about it.
Why did it feel different then?
Oh, I was different!
Yes, my own relationship with death had been fundamentally altered by Jody’s passing. My willingness to look more closely at dying and death, I had enabled me to accept death as a natural and fundamental facet of life. Perhaps not fully, yet progress toward a new relationship with death was underway.
The gift Dad’s passing left behind for me… becoming an adult male.
I became a hospice volunteer in 1992 and have been volunteering since then. I was also a cremationist in 2012/13 for a funeral home/crematorium. I immersed myself in the field of death as a volunteer and as a professional. I wrote a book entitled When Death Speaks. All of this was my way of giving to community and befriending death. I have seen a lot of it – And all of this before the death of my dear later brother Peter on September 17th, 2015.
I was indeed well prepared though not quite ready for his passing.
His death was truly graceful. His six-year battle with cancer not so much, but the final week of his life indeed was. His fight to live, his dying, and his death have been my greatest teachers, and have opened me up even more to the powerful tool being present to dying and death is in educating each one of us about life – if, that is, we are open to the lessons death teaches.
Peter’s dying and ultimate death was uncomfortable for me; the discomfort I experienced was a reflection of the potential gift that was to be left behind once he passed. Yes the greater the discomfort the greater the gift.
I had seen my deceased sister Jody’s body, and my late father Lloyd’s corpse however Peter’s active dying was the first family dying and death I had witnessed. It was uncomfortable because I was watching my own death if you will, my body felt Peter’s dying differently because he and I are of the same DNA! Watching his passing it became totally clear to my spirit, my mind and my body there was no way out of life but death!
So I sat with both Peter and my discomfort and all I could do was love him and breath and allow dying and death to bring us closer in love and inform me more about life. So I did.
Peter’s dying and death left behind the gift of a question.
“Did you live as passionately and recklessly as you could today?”
And so death has changed for me over the years.
No longer the Grim Reaper – Now an Inspirational Teacher. It didn’t happen over night, there was no quick fix. It just took time an ongoing intention to embrace death, more accurately my own death.