9/17/11: the art of “doing grief”

In a comment to a recent post, Linda asks: I wonder if we grieve our own impending death. 

I love this question. And my answer is something I feel far more certain of than the question of what happens after death. I believe that those of us who have the time to contemplate our deaths are the lucky ones, if we choose to find meaning in it. The sudden deaths seem so much more difficult for the dying and for those left behind. Actualizing grief is such an important life task, as important as anything we learn to do in living. And many of us have no idea how to do it well.

To me, the time of anticipating a death is the one opportunity we have to share our grief with the person who is dying, who of course, also is experiencing profound and escalating losses day by day. It’s as if the pain of laboring reaches a fever pitch and the mother decides to go ahead and push into birth; in dying, the labor involved in living reaches a point where the person assents to push into death. In the processes of both birth and death, support can mean everything.

In the time we have to share grief with the dying, we are actually experiencing the same impending loss, but from different sides of a window. I have spoken to many dying people who speak eloquently of what they are about to lose: seeing a grandchild graduate from college, a daughter’s wedding, the publication of their own book, another trip to the beach, the enjoyment of one more glass of wine. These future events are missed sorely in the present. For those watching a loved one die, there are very similar thoughts: he won’t be here to see me through my trials and triumphs.

It is strange then, to me, that we mainly avoid going to this place of shared grief. In my life, people who were dear to me often pushed me away as they got closer to death. As my best friend, Jon was dying, he became enraged by others’ grief. He would explode with: this is not about you. And it moved us away from the present to a place of experiencing survivor’s guilt, to think maybe he was right, after all it was his time to die, not ours.

Yet, looking back, I feel he was wrong. I am going to die, his death felt to me at the time (and in retrospect) to be a limited window for us to experience death together. I know it’s misguided to say he was wrong of course, he had to do this in his own way, as I will. I’m as likely to push people away as I am dying as he was.

In most situations, the dying simply refuse to talk about their impending death with the ones they are closest to; but working in end-of-life care, I know that they are quite open to talking about it with an empathetic stranger. The time surrounding a death often becomes a battle of wills; on both sides of the window, the dying person and those being left try desperately to protect the other from a conversation in which death is acknowledged, even savored as a special time spent together.

Like so many of life’s most important milestones, many enter this sacred ground unprepared emotionally and culturally to gaze into the face of death directly, even lovingly.

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2 Responses to 9/17/11: the art of “doing grief”

  1. miriam says:

    I think my brother was one of those, unprepared emotionally and culturally to gaze into death. Now that he is dead, not only do I feel the unspeakable loss of a dear dear lifelong friend but the loss of time spent together savoring, exploring, discussing his impending death. He was trying so hard to live he had no time to die.

  2. I’m so glad you are talking about it here.

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