Dealing with Death (and Other Significant Losses) —One Human’s Thoughts

Americans don’t do death well. George Carlin once said we’ll call death a “terminal incident,” “organismically challenged,” anything but the “D word.” Fear of death costs us some things; it deprives us of an opportunity to say goodbye, leaving unfulfilled a basic human need for meaning-making and gaining closure.

It is the most natural of all human instincts to avoid pain, much as jerking your hand away from a hot stove. However, avoiding the hurt of losing a friend or loved one is like denying the discomfort of a sprained ankle. Not caring for the physical injury is likely to result in further physical damage—a broken ankle; not tending to the emotional hurt can lead to a similar outcome—from grief to depression.

We tend to avoid the sting of reality with positives, like “God doesn’t give you more than you can bear…s/he is in heaven now…they’d want you to be strong, not cry…just think of the good things about their life.” All well-intentioned to be sure, but skirting the task of grieving. Believe in heaven, believe in the best of life, believe that you will find strength in overcoming life’s tragedies; but grieve first.

The only way to grieve well is to grieve. Grief is as individual as a fingerprint; however the need to do so is universal. Virtually every culture in the world has some sort of funeral ritual. It is the one place where it is safe to grieve in public. It provides a place to acknowledge the significance of the person who was lost, to take stock of how your life has been affected both before and after, to honor the strong feelings that are stirred by the ultimate sadness and unfairness of having a loved one taken away; and it is a venue to share a basic understanding of a human experience that goes beyond what can be expressed in words. Everyone needs such a time and place. We create this by listening, really listening, when someone comes to us, or by going to a person and place where one can be really heard.

Death is perhaps the most difficult of life’s events to cope with, yet one that we prepare for and talk about even less than sex. It would be nice if we could just make it simple. Be in shock, disbelief, numb for a day; yearn for our lost one for a day; cry for a day; despair and get angry for a day; a mixture of apathy, lethargy, and confusion for another; guilt for half a day, and irrational for the other half (“just let him come back for 10 minutes so that I can tell him ‘x’”). Then we would somehow emerge through it all at the end of the week feeling some sense of acceptance and resolution and peace in understanding that somehow coming to grips with death is part of developing a deeper appreciation of life.

The human heart, what makes it both wonderful and painful, is much more complex and variable. We’ll feel most of the above to some extent or another, but it won’t be so neatly organized, and it will come in waves that feel out of proportion to what we “should” feel. It can be hard to accept for example feeling angry—at the deceased, ourselves, or even God. Yet think how you would feel if someone took away your most prized possession, without warning and without reason. Death robs us of something much more valuable; and especially when that theft is a young person’s life, it is damned unfair!

I have accompanied many young people through the ebb and flow of the grieving process, and have come to appreciate its significance and its variability, as well as the frustration at being unable to make it rational and neat. The best advice I can give is to let it happen, and respect your own path through, as well as others’. Give yourself permission to let it out when you need, and find a person and place where you know that you’ll be listened to and accepted at your best and your worst. Equally important, give yourself permission to turn it off when you need, and accept that your balance of the 2 sides is going to be different than the next person’s. The balance will not be perfect (as is our lot as human types). Try to maintain your ability to laugh as well as cry, and mix in a good dose of patience, and self-care. It takes time, but it does get better.

I have a Ph.D., but I’m not sure I know how to put into words how it gets better. As you can accept the waves of emotion for what they are and come to grips with their meaning for you, they start to roll in rather than crash, become more of a swoosh than a thunder. Death stole my father when I was young, before I went off to college. Now some 30 years later, I still miss him sometimes, still get a pang of that irrational wish to be able to talk to him for a few minutes, or even just long enough to tell him I loved him (something I didn’t know how to do when I was so young). But now somehow I am more at peace, even when I feel the pang of sadness, that having become a marker honoring what he meant to me, what we meant to each other; appreciative of how both his life and his death have been a significant piece in shaping the person I am today; and still hopeful that person is someone he would be proud of.

--an anonymous human