This has been a death-obsessed year for me, and no fun. Actually it’s been a couple of those years, starting in 2009. It has become an intrusive preoccupation. I reread some of my contributions on these pages and I seem stuck on the subject. Death shows up in only five of thirty-three articles; six of thirty-four if you count this piece. That’s like, what, sixteen percent? Not so bad, really, given that it looms so large in my mind. Yet I remember thinking while writing the other eighty-four percent, “At least I’m not talking about death.”
I want to dismiss this as the usual self-referential Baby Boomer blather. My generation can’t keep its mouth shut about what’s obsessing us: the latest drug trip, the War (Vietnam; has there been any other?), “my search for meaning,” and how it all makes us feel and why our feelings should be ever so important to everyone. Maybe that’s where my rumination falls.
Now, as we’re turning mid-sixtyish scooting on to seventyish, we obsess about home accessibility issues—hand rails, re-fitted showers, ramps, and chair lifts, for ourselves or an elderly parent, and what those might do to home values if we ever need to sell.
And death; we’re thinking about that, too. People I’ve known since childhood and several dear friends have died all since 2009, and my widowed father with end-stage renal failure recently has taken up residence with us. It’s working out okay, him being here, though he has found things to worry about—our youngest kid reaching high school safely, or the possible perils the other kid might encounter going to work after college classes. He also frets when our dog upon rare occasion won’t sit in his lap. He is happiest with the dog draped over his legs. It is an affront to his affection when she decides to hop up next to anybody else. I’m glad for these things; he hasn’t yet entirely detached himself from life.
Still, he is dying. He has refused dialysis. I would too were I ninety-one but that doesn’t diminish the prospect of losing a second parent within a year of having lost the first.
Steve Jobs would tell me not to sweat it: “Death is life’s change agent,” he told some Stanford graduates. “It clears out the old to make way for the new.” Is that all it is? Well, hooray, let’s all just get over it and pack it in for the next group. Jobs had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the time of those remarks; certainly there is something impressively stoical in his words. But there is no comfort in them.
So maybe I’ll turn instead to Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ tried and true five stages of grief. Psychologizing death represents a sophistication that eluded Jobs. We have here a handy guide for marking mental states as we trace our own or someone else’s decline—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I think I’m hovering between anger and depression, watching friends and family die. But check back later; I may cycle through a couple others.
Maybe I could place my experience as caregiver somewhere in the grief process too. Looking after my father has required me to surrender my pastoral work off in Gothenburg, on the edge of Nebraska’s Sand Hills. I was surprised at how desperately I relished the parish work I was doing, especially as I confronted the growing awareness I could not do it anymore. My father would need care and I, as the only child, had to take up the task. It wasn’t a hard choice, merely a necessary one. But I am reminded of a title Gilbert Meilaender once used, I Want to Burden My Loved Ones. I think that’s working out pretty well in this case. Caregiver-wise I’m at, let’s see, bargaining and acceptance. (Never mind the bargain.)
The big thing in the five steps is avoiding denial. Denial is not a good place to be. Everyone should try really hard to process his grief and get beyond denial as soon as possible. And it is all a process, we’re told. Find the right dials to twist and it’s hunky-dory.
But is it only a process, clicking through clinical stages to resolution? I am not so certain of that; never was. Those persuasively clinical assessments we adopt as proven clichés deserve a deeply critical reappraisal. I don’t think death and grief and mourning, loss and bereavement can be processed so glibly. Besides, psychologizing death, packaging it categorically, getting a handle on it, isn’t all that just a variety of—sorry, what other word will do—denial?
“Time,” after all, “like an ever-rolling stream soon bears us all away.” We harbor some hope as to where it may bear us, but I can’t think into what psychologized category that would fall.
Russell E. Saltzman is an online homilist for Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary, and author of The Pastor’s Page and Other Small Essays. His previous On the Square articles can be found here.
Steve Jobs’ remarks at Stanford
Gilbert Meilaender, I Want To Burden My Loved Ones
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