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Posts Tagged ‘death’

December 15 is the anniversary of the marriage that no longer exists. The marriage no longer exists because the husband no longer exists, having died eight years ago, which begs the question: does the anniversary still exist? Or perhaps the question is, how do I acknowledge its existence? 

In a parallel universe, one of those infinite dimensions that split off at each major event and form the “what-ifs” of our lives, I might be planning a dinner or a getaway for the two of us. My mind turns that way from time to time. Such magical thinking, as Joan Dideon has named it, is inevitable. It’s a coping mechanism, one that changes form and purpose over time.

Last month my father-in-law Pete turned ninety. From a legal standpoint,  he is no longer my father-in-law, but such definitions often prove to be utterly inept when it comes to describing the ties that bind us. He is an amazing man: tall, trim, and upright; still exercising, making minor repairs, or running food over to shut-ins during the holidays. Writing to thank me  for a gift,  he closed:  “When people ask me how I’ve managed to reach ninety, I tell them it’s all smoke and mirrors — and it is!”

JimPete94 Pete and Jim, 1995

 Smoke and mirrors and the “what-ifs” are represented by those parallel universes we can’t see and can’t know, notwithstanding quantum physics and fervent believers in alternate realities. In another universe, I would be celebrating with my tall, strapping husband, he from such long-lived and healthy stock. Or perhaps not. If one thing changes, so does another; change has consequences. Events set off other events: illness or injury, trauma or death, disappointment, division, good fortune or incidents that affect those closest to us. The road keeps on dividing and subdividing. 

In an alternate reality…ah, but I don’t live there. Nor do I any longer live in the past I can’t change or the future I can’t know. In the here and now, I am, if not deliriously happy, at least profoundly grateful for the opportunity to have married and loved. So I’m going out to dinner with my sister, who was extremely close to my husband. After all, he was and will always be her favorite brother-in-law.

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Ed, Farrah, Michael, Billy (Mays) and soon, Walter: we mourn the deaths of these celebrities as if they are old friends or family. In the midst of the latest round of grieving, it occurs to some of us to ask how it is that we take so personally the passing of people we don’t really know.

I have some experience with what I call “public death”: my husband was a 9/11 victim and although he wasn’t a cultural icon in the “traditional” sense, he surely became something symbolic to large numbers of strangers. His name was listed at hundreds of memorials, on billboards, on websites, even on the side of a charter bus I saw. He was remembered in speeches and articles, sometimes specifically by name, though he was simply a back-office worker who was doing his job. Members of an Atlanta church “adopted” my husband as a victim for whom they would pray; so did a group of schoolchildren in Germany. I heard from people who used to know Jim, my husband, or barely knew him, or never knew him. NY911-0104 70.105All felt the loss terribly and personally.

Of course 9/11 was a tragedy of gigantic proportions and involved an unexpected attack that threatened us all. In fact, tragic deaths, whether they involve tsunamis or high school shootings are terrifying because they are so random. We feel the need to respond, reach out, and relate to each other.

Really, though any death is random, when you think about it; that’s what really frightens us, I imagine. Even when we’re expecting it and think we’re prepared for it, it feels sudden and it certainly feels final. And when we’re not prepared, it shoves our own morality right in front of us. Cultural icons that die often represent or recall a particular and perhaps more innocent or happier time and in mourning them, we mourn our own life losses.

That may explain why we seem to pick certain people to mourn and not others. Do we relate more to the loss of a pop star or TV fantasy than we do to starving children aroud the world? I hope not; I suspect it’s a question of scale and familiarity. That doesn’t make it right.

There’s one more thing and that is that we humans seem to need to participate in the (for lack of a better word) pageantry of a public mourning process. Perhaps we find immersing ourselves in the deaths of others is cathartic; a “safe” way to mourn for ourselves. As I noted in an op-ed piece I wrote after the Virginia Tech shootings, our involvement can veer dangerously into a sort of collective therapy session that becomes more about our need to comfort ourselves than about comforting or empathizing with others.VA Tech

This is all perfectly understandable. I do wish we could find a way to avoid the spectacle that accompanies dying in public (although something tells me celebrities might appreciate the posthumous attention). I’d like to see us instead go silent a minute. In the space that opens up, we can send out our thoughts and prayers for those who are gone and quietly contemplate our shared humanity.

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It’s normal to be disheartened by the death of someone young or in the prime of life. It’s also “normal” these days to be especially affected when the person in question is a star or public persona. These are people whose faces we see regularly, whose lives we scrutinize and who we feel we know. For younger people who are just one video clip away from YouTube celebrity themselves, the death of Heath Ledger a few days ago was on the order of the loss of a family member or close friend. In any instance, it’s major news.

The death of a twenty-eight-year-old actor who had also demonstrated  prodigious talent and heart seems like a terrible waste. Whatever might have caused lethal harm, he apparently felt the need to have anti-anxiety medicine and sleep medicine at the ready. “I can’t understand how stressed out he must have been,” commented a young friend of mine earlier today, “although I guess that being a celebrity sucks.” Well let’s put it this way; it doesn’t always help.

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I don’t obsess about death, well, at least not much more than any normal midlife person who’s experienced several very personal losses over the past few years. But today’s papers seemed to showcase more than a few significant obituaries – renowned filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, talk show host Tom Snyder, and coaching great Bill Walsh. Although 71 (Snyder’s age) may seem a little young compared with Bergman’s 89 years, both men, as well as Coach Walsh, could be described as having reached and passed the pinnacles of their professional careers. Still, Snyder and Walsh were felled by cancer, which makes it seem as if they were stopped just short of the finish line. But if the deaths of formerly public figures catch me off-guard, the health concerns of active public figures definitely pack a punch. That’s why I was startled to note (also in today’s paper) that Chief Justice John Roberts, at fifty-two the youngest member of the Court, suffered a mild seizure of unknown origin over the weekend. Yeah, I admit I wondered for a minute what it meant for the future of the judicial branch, just as I have speculated in the past about the state of Dick Cheney’s heart or George Bush’s colon and the state of the nation. I’m only human, after all. So are our public figures, subject to the same unpredictable variables that catch us all off-guard.

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I can’t believe that eight years have passed since Jack (“Dr. Death”) Kevorkian was sent to jail for his role in assisted suicide. The fact that he helped people with incurable illnesses who decided for themselves that their quality of life was unbearable but who, because of their afflictions, were unable to take their own lives is irrelevant to his critics and to (it should be noted) the law. I find it ironic that there are many people here and abroad who are involuntarily losing their lives every day – to famine, war, terrorism, illness and other forms of natural and man-made violence – and yet the law has marshaled its forces against an irascible old man who worked with those who freely made their choices.

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