When someone is in the throes of dying, their last moments, their last physical moments stay with the person(s) bearing witness, long after the physical death has happened.
There isn’t any part of the last hours of my Dads life I cannot close my eyes and taste. How it was so warm outside but my feet were so terribly cold laying in the makeshift sofa bed next to him. How I got up and said, “I need to borrow some of your socks, Dad, my feet are cold.” As if it was all perfectly regular. How his breathing changed and sounded in the room. Something between a snore and cough. How I lay my head next to his on the pillow and put the Cary Grant movie Houseboat on my phone. How I thought he was tiring of it and I switched to Frank Sinatra tunes and hummed. How I texted in the mostly dark to ponder and capture perhaps the exact moment people should come back to hospice; you should come now, it’s time or well, maybe not yet, I don’t know, just come now. And how in a final soft breathe I lay my forehead against his and said, “way to go, you did so good, Dad. You. Did. It. So. Good.”
All of that is with me. Every day. It won’t go away until I go away. And I don’t want it to. But I don’t always know what to do with it.
So therein begins the journey of grief. Anxiety. Anger. Hurt. Depression. Sadness. Love. Joy.
Welcome to post-death for survivors.
Grief; noun; deep sorrow, especially that caused by someone’s death.
That’s it. That’s the best definition in all of the English language for grief. Sorrow. But that’s far too simple. Even for the dictionary. As if sorrow was hunger or laughter. Momentary affectations that just came and went. I mean, truly a lot of us eat our way through sorrow and laugh it off. I had sorrow for lunch. I’m a little gassy now. Best to put on the brave face. Which is such bullshit. First you have to brave face it through the fact that someone is actively dying that you love more than anything. You have to get up and go to your job and push paper around and answer truly inane questions that won’t matter thirty seconds into the future. You have to shower and make lunches and clean and still get on with remembering all the things that make the ordinary life. The dog needs his nails cut. Your kid needs a phone. Organise recycling. Commute. Just like ‘normal.’ Like nothing has or is changing. Like the permanence of death will be satiated because you’ll still get a paycheck in two week’s time. To acknowledge you’re hurdling towards big change is weakness or worse, considered frivolous. Emotions especially those deviating from the patriarchal norm should not be brought to work. Should not invade the space that you’re getting paid to occupy. How droit. Oh your Dad is dying. I’m so sorry. Can you make sure you fill out any leave of absence requests as soon as possible? We need to keep track. I’ll give you some track alright.
And then, get this, you’re asked to pack up all that sorrow and brave face it again, when the apocalyptic event has taken place, so everyone else who didn’t love your person like the sun can just deal with you like they’re used to. What a wretchedly inconsiderate way to deal with death and dying and the living that happens after. In death it is I who has to comfort and conform. What’s worse is what I’ve been sold, I buy. Because what else is there to do. Death is the only guarantee after you are born. But there is no registry for it like a birth. We barely talk about it when we have the chance. It’s an unpleasant conversation. No one wants to hear about that, it’s too much. Enjoy your life! I am, but I mean, shouldn’t we talk about how we celebrate the sperm meeting the egg literally by burning down swaths of land to do so, but can not muster prolonged empathy for others (and ourselves) when that’s what is needed. We’re expected to die, but we’re failing at living when we don’t hold space for its unpleasantness and fallout. Fallout that is not three days bereavement leave. Three days. Thanks. You’re too kind. Truly. You only get three out of five days for the stages of grieving, so maybe skip over denial and bargaining. Sign here for HR.
Ah, but you say, it’s not like that, is it? People are so much more aware. People are dealing and confronting their traumas, their sorrows, their own grief. We are doing better. Are we? My Dad has been dead three years. My Mum, two. My first cousin, one. Covid has been with us for nearly two years and we can’t even actively mourn that personal and collective loss because governments must keep governing and business must keep business-ing on the backs of that grief. Covid is sold to us as endurance. But mention you’re truly having a hard time because there just is unrelenting loss and well, “look on the bright side, could be worse.” Sure, Sally, could be worse.
In the Jewish culture someone who is a first degree relative of the dead is an onen.
Onen; noun; someone in between.
Someone in between. I would heartedly sign on to that if it was an active agreement we made when our person dies. And that in essence is an ongoing contract because someone we love will die. Someone we know died too soon. Someone we love left a void we have to fill with other love. We’re in between. It’s such an apt description. We’re in between. We go on loving even when the other person is physically gone. It’s why all the grief and sorrow are untempered. How do we replace that love we were on the receiving end of? It was a two was street. You loved and were loved. And knew it. You, we, they are in between love. If only we could be Lydia Deetz. We’d get the best of both. To love those gone as vigorously as when they were physical whilst remaining on the receiving end of operational love. Meaning you can feel it. I know my parents loved me. But can I feel that anymore? Is love functional when the person is gone. Is my only choice to just keep giving love away because I obviously know I should and it honors the love I received? Is it wrong to want love back? Does grief exist just to distract us from the pursuit of going on loving? My lines are open, call me (by that I mean, do not call me; if you love me at all, just, no. Text, email.)
Luckily, just like Lydia, Star Wars solved this problem by never having anyone truly go. You don’t have to grieve all the time, at some point your person will become a force ghost and you can talk to them again. I love you, Star Wars. But Qui-Gon Jinn never came back. But yet Yoda can’t help himself. Did Qui-Gon not have an inbetweener? Did Yoda have too many? Is there a balance to how forceful you love after death? See what I did there? I know, I’m impressed too. Guess what, I’m as lost as I’ve ever been. But my capacity for love isn’t. Gold star for me.
Influencer; noun; one who exerts influence, often, specifically.
I can’t say for certain when influencer made it into most people’s vernacular. Somewhere after Martha Stewart’s (the OG) imprisonment and before Goop’s vagina egg is my best bet. And what does that have to do with working through grief. Well, actually a lot. Much like the oft and deservedly maligned wellness space, grief, mark my words from above, is about to take off. For better or worse. The grief industrial complex is coming for us. For our emotional equity. Feeling lost is the currency that we most have in common with one another. So, lets commodify that on IG. Let’s tea leaves away. Inherently it’s just an offshoot of eating our way, or not eating our way out of loss. Drinking it. Sexing it. Whatever vice is filling that in between. And we buy that. I buy it. Because it beats dealing with it. Talking about it. Even more so, being quiet with it. You readily hand over that money you got for three days bereavement like you’ll get cocaine in return when what you got is three crystals in hand sewn repurposed burlap, because karma. That’s not bad, it’s just not, but we’re still not doing the best we can. With ourselves and with each other. There is no out in the open. We’re stuck in a closet in between.
Essentially, we deal with grief like we’re having an affair. Grief and you are in an affair. Grief and I operate behind closed doors. So, your outward appearances are, make like your HR policy is fine, you won’t cry at your desk, you’ll send your expenses in – if you staple them to the paper, I swear to God – thank you for the flowers. It’s what’s sold to the sellers so why try to make it like you didn’t watch someone cease to be. No one wants to hear about that. Here, centre yourself. If I need to centre anything I’ll see a chiropractor, Chad.
To consume is to be alive. I think that’s Sartre or maybe for the nerds who made it this far, Gore Vidal, writing for Vanity Fair circa 1990. But however you frame it our being stuck in the after part of death is a product that has to come out of the shadows. And not stuff, or with teas, and seminars or even for me, becoming an end-of-life doula course. They serve a purpose but are not serving the purpose. I want to scream my grief when I want to, be almost gleeful in lauding it and not influenced to spend it away so I’ll be lulled into hiding away.
I am grief. Onen. Influencer. I am just as struck by loss that day nearly 9 years ago when I learned my Dads days would be shorter than he deserved. Than I selfishly thought I’d have with him. I am here in between and I want us all to look for the inbetweeners. Those custodians of loss that have the voice to give power to the voiceless. And influence the marketing, the corporate speak, the relations, the empathy, to head on challenge the status quo of death and dying. There are many who write and offer practical solutions that can and do help us going through it, so to speak. My only qualification here is that I can read and write. And have gone through it.
If our goal in life is to make the world better, we have to actively aspire to the better. We have to. Because the widening of that hole in our hearts literally kills others left behind. We have to allow our living to reconcile with the loss. Bridge that gap between living and the end. If that’s a week later or years later, or actually, never. But we have to, I believe, work on living better, to die better.
Those final moments I spent with my Dad were some of the greatest moments I ever had with him. Greatest. And he was leaving me. My sister. Us. It fucking sucked. But it was still great.
In the throes of dying, I want for me and for you to know you were loved and you did it so good.