Email 21

With all our intelligence and drive to make progress through recent centuries, we’ve failed to make progress in addressing the one problem we will all have at one point or another.

Death. And how to deal with it, especially if you’re the one left behind. Especially death of a child, when you are the parent.

The most we can do after the first millennium is say one of three things. The two most popular comments are “There are no words,”and “I don’t know what to say.” The third is a little more specific, but still just a crutch to help the one saying it get through such an awkward moment and move on. “Sorry for your loss.”

We’ve dedicated exponentially more time, thought, effort, and money to solving such problems as streaming movies, online Donkey Kong, iPhone apps for 99 cents, and putting gourmet meals in frozen boxes, than how to be there for each other when this happens. And it happens all around us every day.

But way down the priority list, below creature comforts and technology, are such things as our own inevitable death, and the death of every close family member, and all the friends in our lives. In the face of that, we are speechless, helpless, don’t know what to expect next, or how to prepare for whatever that is.

We have Lamaze classes for birth. For bringing a person into the world. But nothing for when they leave it. Both are transitions. We celebrate the first, and hide from the second. There are corporate bereavement policies that offer only two or three days off to grieve a lost family member. The closest thing to some kind of community understanding of how to come together is our delivering of meals to the home of the bereaved. That helps a great deal, but I would expect we have been doing that forcenturies. We just haven’t used our progress in medicine, mental health, sociology, and psychology to evolve in this area that is the only one that affects us all.

Think about how much we’ve achieved in the prevention of death. For the right reasons, we have learned to stave it off when life is most vulnerable — facing AIDS, cancer, and infinite numbers of fatal diseases. We have 911, cardio cath labs and the Heimlich maneuver. To prevent death by terrorism we put into operation massive sophisticated military and civil resources whenever there’s a whiff of terrorist activity. But isn’t it ironic that if and when a terrorist gets through and somebody dies, we run out of answers? Death is the sure thing, not life. We fight death as if it’s a winnable war, instead of studying death, the eminent one.

We are so afraid of the subject. We don’t talk about it, prepare for it, or make ourselves students of it. Yet we do, to a great extent, immerse ourselves in the understanding of other of life’s inevitabilities — hunger, disease, depression. In other words, we are so afraid of it, we ensure we will not be equipped to react to it, making the need to fear it that much more legitimate. All our progress has been in preventing death, the unpreventable, instead of understanding death, the inevitable.

2 thoughts on “Email 21

  1. Tom, there are many cultures in the world that do ‘study’ death. Unfortunately not our western cultures. You are right, it is hidden and feared in our country. But not in all countries. It is something that we could use and learn from in our culture.

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