Tag Archives: dying

Society and Death

We have moved into a period in this culture where death is not part of life, nor the every day. Although death continues to happen to young and old, ill and hale, through accidents, disease and murder, still we talk about it in an all-encompassing way but ignore it in the intimate of the every day.

There may be somebody who will say death is not part of life and for the person who dies, life indeed is no more part of them. But for those who know someone who has died, death is very much part of their lives. It used to be that in small communities, such as mining or fishing towns, when someone died they were laid out upon the table in the family home. A table is where people break bread, eat of the earth, communicate and come together, and it is a place big enough to lay a body. Where it will be cleaned and dressed by family members. A place where a person lays in state for people to pay their last respects before being taken to the church and then buried. Funeral parlors weren’t in every small town.

Death now is the last great taboo of the Western world. When someone dies, people have no idea what to say and so say nothing at all. They’re uncomfortable with the concept of death and avoid it like the plague. Veer around the person whose loved one has died, maybe send an innocuous card. A brave soul might say, I’m sorry to hear about your mother/brother/wife.

The griever is expected, after missing a few days of work, to act normal, to show no emotion that may be seen as sad, maudlin, angry, or grief-stricken. Crying is verboten. After all, people will feel edgy and avoid the grieving. So act like it’s life as normal.

The truth is, grief takes time. There is no set limit but it often takes a year to process through a person’s emotions. People who deny their grief and don’t go through the process can actually do physical damage to themselves. The storing up of such emotions, rather than releasing them through a natural process, can also affect the person’s psyche for the rest of their lives. Studies have shown that you can’t put off your grieving for too long, that there is a crucial period when the grieving should take place.

And yet our society tries to make everyone a stoic, free from any emotions except those that are uplifting and bright. By doing this, we cauterize ourselves from the full range of what it means to be human, effectively castrated from all but the most superficial feelings. You cannot have joy without experiencing pain. A constant state of euphoria cannot last and becomes the norm on which a person then judges bad or good, happy or sad. What would normally be sad becomes huge trauma and depression, with no end in sight to it.

I believe it is this unhealthy avoidance attitude that society has to death and negative emotions which have caused an increase in drug use, both recreational and with anti-depressants, to handle what once our bodies could do on their own. We have fewer ways to cope naturally and must go to the drugs. Drug addicts cannot find that constant euphoria so they hunt it in the addiction, afraid to face a life that encompasses happiness and pain.

And death–we can’t avoid it. It will happen. I never knew what to say to anyone when their family member or friend died. We don’t hug our coworkers, we don’t pat them on the shoulders. We maintain distance. We don’t wail at funerals and beat our breasts. And yet we should, for in those acts we express the grief that otherwise builds up in us. We have an outlet that lets us return to a healthy mentality faster.

I regret that when my sister-in-law’s parents died (at different times) that I didn’t know what to say and said nothing at all. How callous. How ignorant. It took the death of a friend for me to experience the grieving process and to understand how people can feel, and just how long it can take to think of that person without crying and feeling as if someone has crushed your heart. I began to understand that a person grieving can feel very cut off and alone, and as if no one cares.

It is almost like being shunned, when someone has to grieve. Letting a person or a community grieve publicly, sharing memories, talking about the person who passed can help. It validates the feelings and a person will recover faster from mourning if they are allowed to express themselves. And yes it can take a year or longer. I have only lost friends and that affected me greatly. I can’t imagine the depth of the pain and loneliness that their spouses felt.

We can all change this debilitating trend by not being so scared of death and the process that we pretend doesn’t exist. The TV show Six Feet Under took a black humor look at death, from the death that opened each episode to the dysfunctional and very real lives of the mortician family that dealt with their own issues and the mourners for the dead. It was an adventuresome show because it touched on death in a very real way that we shy away from. And the show was a hit; witty, tender, irreverent, strange and examining some aspects of life we would rather avoid.

Now, when I know someone who has lost a loved one, I try to let them grieve, to make sure they know it’s all right, to help them and to express my condolences so that they don’t feel isolated. It is the best way to make life more meaningful, by acknowledging the death of friends, family and coworkers.

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The Death of Rock Stars

Untimely deaths in the world of entertainment may not be every day, but they are a little too common, and of course because these people are famous we hear of all the sensational aspects that went along with the death. Looking at three stars of the music world, we have Elvis Presley, John Lennon and Michael Jackson, to name a few but perhaps the most famous deaths.

Elvis made it to 42 and died from complications of obesity and drugs. His life of fame ate at him and like many stars, brought out the hollowness of always being in the spotlight and having money to satisfy every desire but a happy heart. His funeral was big and his grave still gets many fans at Graceland.

John Lennon, didn’t die by his own hand, but was shot down by a nut, at the age of 40 (and Lennon actually said in a interview that day that he would probably be popped off by a loony). I remember when he died and I was incensed that the local paper didn’t even mention it on the front page of the newspaper. But some deaths hit the front pages because they sell newspapers.Because Lennon had moved on from the Beatles to a new phase of his life, his death was big but probably not as big as Elvis’s though they had been contemporaries.

Michael Jackson made it to 50, so did relatively well of the three big stars. He too died from drugs, addiction and who knows what else. His funeral this week was a spectacle with rock and movie stars and the thousands who attended being chosen through a lottery. It was in one sense a big dead concert, with booklets being given out as souvenirs or mementos of his memorial.

Comparing funerals and the splash that any of these men made in death could be difficult. Even Sarah Bernhardt’s death in the 20s held a spectable. Jackson has died in the age of computers and internet, blogging and tweeting. That his death will have hit more media forms than any other big stars death is obvious. This will of course increase his impact on his fans, or the number of people influenced by him. On TV, there must be at least five stations with long, dedicated shows to dissecting Jackson’s life. Not to mention every news hour covered Jackson’s death in detail.

Although stars often do charity and public works, funneling some of the gross amounts of money they make into good deeds, they are not overall big on world impact. That often takes world leaders and the power of their countries behind them to make those changes. But the King of Rock n’ Roll, the King of Pop and the Fab Four were known for their music, for touching the hearts and souls of millions of people. On TV, in movies, on stage, they were more visible, more beautiful and more charismatic than our world leaders.

Is it any wonder then, that we idolize them, place them on pedestals and call them our modern gods? People must place their faith, hopes and dreams on someone. We may not all be famous but we can fantasize of these princes of music and try and dig into evey aspect of their lives. And we can hate them enough to pull them down or shoot them, should they show a flaw or just somehow be what we can’t be.

Michael Jackson, like Elvis and John Lennon, left a huge legacy. It will stay in the hearts and minds of people for a long time. It will be a hundred years or longer before they fade from memory. But other stars will rise and shine and burn brightly for a time, then fade. And amongst those supernovas, there will be millions of other stars, not so bright, but the lives of you and me and those around us who deserve attention and love while alive. The price of fame and fortune was that Elvis and Michael at least, sought drugs and were unhappy. So we, the little stars, should remember this and be happy that we have the ability to be obscure and not always in a spotlight that can singe us to the soul.

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Remembering

As befits the day, I’m remembering those who I knew who have passed on.

First was Lydia Langstaff, so delicate that she befitted the ideal of a medieval woman. Slender, blond hair, translucent skin with a blue tracery of veins showing beneath. In fact her nails were blue as well. Born with a congenital heart defect, no one thought she would live past infanthood. She could not fly nor even walk up stairs, so fragile was her heart.

Yet Lydia never complained in the few years I knew her. She wrote, a good craft for someone barred from all physical elements. Traveling, of course was out. Lydia was starting to get somewhere with her writing career, having sold a speculative story and a few poems. She had written a novel, which took place in Scotland with an heiress who goes back to the time of her ancestors. Lydia was part of our writers’ group and I was just getting to know her a bit more (we were working on poems together I think) when she died, unexpectedly (though always expected) in the arms of her husband one night.

At 28 she had done much, a flame burning brightly but having to fight a strong wind the whole time. I remember Lydia and the lesson she taught. Don’t give up your dreams, don’t complain. Just do.

Jay Herrington was a friend I worked with in ritual plays. He was beautiful and gay and married to the love of his life, a woman. He and Deb had been school friends and married before he realized his penchant was for men. They knew though, that they did love each other, deeply, and worked around the issues. Jay was known for dressing drag once in a while as High Joan the Conqueror.

He was a talented priest and ritualist, a great artist and just starting to shine even brighter, a rising star. He and Deb made a trip back to their native Florida to bring his younger brother Josh out to Seattle. On the drive back a wheel flew off the car. Jay was sleeping in the back and never woke up. Deb was in a coma for several weeks. Josh walked away with only a scratch but with no brother. They kept Jay’s body alive long enough so that his parents could come and say goodbye. The only blessing was that Jay never woke from his injuries. He was just past 30, and burned so brightly we knew he could have done a lot. I remember Jay and the talent he and humor he brought to us.

Bear (John) Curtis, my friend of many years, was truly a bear of a man at 6’7″. He was much like his ursine namesake, grumpy and short on patience, and liked his darkish cave and backyard full of greenery and trees. But Bear was also generous and creative and deeply spiritual. Part Cherokee, he was a pipe carrier and introduced me to Native sweats and healing circles. People respected his respect of traditions.

He was an actor and had often played mountain men and bad guys in historic westerns. He was very much like a dragon in his hoard. There wasn’t a speck of wall or any surface in his home that didn’t have some trinket or treasure or image upon it. Bear collected bones, which I shared, shiny glass, Beatles paraphernalia and many other things. His greatest treasure was his wife Louise, efferevescent, loving and always joyous. There has never been a couple who balanced each other so well.

But Bear had to go for cancer surgery, which was successful. However, the state of our hospitals meant that he ended up with infections and then C-Defecil. His stubbornness and grumpiness scared some people. The damage to his body was great and Bear was scared himself, though he didn’t talk about except to Louise. He lingered and fought for fourteen months, a testament to the stubbornness he did have. He died last year, a week before Christmas. He was 59, young for his age, but the infection aged him greatly. The hardest thing was seeing his great spirit waste away over those months. I remember Bear for all that he gave me: friendship, creativity, spiritual perspectives.

There have been others, close enough to call friend and having left this life too soon. Gerry Stevens, a creative, strong minded man who was so gentle in his dying. He made it easier on everyone to deal with his dying. Having done chemo for awhile he finally decided to stop it as he was sick from it more than he was healthy. He died with dignity at home with relatively little pain. He always said, if it’s not fun, don’t do it and he had great fun.

Geoffery MacLean and Mischka Ravensfury, whose real names I didn’t know (Gordon [has told me Mischka’s was John Booth. I think I knew he was John but forgot with the Misch personality that I saw so much of). They were men I met in the SCA. Geoffery a humble bear of a man, always willing to help and maybe sometimes lacking in finesse. But he was gentle. He saved me from hypothermia one camping event, keeping me warm in bed, never being ungentlemanly. After years of health issues they diagnosed him with cancer and he had very few months after that diagnosis.

Mischka, was often a troubled man, but a big teddy bear. He tried hard, was a talented metal smith and opened his arms for anyone. Many misfits found welcome in Mischka’s camp. He was killed in a driving accident, never waking from his injuries.

These people, each and every one a bright spark, left their marks on many lives. We sometimes don’t know, indeed often have no idea, of the impact we make on someone. Everyone was human, flawed and perfect. They had good days and bad, pissed people off yet gave their love and attention. Their deaths always teach me a lesson. Live life to the fullest, go for your dreams and tell those who matter that you do indeed care for them. Better late than never.

This day was set aside, originally to mark the passing of those who had died in war. But each of us has our own war to fight and our own way to remember. I think of all the needless deaths, the lives gone far too soon and wonder if there is a better way. And I remember those I knew, keeping something of them alive in my heart.

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Medicare: Getting Personal

Over the past year I have known four people who ended up with secondary (and more) infections from being in the hospital. One person had an injury and his infection was more due to that than anything the hospital did, though they almost discovered it too late. One friend had surgery, went home and then developed an infection and had to go back in. I don’t know how the hospital was implicated in that.

Another friend had had hip replacement surgery a couple of years ago (his second). Subsequently the bone around the replacement crumbled and it turned out he had some sort of bone infection picked up at the time of initial surgery. They replaced the ball joint (and built up the pelvis) with an antibiotic version. Within a week it was pulling out and they had to operate again. It was then supposed to be in for a couple of months but I think it was much longer than that. He had the surgery last summer and is just now getting to 50% weight on the leg. They looked at suing the hospital because of the infection but the convoluted way of healthcare in Canada means they would have to sue the doctor too, even if it wasn’t his fault. What doctor would then touch a patient who has sued another one?

The last friend went in for bladder cancer surgery. They were removing his bladder and making a neo-bladder out of intestine. The surgery went well. The bladder was made and my friend started to heal in that first week, still needing catheterising. Eventually, after about two weeks, they sent him home, in time for Christmas. A day nurse came in to attend him and catheterize him every day. Because my friend was a particularly grumpy person, especially when not feeling well, and 6’7″, he intimidated some people. The day nurse never turned on the light in his dark bedroom and never really checked all of his vitals.

It turned out he was getting and infection, his feet had turned purple and his kidneys were shutting down. They put him back in the hospital just before new years and tried to stabilize. He had a shunt somewhere in his neck, for nutrients or something. He got one infection and then within 48 hours of being in the hospital he got C Deficil, the deadly super bacteria. He then suffered a heart attack and his kidneys shut down completely. Two operations of eight hours each then occurred. They removed his intestines and hooked him up to various machines.

Over the months his kidneys started working again but he lost teeth and bone to a parotid artery infection from one vein. He couldn’t eat because it turns out the kidneys change the way you taste food. Or sometimes he was vomitting. Slowly, he wasted a way to a skeletal frame. His veins would collapse. Sometimes he could eat, sometimes he need a gastrointestinal tube. His kidneys never worked right and another surgery was performed in the summer to put a shunt into his ureter or kidneys. He had bags, he had tubes, he had needles.

He did start to eat again, many foods but he was so weak that his hands would shake and it could take up to an hour to eat a chicken leg. I should mention here that the food was often abysmal and in no way nutritional or conducive toward healing. He wouldn’t eat the broccoli because it was cooked to mush. He was celiac (before they decided/determined that he no longer was) and he’d get two pieces of dried out rice bread, with margarin and one thin slab of processed luncheon meat, along with two hard boiled eggs and no fresh vegetables. CBC has done a good series on hospital food (Sounds Like Canada) as well as an expose on the lack of cleanliness (doctors or nurses not washing their hands).

Eventually, he was too weak to recover. He made the choice when they said, we have to put a gastro tube in or you will die and he refused the tube, choosing his time. But he fought a long battle of 14 months where I watched his spirit slowly drain from him and his body collapse upon itself. He died a week before Christmas last year.

I still hold a great anger for the fact that many deaths are needless and could be prevented if cleanliness and hygiene were adhered to in hospitals. As well, with the Campbell government illegally (as the courts did decide) firing unionized hospital workers and farming out the cleaning to the lowest bidder, we now have hospitals being cleaned by people/companies who may not be up on dealing with biohazardous material. Our provincial government is saving money at the expense of lives.

At the same time this is endemic across the country. It’s a criminal tragedy that people are dying because something as simple as washing hands is not followed and super bugs are thriving. The four people I mentioned above all went to the same hospital, one that is supposedly not on the watch list for infections.

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