Friday, September 26, 2014

Writing About Death

Last photo of mom and me, exactly one week before she died.
Before mom died, I read somewhere that it might not be a great idea to write about grief and loss when feelings about grief and loss are fresh and unrelenting. I believe I was reading Kim Addonizio's book, Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet Within (2009). I almost hesitated to write about my experiences with mom because of that advice.

That advice was moot anyway, as I had signed up for a memoir writing class a few months before mom's death. Ironically (and I rarely use that word), the first class was held on the evening of the day following mom's death. I forced myself to the call for this distance-learning class, knowing that if I missed the first call, I would consider myself somewhat of a chicken. I could do this.

I'm glad I did attend that class, and every class following for six weeks. The phone calls were soothing for me, as I began to share my experiences as mom's caregiver. And, I think that my participation engendered some trust among the participants, because I was honest about my feelings. Sometimes too honest.

Society has built walls around dying and grieving. I used to collect etiquette books, and each book contained certain guidelines and societal "rules" for grieving, mourning, and funerals. Those rules, or walls, can prevent us from healthy venting about caregiving, death, illness, and even about the fear of encountering those subjects with our loved ones. I know that I was willing to talk about those subjects with mom, but she wasn't ready to talk about them with me or with anyone else.

The last thing mom did before she became too sick to function was to pick out the funeral home she wanted to use, their services for her funeral, and her funeral urn. She made those choices on Wednesday, three days before her death. Dad forced her hand on the issues, and she obliged, finally. I understand her fear and reluctance in committing to this task, especially when she couldn't talk about death at all. Especially her own death. That meeting with the funeral home director was the last coherent act she conducted in her life.

I can write about her death. I can write about her death and my caregiving with a vengeance, but without malice. We need to talk about death and dying. We need to embrace that final and most assured event as much as we do the rest of our lives. We can live with gusto, and we can die with the same fearless intent. We can set examples for our friends and family. We can be vulnerable without fear when it comes to this subject.

I think Addonizio is correct about the rawness factor, that sometimes it's not a good idea to spit out feelings when they haven't been examined or critiqued. At the same time, it might be good (and it is for me) to go ahead and write about what transpired, and then sit on it for a while. That's what I'm doing. But, in going back to re-read what I wrote, I change little. I believe in truth, and I believe in common ground. Death is common ground, if nothing else.

If you could talk about death and dying with your parents, no matter your age or theirs, what would you ask them?

Endnote: The class I took was under the tutelage of Mara Eve Robbins. I highly recommend her course when she offers it. Her website is Process, Practice, Words.