Thursday, September 17, 2009
Transformation of Loss
Sometimes it comes quietly. Sometimes it arrives violently. Sometimes it is met with shock and surprise; sometimes with long-held expectation. It is the culmination of life's every moment, every matter. It is feared; it is loathed, and occasionally, welcomed. Whatever it is, I don't think that it is the end.
I don't mean to sound macabre, but death has been on my mind lately. It's not a subject I tend to spend hours upon hours thinking about. But my mind does naturally wander into the dark and dusty labyrinth of all things existential now and then. It's only human. With life, comes death. How can one avoid thoughts of it completely? While I certainly don't think it's healthy to dwell on the topic of death, I also do not think it healthy to never confront it either.
It's one of those vastly complex subjects that has physical, spiritual, and philosophical importance. Death is different to everyone, on some level. For some, death is merely the transition from our hours spent in human form on earth, to a spiritual being. For some death is Mother Nature's final say, her bid adieu. For some, death is a question: what will happen to me; is there anything after?
I grew up being taught that death was a transition from the physical to the spiritual -- that our time on earth was incomparable to the eternity that would be spent in heaven. There is no possible way for me to know whether or not this is true. I cannot prove, nor disprove its validity. But I choose to believe in something more than just our time here. If, for no other reason, than it is comforting. If I choose to believe in an entity greater than myself, than it is logical for me to believe in an existence greater than the one in which I am living.
This belief in an afterlife allows for something quite beautiful to occur: a celebration after a death, rather than a finalization. I have experienced this many times at funerals, where the people choose to celebrate a life lived and what is yet to come. I value this perspective. It gives me hope.
But even though this perspective is comforting, it of course does not alleviate all the pain of our loss. Loss is a profound thing. Nothing smacks your gut and knocks the wind out of you quite like losing someone you love. And nothing hangs heavier over you with blackness than losing someone you need.
I've been fortunate to not have had to experience this too many times, unlike many people. But I have had my losses. And I can still conjure up those desperate feelings when I think back to those times.
* * * * * * *
My first significant experience of death was the loss of my great-grandmother, Ruth (my mom's grandma). She died when I was in seventh grade. I was home from school, sick that day, and remember my mom walking into the family room, her eyes pink and puffy. When she told me I grabbed my notebook, in which I had been working on writing a play for a contest, and dedicated it to her. She had always wanted to be a writer.
At the funeral in Minnesota I stood several feet away from her casket, not wanting to approach. Death was foreign to me -- frightening and confusing. I knew what it was, what it meant. But I didn't understand how to interact with it. I was sad, and that's the only thing that really made sense to me.
* * * * * * *
I lost my grandfather, Clyde (my mom's dad), in November of 1998. I recall the late afternoon when we received the call. I had just gone to the basement for something and heard my mom answer the phone. I stopped. For some reason I got nervous and wondered if this was something important. I heard my mom's voice weaken, "What?" she said softly. "When?"
I knew. Something inside of me knew that it was my grandpa. I wish I hadn't been right.
He had died while working on the new addition to their church, doing what he did every day of most of his life: laying brick. He died with his boots in the mud.
Later that evening my immediate family all gathered in our living room, huddled together in a fractured communion of mourning. We had our arms around each other, already retelling the stories of his tricky card-playing, affinity to toothpicks, and silent dedication to his family and church.
The day of his funeral was chilly and very windy. I don't remember a lot of the funeral ceremony. I have bits-and-pieces type memories of the stories that were told, the music that played, and the squeezes of hands throughout my family. But I do remember the graveside. We huddled once again together, wind assaulting our faces, and watched and listened as the American Legion Honor Guard saluted my grandpa with the firing of rifles.
This is what affected me more than anything that day. Each firing resonated like a base drum in my gut . . . stung like a slap in my face. It had a powerful way of making me realize that he was truly gone.
* * * * * * *
I lost my grandmother, Ruth (my dad's mom) in October of 2000. She was one of the unfortunates that was stricken with Alzheimer's, which is what eventually facilitated her passing. I don't remember that phone call. I was in my second year of college and it all seems to be much more of a blur. I remember the car ride to Ohio, however. I rode with my brother, Jeremy, his wife, Mary, and my (at the time) one year old niece, Nikole. In the face of losing someone it was comforting and healing to be around my niece. She was a gentle light in what felt like a dark time.
It's sometimes strange to be so fully engulfed in the reality of death while being confronted with new life. I think it's difficult for our minds to know how to process it all -- to grasp and understand the cyclical nature of life and death -- to know that nothing is really ever over.
My grandma's funeral was lovely, as I remember it. My dad officiated and very tenderaly told stories of her and spoke of her favorite song, "The Tennessee Waltz," which was then played while we all sat in silence. It was this moment that affected me most.
I thought back to all of the times I would sit in the kitchen with her and our dog, Fluffy. She would softly chuckle, shoulders bobbing, and say, "My girl."
The song was so very her -- tender, warm, slower-paced, simple. To look up toward the coffin, realizing that her body was not responding to the music that she loved . . . I knew, that she was gone now.
* * * * * * *
I held death in my hands in February of this year. Our dog, Miko, that we had to put to sleep, was buried under a tree at my brother, Jeremy's house. I helped bury her. I carried her dead body out of the vet, into our apartment, and carefully placed her on the floor of our living room while we got a few things that we needed before heading to Wabash. I looked at her body, wrapped in her blue blanket, motionless, quiet. It was so surreal to see her there, knowing that she wasn't really there at all.
I helped dig the hole where she was placed. It was cold and very windy. I had snot dripping from my nose, mixing with the tears that were impossible to push back. I wanted this to be over. I wanted to go inside and forget about it all. But when I went to pick up her body out of the car to carry her over to her resting place, I didn't want to let go. I cradled her dead body, trying to transfer some last form of affection to her, knowing that she couldn't feel it.
I placed her in the ground, still wrapped in her blanket, with her rope and a picture of her with Kevin and I.
* * * * * * *
There is nothing more evasive to your own sense of life, than to hold death in your hands, your arms, against your chest. It changed me. I think that day I was able to embrace death more than I ever have before. I was able to see it, feel it, but know that life still goes on all around us and in us.
We will never fully understand what happens to us after death. Most of us are still simply trying to figure out life. We are constantly changing, constantly transforming. Perhaps death is just one, small step of that transformation . . . into something better.