I smiled at John, lying on the couch with 7-month-old Carl sleeping on his stomach. Following two difficult miscarriages, Carl’s birth was truly a miracle for us, and we reveled in the wonder of our child. John noted my gaze and quietly whispered, "Amy, if I ever die, make sure you tell Carl how much I love him." I hugged John tightly, with the assurance that Carl already knew and would continue to know that patient love. The next day, John was driving home from a business conference when his car was struck broadside by another car, and he was killed instantly. The previous afternoon’s conversation rang in my memory as I was unwillingly transformed from adoring wife and happy mother into widow and single parent.
Our close-knit Iowa town responded instantly. The freezer filled with food, cards and memorials poured in, and everyone told me they would never forget John. I soon learned, however, that while American Catholic funerals provide people with acceptable public expressions of grief, they also create the expectation that all expressions of grief happen there. Two weeks after John’s funeral, the calls, cards and offers of help fizzled out. Instead of giving touching reminders of the man I loved, people would talk about everything except John. Support was replaced by silence, awkward pauses and quick how-are-you’s that desired no answer. Two months after John’s death, people intimated that I had grieved long enough. When I brought up his death or cried, someone would change the subject. In private, I was told to get on with my life, to leave it behind and quit depressing everyone. I longed for a support group or community with whom I could vent my feelings and have them acknowledged.
With few exceptions, American culture does not support the bereaved, preferring instead to ignore death and grief. Recognizing death’s reality requires accepting one’s own mortality and the transience of all life. Recognizing the true nature of grief requires admitting that it is a long and painful process. Our society is afraid to face such facts.
Death is no longer a normal, natural part of American daily life. A century ago, most people lived in rural settings in touch with nature’s cycle of life and death. Grandparents often lived with the family and died at home. Ill people were never hooked up to machines and taken to hospitals. People knew about death, talked about it and supported one another through it.
The taboo subject then was sex. Today we talk about sex interminably, but death is taboo. The dead people we see are those killed gratuitously in violent blockbuster movies or tragically in tear-jerker television dramas. American society tolerates, even celebrates these unreal deaths while simultaneously denying the deaths of real human persons. Instead of acknowledging death, we view grieving people as a problem, a nagging burden and a source of discouragement.
Denial of death lulls us into complacency, into believing our loved ones belong to us and will always be there. When death occurs, as it inevitably will, we are totally unprepared, blind, angry and lost. After John died, I believed I would never be happy again. I would learn to function and to raise Carl as best I could, but I believed that the capacity to be deeply happy was gone. Yet I remembered that every time John and I had struggled through difficulties and hurts, we emerged stronger and more loving. I also experienced the cycles of nature witnessing to life after death, to radiant spring flowering from bitterest winter. I believed in the paschal mystery of resurrection and hope, of renewed life overcoming cruel tragedy. Eventually I discovered that society and I had been wrong. I faced death and healed; I am now living life fully, and I am truly happy.
The healing process I experienced has taught me volumes. I remember the clumsy words that even well-intentioned people say to survivors. I remember the isolation caused by the denial of death. I remember grasping for hope. We who have experienced death know that we are not in control, and that nothing is guaranteed. We who have experienced death are also in a unique position to appreciate life. Therefore, there isn’t a beloved person to whom I have not said, "I love you," and said it often. There isn’t a possession I own that I don’t believe I could live without. There isn’t a morning that I don’t thank God for another chance at life. There isn’t a night that I am not grateful for another day.
I am also there for others in grief, letting them cry and nodding my head in understanding. I take them out to lunch after everyone else has disappeared. I listen to their story as often as they need to tell it. I assure them they are not crazy. I am for them an example of one who was in despair and anguish, yet made it through. I give them hope that they will heal and life will be good again.
A remarkable thing happens when I do this. Not only do I help someone heal, but that person returns the favor. Giving to another, going out of myself, repeatedly facing my pain and tragedyall of these challenge me to deal with my own griefs. I also make a tiny dent in this death-denying culture, helping one more person know that death is not a taboo subject.
I dream of a different kind of society, in which grieving people are supported and sustained in much the same way as parents are. It is not only socially acceptable but expected that parents will converse about children and agonize over their problems, that they will trade tips on toilet training or temper tantrums and share the names of good pediatricians. These conversations connect parents to each other in informal community and strengthens them for their task.
Imagine going to a party where death is an open subject. Imagine having people readily cry with you, laugh with you and share their grief experiences. The isolation of grief banished, wisdom shared and everyone healing one anotherthis is my dream. May that dream become a reality so that we can walk the journey of grief embraced in strong arms, sustained by community wisdom and healed by love.