Death, Be Not Misunderstood

Socrates referred to it as either a "dreamless sleep" or a "relocating of the soul..." Hamlet called it the "undiscover'd country from whose bourn / No traveller returns..."

They were speaking, as many readers know, of death. And despite some modern accounts (see, for example, Eben Alexander's Proof of Heaven), Hamlet was right: the trip into our end is one-way. 

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In his 1998 encyclical "Fides et Ratio" ("Faith and Reason"), John Paul II wrote that "the first absolutely certain truth of our life, beyond the fact that we exist, is the inevitability of our death." Despite this daunting fact, death is rarely mentioned or discussed; or if it is, it's done so in passing or indirectly. We rarely focus on death as its own philosophical or literary theme. We know death will deliver itself, but we don't necessarily want to acknowledge it. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus captured it well many years ago when he wrote:

We are born to die. Not that death is the purpose of our being born, but we are born toward death, and in each of our lives the work of dying is already underway. The work of dying well is, in largest part, the work of living well. Most of us are at ease in discussing what makes for a good life, but we typically become tongue-tied and nervous when the discussion turns to a good death. As children of a culture radically, even religiously, devoted to youth and health, many find it incomprehensible, indeed offensive, that the word “good” should in any way be associated with death. Death, it is thought, is an unmitigated evil, the very antithesis of all that is good.

These great authors and their thoughts returned to mind recently when I read about the expansion of what one might call "death studies." Last week, TheWall Street Journal reported:

At Kean University, students are dying (as it were) to get into Norma Bowe's class "Death in Perspective," which has sometimes carried a three-year waiting list. On one field trip to a local coroner's office, Dr. Bowe's students were shown three naked cadavers on metal tables. One person had died from a gunshot, the other from suicide and the third by drowning.

The last corpse appeared overweight but wasn't; he had expanded like a water balloon. A suspect in a hit-and-run case, he had fled the scene, been chased by police, abandoned his car and jumped into the Passaic River. On the autopsy table, he looked surprised, his mouth splayed open, as if he realized he had made a mistake. As the class clustered around, a technician began to carve his torso open. Some students gagged or scurried out, unable to stand the sight or the smell.

This grim visit was just one of the excursions for Dr. Bowe's class. Every semester, students also leave the campus in Union, New Jersey, to visit a cemetery, a maximum-security prison (to meet murderers), a hospice, a crematory and a funeral home, where they pick out caskets for themselves. The homework is also unusual: Students are required to write goodbye letters to dead loved ones and to compose their own eulogies and wills.

That's not all. The article further notes:

Today, growing numbers of Americans are confronting death as something more than an abstract possibility. So-called death dinners, in which people gather to talk about the inevitable, are increasingly popular; so are death salons, featuring discussions of death over craft beer. Death cafes, events whose dark talk is perked up by tea and cake, have sprouted up in more than 100 cities, according to Lizzy Miles, who hosted the first known one in the U.S. in July 2012 in Westerville, Ohio.

I know some will find all the death talk unsettling, but I think this trend is a generally healthy direction for our academic and popular culture, for a culture that struggles to fathom wrinkled skin and receding hair lines. It can certainly be overwrought, it can certainly become woefully depressive or despair-inducing; but if contemplating the curtain call of our earthly run inspires people to reflect more intentionally and thoughtfully about their lives, about their decision-making, and about what they value and how they behave, about the origin and end of all their days, then these courses, cafes and events can be much-needed correctives.

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Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 7 months ago
As one with a terminal illness (I have metastatic breast cancer that has spread to my bones and brain), I spend a lot of time thinking about death. There are many angles from which I seem to explore this phenomena - my fear of the unknown to my re-assessment of what time (and time running out) means. Perhaps my most challenging hurdle is that death carries with it a sense of "leaving". How do I "leave" loved ones? How do I leave that which I love? Do I leave? I find myself working my way through a tangled mess of fear and denial, both in myself and in others. Most people do not know how to respond/relate to my situation. If they acknowledge my fate at all (most tend to act as if it is not happening), they offer platitudes from "well, you'll be in a much better place" (as if this place is horrible) to "FIGHT for yourself, you can live as long as you want to" (as if death is the ultimate enemy). It seems like everyone is dealing with their own insecurities surrounding death as they attempt to comfort/advise me in how to make my own way. And that's just it. Death is probably the most personal thing that happens to us. It must be faced personally. No one else can do this for me. (just as no one else can live my life) This is happening to me, how am I going to respond? With fear, with trust, with hope, with joy, with denial, with depression? Where does such trust and hope come from? Can it be conjured up at will? Can I really decide how I will die, or is that just another form of control? At this point I'm finding it all quite scary yet fascinating. Life-changing. A daily attempt to let go of the branch when I know that there's a falls up ahead. Being open to whatever. Wondering about who/what God really is and who/what I really am. And what the connection is.
David Pasinski
3 years 7 months ago
Thank you,Beth. Your thoughts from where you are in the journey are so real. Although I have 15 years as Hospice chaplain -or maybe becasue of it -I've come to say less and listen more about individuals' perceptions, thoughts, fears, and hopes for this passage and whatever is next . I appeciate yours and hold you ih neart and prayer.
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 7 months ago
Thanks, David. I think it was Henri Nouwen who said that when you really listen to someone, it is the spirit of God in you that is welcoming that person (or something like that). No greater gift that you can give to someone than simple listening.
Matt Emerson
3 years 7 months ago

Beth -

Thank you for your honesty, for opening the door into sufferings and contemplations that very few can or will understand. Reading your post, I feel an urge to pray, to listen, to wonder, and to be silent.

Someone close to my family died seven years ago of metastatic breast cancer, and she said something similar to what you wrote. I asked her what it was like to be confronting her death in such a manner, and she said that the experience, in its ineffable character, was like having a child. You couldn't understand it, she said, until you actually go through it yourself.  I realized then there was a gulf that had opened up, a space between us, and that for all my efforts to understand and sympathize, I simply wouldn't fathom what she was feeling. 

I'm intrigued by the questions that you face and which you posed in your comment: "This is happening to me, how am I going to respond? With fear, with trust, with hope, with joy, with denial, with depression? Where does such trust and hope come from? Can it be conjured up at will? Can I really decide how I will die, or is that just another form of control?"

If you don't mind my asking, are you able to answer those questions with any kind of particularity? Can you share anything with readers?

I'm sure you hear this a lot, so I hope it doesn't come across trite, but I will be praying for you and hoping for healing and consolation.

Sincerely,

Matt E.  

Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 7 months ago
Thank you for your response, Matt. Your friend may be right about not being able to understand/relate until you are there yourself. I don't know anyone, personally, who has mBC but I do belong to an online forum of women from around the world who are dealing with the disease. Almost every week there are one or two that die, and we all know that we are in the same boat. The support and sharing of information is good, but sometimes (for weeks at a time) I have to pull away from reading it. I'm not sure why. Some of the women are incredibly strong and positive, others more depressed. I'm finding that I go through the whole gamut of emotions, and that being "positive" is not necessarily better than being depressed. Both are ok. I don't know that I have answers for you. I live in a lot of questions these days. No, I can't answer questions with much particularity,but I am getting more and more sure that I should not judge what I am feeling. Hope is much deeper than certainty (or answers). Sometimes hope and trust may not "feel" like safety and security. It is ok to be afraid. I know that there might (probably will) come a time when I lose my mental clarity. That's pretty scary. Though I am somewhat rebellious in that I don't want to fall into religious piety during my final days, I am praying to Fr. Arrupe that I might have the trust that he had during his final years when he was so dependent upon the care of others: "More than ever I find myself in the hands of God. This is what I have wanted all my life from my youth. But now there is a difference; the initiative is entirely with God. It is indeed a profound spiritual experience to know and feel myself so totally in God’s hands." My diagnosis makes life more scary, but it also makes it much more fascinating and real. I look around a lot more, see things as they are and accept that. I love life and the world and its peoples in their brokenness and confusion. I treasure everything that I see. That's a pretty big step for me who has always seen the flaws and wanted to fix things up. I don't know how else I would get here without facing my mortality. When you go along in life thinking that it's going to go on forever, as most of us do for a lot of years, you're pretty much mostly sleep walking. As demons (like death) are faced, they lose their power over you. Awhile back I wrote about a visit to the mammogram place, where all the women were sitting around with worry and it was all small potatoes for me. The worst thing that could happen had already happened to me. (short little essay about it - "The Horses are out of the Barn" is here: http://shoofoolatte.tumblr.com/post/74105234113/the-horses-are-out-of-the-barn ) But I know that I still have a ways to go and a lot more demons to face down. Thanks for asking, Matt.
Matt Emerson
3 years 7 months ago

Beth,

Thank you for your response. There are lines that will remain with me and that I will unpack for a long long time... "I am getting more and more sure that I should not judge what I am feeling" . . . "Hope is much deeper than certainty" . . . "When you go along in life thinking that it's going to go on forever, as most of us do for a lot of years, you're pretty much mostly sleep walking."

That last line especially struck me. I don't want to sleep walk through life. I want to feel its urgency, its contingency, also its joy and possibility. What is your advice? How does one "wake up"? Is that even possible without having to face a serious illness or grief?

 

Matt

Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 7 months ago
I remember some years ago saying to someone, "I hope that at least I can wake up before I die". So much of life feels like muddling around in the dark, living a life of quiet desperation. There are lots of answers and advice around: Be here now, Give yourself to others, Be positive (I hate that one :-)), Stop gazing at your navel, Pray and trust God, etc. But basically, despite what I say about life being more intense now, it's still dark. I'm not, and don't expect to be, "enlightened" anymore. But I do expect more peace and acceptance. More awareness (and even enjoyment) of just being here. Gratitude for that. Yesterday I came across this Merton journal entry, just before he left for Asia: "I really expect little or nothing from the future. Certainly not great "experiences" or a lot of interesting new things. Maybe, but so what? What really intrigues me is the idea of starting out into something unknown, demanding and expecting nothing very special, hoping only to do what God asks of me, whatever it may be." July 29, 1968 Maybe you can't rush sleep-walking. Everything has to be lived in its own time; every person and every time is essential, and all we can do is answer "yes, ok".
Bruce Snowden
3 years 7 months ago
Matt, I don’t think I can agree with the cavalier approach to death that Kean University and Norma Bowe offers. Death is one of life’s sacred moments, its last, “ite Missa est” flowing from life’s first sacred moment, the creation of new life through impregnating conjugal love, leading to life’s second sacred moment, conception, culminating in birth, life’s third sacred moment, with multiple sacred moments along the way to the specially numbered sacred moment of death, indicative of the well- known expression respectfully offered, “you’re number is up.” Death is a sacred moment whatever its “number.” See what has happened to humanity’s understanding of life in our day, through the cheapening effect of cavalierism, on its behalf. There is now legalized wholesale elimination of the not yet born as individual choice may dictate, the termination of elder life because of so-called non-productivity, considered an option, or because of terminal, or non-terminal illness including even now the very young as in the Netherlands also an option. And so much more. In short, life is as sacred, as holy, as is death and death as sacred and as holy as life, and united in integral twinning as is meant to be, desecration of one is desecration of the other. Kean University is certainly unintendedly desecrating the sacredness of death and as a result may also be desecrating life. At least, so it seems to me. No offense meant to anyone and I apologize if anyone is offended.
Matt Emerson
3 years 7 months ago

Bruce --

I read the article differently than you did. I thought that Kean Univ and Norma Bowe were trying to address the very worry you identify -- i.e., death being taken too lightly. It seems that the assignments the students have are the kinds of assignments that would get them to realize that time is fleeting, life is fragile, and that we must savor the gift of our existence. If the course brings in no religious perspectives, I think those should be added, but even without those, I would think students walk away far more grateful and aware than before the course. It seems, from everything I've read, the professor has very good intentions.  

Professor Bowe is a counselor at the Center for Grief Services in NJ. At that web site, she writes this on her blog:

"The only thing we can change is our attitude about death. We can learn about it. We can plan for it. We can talk to our loved ones about it. We can live our lives the way they should be lived. All of this takes inordinate amounts of courage because death is scary. Living takes courage too. If we can respect death as inevitable, instead of ignoring it for as long as we can before the health problems set in, we can live with a renewed sense of passion and wonder. The world around us can be a truly amazing place. The knowledge of our own mortality can even be the fire in our belly that pushes us to our maximum potential. Life is grand if we know we are dying."

I think those words show a deep appreciation for what's at stake with life and death, even if she wouldn't share the theological presuppositions of Catholic Christianity. From my own brief research, it seems that Prof. Bowe, with this class, very much wants to cultivate a wisdom that transcends surface-level thinking.  

-Matt

Bruce Snowden
3 years 7 months ago
Thanks Matt for clarifying for me exactly what Kean University and Norma Bowe, are doing. Prof. Bowe's words as your email records are striking and I can agree with them. What helped derail my understanding was student-viewing of dead bodies in mortuaries, insensitive I feel towards the dignity of somebody's Mom/Dad/Sister/Brother/ etc., perhaps violating family privacy, grief, unless families gave approval. I just wouldn't want a family member's body or my own to be made the object of gapes probably naked on a slab. And in this I now realize I'm being terribly inconsistent, as at death I have given my brain for study by Student Meds at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine, in a Senior Study, which will probably involve people looking at my corpse as my brain is removed. Patron Saint of Inconsistencies whomever you are, pray for me! Again, THANKS!
Bruce Snowden
3 years 7 months ago
Beth, your testimony about your terminal illness and the inevitability of death is magnificent! God bless you! I understand your fears rooted in the unknown, fears that cling like a vine to family and friends, composites of all that will be the “once was” of the familiar realities of your persona, framed in the joys and sorrows the irregularities and stabilities, of what was called “life.” At eighty-two I realize that my own death cannot be too far off, even if some years are left. I have health issues, several of which could become the “chariot” of my last ride, hopefully to the Kingdom of God . I don’t want to bore you with the nonsense of pious platitudes , as you are well grounded in the teachings of Faith which give hope. We cling to that! As a Professed Secular Franciscan, I also find Francis of Assisi’s attitude towards death helpful. He called it “Sister Death” walking into the Land of the Living with a family member, a loving sister, hand in hand. I like that too and maybe you also will. I ask you to keep my family and me in your prayers, as what we have to endure becomes one with the sufferings of Jesus, which according to St. Paul “makes up for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.” Mysterious! And we can be a part of it. Beth, be assured that you will share in whatever value my prayers have, in which I will ask our Brother Jesus, Mother Mary, and all the angels and saints of God to sustain you and comfort you, for we know a secret many refuse to share – the best is yet to come!
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 7 months ago
I like the way you speak of the "chariot" of your last ride, Bruce. More and more I get the sense that life as we know it just isn't the whole story, and we're mostly interpreting it all wrong and spreading this wrong interpretation as a form of delusional comfort. Yes, there are the religious paradigms that can give us bigger story, but mostly it seems to me that there is something that has to be worked out within ourselves. If I just followed the religious formulas (believed, followed the rules, etc.) I would never work out my salvation. There's a personal struggle that has to happen. Thank you for your prayers. I appreciate knowing that you're on the road with me, as I am with you.
Matt Emerson
3 years 7 months ago

Beth, can you expound on what you mean here -- "we're mostly interpreting it all wrong and spreading this wrong interpretation as a form of delusional comfort." 

What do you mean? I'm very curious.  

I think of the "personal struggle" you mentioned and my thoughts turn Jacob's wrestling with the angel and to the subsequent renaming from Jacob to "Israel," or "one who contends with the divine." Perhaps there's part of the originality and wisdom of the Old Testament, that it began to see that faith and some kind of wrestling or an internal-working-out are not incompatible.  

Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 7 months ago
Matt - dunno, I may have to chew on this for awhile :-) … Mostly, I think that I am reacting to the interpretations (both secular and religious) of life (and time) that are all around, all the time. That time is linear and that we are moving from past to future as if on a timeline. That's feeding into the notion that Death is The End, so no wonder we are all scared to death of death. Everything revolves around that fear. My sister says, "Old age is not so bad if you have your health". (I think my sister is the one who is most afraid for me, and has a very hard time even approaching the subject of death. I can FEEL her fear in this comment, even though it seems almost as if she is talking to herself.) Her husband, a medical doctor, says, "That's a hell of a thing to say to your sister, who doesn't have her health". I think, everyone, every where, is always subconsciously trying to deal with this dilemma of death and no one knows what to say (to me) so they say whatever they can to comfort themselves and each other, but we're really just driving ourselves deeper into delusion. I'm not sure if that is the best example of what I'm coming up against, almost daily. It's hard to be honest about what we know nothing about. It's hard to say, I'm afraid. Easier to say, "no need to be afraid, God's going to take care of it all." So why is everyone afraid and why do their comments reflect that fear? Yes, I know, there is religion. There are the religious stories to console us. But the fear is real, and mostly being covered up, in my opinion. I would much rather listen to someone honestly tell me what they are feeling than give me a long story about God and their faith and how nice that makes everything. I end up feeling like they're evading what is right in front of them. They'll get some nice drug and die in their sleep and everyone will say that it was a peaceful, beautiful death, and go back to their death denying lives. Oh gee. I think I got way off track. I'm just at the place where the struggle is very real for me, and would like to hear more from others about it. You're right, the wrestling with the angel. I have fallen down a hole. No way I can put on a “face” of having it all together anymore. Every delusion/illusion I have about what life is all about is being shown to me as the farce that it is. I know nothing. And, believe it or not, I'm beginning to trust this emptiness/nothingness more than anything else.
Marie Rehbein
3 years 7 months ago
Hi, Beth. I have been avoiding this article because it seemed that it would be full of experts who had no valid claim to expertise. However, your perspective is so pertinent that you are the closest to an expert we are likely to meet. If I may, your sister's comment, the way it strikes me is that she is saying we all know we will die and the older we get the closer we get to that reality, but when we are feeling well, we are able to put it out of our minds and make other plans. I think she feels sorry for you -- and herself, because there is nothing she can do for you. You say nothing of whether you are in pain and whether this influences your attitude. I imagine that significant pain could make death something you long for. I know that some extremely elderly relatives of mine would say they wished it would happen already because there was nothing more for them to do even though they were still fairly healthy and generally happy.
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 7 months ago
Thanks for your comment, Marie. I'm a little shy about being "out there" so much with this. And I really don't know if I will live for months or years. I don't want anyone feeling sorry for me. Death is something that we all face, it's just a little more intense for me now. In August of 2012 my hip fractured in 2 places. This was found to be due to metastatic breast Cancer (totally unexpected) that was eating up the bone from within (they said my pelvis looked like swiss cheese). Orthopedic guy wanted to do a full hip and pubic bone replacement. Lucky for me, the chemo and other drugs seemed to have stopped this in its track and I can walk well now with very little pain. August 2013 a 3.5 cm tumor was seen in my brain. Again, metastatic breast cancer. It was surgically removed, and now I am monitored with brain MRIs every 2-3 months, depending on what they see. So far, just little "things" appear and they zap them with gamma knife. I get a form of chemo (Herceptin) every 3 weeks and some other assorted drugs, but basically I feel pretty good other than fatigue. I have no idea how long this will go on, or if another big deal (like the brain tumor) will happen. Some days I feel like I have a lot of life left, and some days I don't. Basically, I don't know. My odds are not great, if you look at the statistics. Only 20% of people who are diagnosed with brain mets survive for 1 year, and here I am at 7 months and feeling pretty good. My expert oncologist told me that many people live for a couple of years having brain things zapped with the gamma knife. She didn't say what happened after 2 years. I, too, have some elderly friends who are more than ready to go. It's as if they are on an edge with one foot already in the unknown. I still struggle greatly with the notion of "leaving". I feel very sad at the thought of leaving my husband, my sister. PS. Feel so good that I have a trip to Rome planned for next month. Need to see for myself the Salus Populi Romani that Pope Francis prayed before in Sept. That was the day before my brain surgery.
Marie Rehbein
3 years 7 months ago
If it were me, the idea of leaving my loved ones would be the main cause of distress also. I wish you all the best with regard to your monitoring and treatment, and I hope you have a wonderful visit to Rome.
Matt Emerson
3 years 7 months ago

This might be a reach here, but the way you describe your experience makes me think of what we read about in the Passion Narrative. There is no contrived cheerfulness or exhortations that all will end well. There is a brutal acknowledgment of the cruelty of the world and the fear and trembling it evokes. "My soul is very sorrowful, even to death . . ." (Mk 14:34).

Related to all this... reading the comments on this post, I'm put in mind of a passage from Christian Wiman's recent memoir of faith, My Bright Abyss. Composed as he was ravaged by disease, he writes: 

I have been in and out of treatment, in and out of the hospital. I have had bones die and bowels fail; joints lock in my face and arms and legs, so that I could not eat, could not walk. I have filled my body with mingled mouse and human antibodies, cutting-edge small molecules, old-school chemotherapies eating into me like animate acids. I have passed through pain I could never have imagined, pain that seemed to incinerate all my thoughts of God and to leave me sitting there in the ashes, alone. I have been isolated even from my wife, though her love was constant, as was mine. I have come back, for now, even hungrier for God, for Christ, for all the difficult bliss of this life I have been given. But there is great weariness too. And fear. And fury.

 

 

Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 7 months ago
I have ordered that book, Matt. Thanks.
Stanley Kopacz
3 years 7 months ago
As one gets older, death becomes less of an abstraction. In your case, Beth, there is no abstraction left. All I can say is that you will be in my thoughts and prayers. I hope that you can continue to add your humanity to this forum as you have in the past.
ed gleason
3 years 7 months ago
Beth, you will be in me prayers.

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