Thursday, April 12, 2018


I would hardly be the first, and it's hardly the first time I've thought this myself - but the loss, through the 20th century, of traditional mourning practices in the United States is also a loss of an important signal between us as humans. It's been tempting, since my stepfather's death, to find some way to communicate, without having to have awkward conversations with strangers or acquaintances, that I have just endured a loss. With even the black armband all but vanished, mourning itself is an awkward proposition anymore.

There has been an increasing sense, for me, that it's time to move on. Nobody has pressed this upon me, but with weeks passing at a clip (I almost cannot believe it's been nearly three now), there is an inescapable feeling that continuing to Have The Feels about my stepfather's death is already drama-queening. That, to be frank, there is only the briefest of periods we can get away with not being okay and getting on with the day-to-day.

It would be ... if not nice, then certainly convenient, to have an unspoken signal of mourning. If one is to get on with the day-to-day, not having to *speak* about the loss of a loved one would certainly facilitate that. But the human heart is what it is, and it still hurts when people you're not sure even "know about it" register no sympathy. There is confusion - do I tell this person I see every day? Why should I have to do that? It feels like dramatics to lay that on people - particularly when you're not sure whether they know already. Some people won't speak because it's been more than a few days, and the news-cycle of life has sailed. Some people won't speak because they are sensitive to the pain of loss. Some people won't speak because they are awkward with the subject. Some people won't speak because they do not know. As the bereaved, it would be easier to know - is this person in ignorance, or are they being kind? It HELPS to understand.

So much of communication is nonverbal.

And so, if I had a signal, I could at least understand the words that do come toward me. And I could also communicate this important thing about myself, without having to stop time in the workroom to say, "Yeah, my stepfather just died." And leave someone feeling VERY awkward.

My guess is, this is one more gift Americans have accidentally or heedlessly imposed upon the world. In the rush to imprint our informality, nonconformity, and expectations upon human interaction, we have obliterated some forms of signal someone figured wasn't necessary, and over time the social enforcement that is conformity (har) ended up killing off this branch of etiquette. Uncomfortable, restrictive, depressing, perhaps even importunate upon the carefree (har) lives of other individuals.

Goodbye, mourning. Seriously, has anyone seen real mourning since Jackie Kennedy? I can't so much as remember consistently black garb at funerals; my mom, as it happens, wore poppy-red over a red and black dress, to the funeral inspiring me to discuss this whole thing. She is a great believer in the reaffirmation of life in vivid (the word means lively, after all) color.

I wore black. He was a bit more traditional. And he deserves to be mourned.

Indeed, since he died, I have kept my wardrobe more on the sober side ever since. If I can't go around in mourning jewelry (that people will understand as such, as opposed to thinking I just picked coz I'm goth-ly tinged), at least I can calibrate my mien to less flamboyance. And wear *less* jewelry. I actually applied a shot of brown hairspray to cover the blue hair, in fact, before the funeral; and at least once or twice since. I'm not even wearing highlighting cosmetics these days; bright eyes just seem inappropriate. (And the simpler the eye makeup, the less smear when I slip and find myself crying. In the middle of a meeting. Because: dork. In mourning.)

Three weeks. And already, I find myself embarrassed to even SAY "I am in mourning" (except to that one actual human telemarketer who called, and I could not take it). In the culture I've grown up in, mourning itself is unseemly, because it imposes upon those around us the distasteful necessity of sensitivity, or just the reminder of mortality. Mourning for three WEEKS, well. That is just melodramatic.

And yet, I am impelled to say - at least here - he deserves more than weeks. And what he has taught me, perhaps especially in his own final week, which was horrific ... will stay with me for the rest of my life. I still don't understand everything I saw and experienced, and it's both something to process and also to extrapolate from: for all I went through the eternity and power and heartbreak of his deathbed, my mom has been enduring as a caregiver for years now. His decline, in fact, goes back eight years - I still remember the Mother's Day lunch we shared, when we had to hold his arm back out to the parking lot.

Mom is still learning, too. Just how long this road has been. How, bit by bit, her own liberty to move in the world was curtailed - sometimes by my stepfather's will (he developed terrified and aching separation anxiety), and always by his frailty. How she did it all herself, and kept him home.

Six months ago, I was firmly of the belief that I would NEVER die in a hospital. My own dad's death left me sure it was barbaric and awful. My own dad's death came fast, though.

Now, I am not so sure. Being home might be nice, if I could be assured of sudden death (and that The Poobahs would not starve). It has an allure - who would wish to be in a hospital at the end?

But a slow death at home ... knowing that I could be alone, is that something to sign up for in all eagerness? Not that I'm interested in artificial prolongation, but the variables in horror - if I were alone, and broke a hip (my stepfather's final crisis was a break, and this is often a precipitating factor for those already in decline), what would I endure, ensconsed at home yes, but immobilized, in pain ... ?

Even with caregivers, death at home isn't some peaceful slipping away in one's own bed. Indeed, a standard bed is a horrible, dangerous place. Only after a hospital bed was delivered did my stepfather subside from cruel restlessness and the torture of his broken bones. And by "subside" I do not mean he found comfort. Only some respite, and that incomplete itself.

I learned from him; and sat with him, and tried to give him silence. Sound made him uncomfortable, so I stopped even indulging myself telling him how much I loved him. Or that he could go on. We told him that a lot. He didn't need to hear it, he wasn't holding out for permission to die.

And this too, I learned from him ... death doesn't always answer to the pretty stories we apply to it. It's not always a saga of fulfillment, someone waiting until an important figure comes to their side and releases them. It's not even always a question of release. The man my stepfather was? He had life left, and he was going to use it all up. All of it. Where for six years, he literally begged for death, once it announced it was come, he wrung out of his body the last *iota* of life left to him. Death wasn't impatient for him; those of us around him were.

It is a harrowing thing, a week long deathbed. Human chatter becomes intolerable, and I understand his responses when it was pushed on him, or shot over him as if he were barely there. He was there.

Even outside the room where he lay, the prognostications of "when" ... the stories about crows haunting us, or passed family members coming to take him away ... were not merely exhausting, they became irrelevant quickly as he kept on living on ... and we undoubtedly crossed into distasteful territory, more than once. People coming and going, speaking loudly of meals once shared, or playing music he would have hated ... crossing with those who came to sing, to pray, to just be beside him.

I think (and this may just be a story I tell myself) I became more silent as the days passed, simply because that was the only gift I had left to give to him. I stopped typing one day, because I felt the sound of my keystrokes, even, were too much to bear. I didn't hold his hand constantly, I stopped telling him he was the best stepfather ever, or that I loved him, or how much he amazed me.

I just never stopped kissing his head. Breathing the smells of him - not all of them beautiful. And yet, I both miss the scent of him and find myself having a sort of PTSD series of flashbacks to the smell that seemed most emblematic of him in his last year or so. The smell of his death began long before he ever broke a bone.

I miss him, and I love him, and I mourn him, and just thinking it makes me weep silently.

One of the funniest people I ever knew.

Someone who, never having been a father before, took on our whole family when he was not a strapping youth, and who found ways to laugh alongside us. Great G-d, it was not always easy - for him, or for us. The first years were difficult.

But the past eight? The past six? The years since my brother's family moved, and it's been me, mom, and him? The time it took for me to go from reluctance, to content, to tenderness?

I am blessed to have had these years.

Their passing deserves observation.

My stepfather deserves mourning.


Colin Smith said...

Yes, he does, Diane. And I agree with you. Western culture has forgotten how to mourn. Especially here in the US. When you've loved deeply, you carry the loss of the loved one for more than a few weeks. You should. What I hear is that you're not asking for sympathy, or for people to tell you how sorry they are. You want people to understand. To let you mourn, and if that means shedding a tear now and then, to give you space to do that.

All the very best to you, and may you get that space you and your step-father deserve.

DLM said...

Yes, the space. That's exactly it. When we were ensconsed in it, away from the world, nothing needed to be said (though we said so much). But everybody understood our situation.

It's necessary to come out of that space/time around death or birth or illness or celebration. But, with mourning, coming out of that enclosed time still isn't a perfect return.

Thank you, Colin.

Jeff said...

I have to say, this is an extraordinarily wise post.

I think you're right to be rethinking some of your previous assumptions about what death is, what a good death is, the preferred circumstances and location of your own demise, etc. I once spent a week at the deathbed of a relative, the responsibility becoming mine when all other family was out of town, and as difficult as it was, it was also...enlightening. We all think we know our final wishes, but until we nurse or bury at least a couple of loved ones, we have little firsthand experience with the various options, or what those "variables in horror" really are.

(That experience also taught me, thanks to the blunders of others, how not to talk to someone on her deathbed, but that's a somewhat different subject.)

A few months ago, two local teenagers lost their mother. In a horrible twist, she beat brain cancer but died of an infection she picked up in the hospital. The funeral was billed as a celebration: music, dancing, Hawaiian shirts. But people who attended saw only huge crowds and uncontrollable sobbing. I found that heartbreaking...but I think it's all too American to hope that we can skip mourning and speedily move on to fond remembrance. I hope the people in your life give you time and space to mourn in whatever way you see fit.

DLM said...

Thank you, Jeff; re-reading it just now, I realized that "variables in horror" was my own line. Huh. Clearly, this is taking time to percolate in my wee and paltry brain.

Wakes and Celebrations of Life, I think, are all well and good, especially with the very large groups that sometimes come together upon a death. And this isn't a new response to death, either; I know that. I think formal mourning's universality across millennia is just the other side of a coin. But it's surely true that the 20th century American rejection of etiquette on a wider scale, and the specific loss of formal mourning practices in particular, exemplify a taste for behaving less artificially which, ironically, has stripped us of the most natural emotional response to death by taking away the protective armor of ceremony, and left us naked and vulnerable to "The World" at the most terrible times.

All this said, people in our lives have been so kind, and I'm particularly grateful for those who've commented here. Feeling like anything I've fee-lossy-fized about in writing makes it seem like I'm getting through - in the sense of communicating, and in the sense of moving ahead. So, thank you - to Paul Lamb, and John Doe, and Stephen Parks, and Colin, and you.

DLM said...

"we are always in the midst of deaths of one kind or another" ... On ritual structuring our space and time. And ritual broken open.

Count on Mary to express it so poignantly. I still miss her so much, I *still* hardly get to church anymore.