On Death and Living
“I postpone death by living, by suffering, by error, by risking, by giving, by losing.” Anais Nin
Joe stood in front of me. Tall, emaciated, and tired from the effort of just standing. His eyes shone of grief, sorrow, and a spark of happiness to see me. His face wrinkled in frustration from the aphasia as I took him in my arms and said, “I love you, Joe.” He said back, “Fall pushed happy popcorn.” Then he looked at his partner and Bill patiently repeated what Joe had said. Joe laughed, shook his head and handed me an angel. Bill said Joe made the angel for me. It is all wood, stands about two feet tall. Every year I rustle it out of the tissue paper with other holiday decorations and hold it to me and think of Joe. Then I think of Steve. Then I think of Randy, Steve’s partner who committed suicide after Steve died. And I cry. I cried, raged, protested, screamed and held people in the silence of grief.
I still cry. Death, in any form, is hard. The longing for that face, that voice, that personality that is no longer breathing in front of us is painful. All the death I have witnessed, all the tears I have shed, all the grieving people I have held has taught me one thing: death is fierce.
Those of us who are in our 60’s-90’s have survived wars, disease, bad clothing eras, closets, mental illnesses, addictions, mullets, and so many homophobic stories that we are a fucking miracle. Now we are reaching our Golden Pond days. I am not being morbid; I am being pragmatic. Death happens to all of us from young to old. Death is reality. Death is natural. Death is.
Schon’s mother used to say, “When the bus pulls up and says you have a ticket, you have no choice but to get on the bus.” My father hemorrhaged to death in my arms. I have held a lot of people in my arms as they died. We cannot predict it or hold it back either by choice, disease, or age we all get a ticket. Embracing death is not weakness. There is no contradiction in “going out fighting” and “sitting on the beach” deaths. I can rant about the politics of health care and fight every particle of cancer in my body. I can sit on a beach and chose not to chemicalize my body further. It is my body. It is my spirit. Preparing for my own dying experience is not melancholic but peace filling specifically because death could come at any moment.
It is not saturnine to prepare for death. Schon and I are legally married so we don’t have to worry as much about legal issues. In this time though, those may be taken aways so we try to be as thorough as we can about the civil part of our relationship. I have a will. I list all my retirement and insurance policies in it as well as have her as my beneficiary. I have a living will with both Schon and my brother listed as decision makers. I have death arrangements. I have funeral memorial requests. But in the end it is the ultimate letting go because really after I am gone what happens is not in my control. Damn it!
The process of grieving death (or any ending) is not linear. Dr. Kübler-Ross in her research identified five stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. She believed that the stages were not stagnant nor was there a ladder directly to acceptance. Rather grief is a chaotic emotional process of working through a passionate loss.
There is no less sorrow or wailing over a suicide, a quietly passing in bed, a sudden accident or violence. Grief, like a labyrinth, travels a path that is not “plow through to reach the ultimate goal” rather it is wrapping, meandering, and sometimes a retracing of feelings. Grieving someone you love is revisited. Every time I see a train depot, I grieve my father but I also smile because he lives in my memory to this day.
Death of friends, family, or acquaintances reminds me that I have an unending capacity to love and a rather deep far reaching voice. So I use it often to I tell people I love them. Now. Unendingly. No one complains about being told they are loved and appreciated too much! Telling someone you love and value them is such a freeing experience. For me, it is not so much about hanging on to love but opening up to how important family, both biological and logical, are to me. I tell people often that I love them. I tell them I appreciate them. I tell them how special and important they are in my life. I make this a priority in my life. Love is not a commodity, it does not run out. It is not ended at death. Love encompasses.
Mike and I had a love/hate relationship. Mostly because we are both frequently right. Even when one of us may have been slightly wrong. We fought. A lot. It may have taken time but we always made up with a sheepish smile. Always. When he died I was filled with sadness but I did not have the added sorrow about some stupid disagreement. Forgiving people for their humanness, bad decisions, and pain they may have inflicted is so hard. Holding onto some perceived social stupidity I did or someone else did to me in my 20’s (or 40’s or 60’s) is kind of self-indulgent belly gazing emotional self-flagellation. I can’t control others behavior or feelings about the mistakes I made, but I can try to get over myself. I try to get over others less than perfect behavior, too. I don’t want to live in regret. No one does.
Extend your support for those who have lost a loved one beyond a one-month grieving period we allow in our society. One year. Five years. Twenty years. The people who are there for us when a death happens will frequently expect grieving to be over and you to have moved on or at least stop talking about it to them. “It has been six months. You would think she would be over it by now.” You are never over the death of someone you love. You accept the reality slowly and adjust.
Listen, as often as it takes with to those who are grieving. Listen with compassion and empathy. If someone needs to express there sorrow, their pain, their guilt, telling their story over and over again, listen with kindheartedness. This does not mean you have to own anyone else’s sorrow, it simply means quiet your own head and listen to them with as little judgment as possible. If consented simply hold them.
Play more. Play everyday. Play with out fear. Be fair. Be safe. Have tons of fun. Live off your bucket list every day. Take a risk. Splash through mud puddles as often as you can. Be a responsible tourist in your own land. Explore museums, parks, and find every free activity your community offers. Go kayaking. Recreate and leave your computer.
Celebrate your ordinary and don’t live in envy. Envy of someone else’s ability to travel, buy condos in the Castro (2.5 million), stay home while the spouse works, hop to France four times a year is unproductive. It is not what my pocket can afford, so why envy it? Money may give you access but it does not give you happiness. Live in your ordinary with grace and appreciation.
There is a beauty in every day from scrubbing the kitchen floor to writing poetry. Climbing up to the top of Coit Tower in San Francisco is just as amazing as climbing the Himalayas. Live appreciating what you have, where you are, and what is around you. Celebrate what you have, reach for what you hope and bring joy to every moment of your life. Celebrate the ordinary of your life. Walk around your neighborhood and appreciate its unique qualities. Smell a rose. Kiss a baby. Laugh.
Live fully in your sorrow. Know your vulnerabilities. Get your needs met while understanding the difference between need and want. Cry when you are sad. Cry when you are angry. Cry when you are happy. Scream your frustration to the wind, in your pillow, to your therapist or your best friend. Expressing emotion is healthy. Feel them fully while acting on them responsibly.
Steve Jobs once said, “Death is the destination we all share.” Therefore surviving death of friends, lovers, partners, husbands, wives, or children is also a road we all walk upon. Walking the road of grief does not end but the sorrow is lessened by the shared strides of Leather families, biological families, and logical families. May their memories always be a blessing.