Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Not Taking it Personally

One of the interesting parts of being on Facebook and having over 1000 contacts is noticing trends. Not the kinds of trends Facebook tracks - who's talking about Miley Cyrus this hour, for instance - but the kinds my subconsciousness tracks.

Often they are things that likely happen all the time but the level of critical consciousness doesn't raise until I know what something is. For instance, I never knew there was a part of the body called the meniscus until a close friend tore hers, then, all of a sudden, a few friends were having surgery on theirs. Is that coincidence? Not likely, nor even a trend. But perhaps I just didn't notice it before because people weren't using that word (most just say "knee problems") or I didn't recognize it and so it didn't register for me.

But here's a word I know well, linguistically and personally:

My parents, as most readers know by now, were both dead by the time I turned 20. My grandparents all gone by the time I turned 22. So I am well, familiarly, personally acquainted with death. And yet, though one would think these experiences would make me more aware of what to say when someone loses a parent, grandparent, child even, they don't. Perhaps others learn more readily from their experience this way, but all I find is that there's less and less to say. Loss is just hard. It just is. And there's no hemming or hawing about it. Talk of angels helps some, being reassured that this pain will pass helps others. Some are completely inconsolable. Those five or six stages of grief* don't come chronologically or in even waves for everyone.

Here's one thing I have found.

Not taking death personally helps.

This passage in an essay I read recently really struck me. She's speaking of how, when her mother was terminally ill with cancer, others wanted to talk about their experiences with losing people they loved to cancer. Here's what she has to say:
 I do not want to talk about death in front of my mother. Later I will ask M for the whole story; later I am hungry for stories of inexplicable illness, needy for the parallel narratives that will comfort me in my misery. I will then open myself up to the company and the tales of fellow sufferers, so that I can stop myself from asking, “Why her, Why now, Why me?”
-Judith Ortiz Cofer in the essay "Mothers and Daughters" in
From A Story Larger Than My Own – Women Writers Look Back on Their Lives and Careers 
edited by Janet Burroway

Why does this kind of consolation helps, when it is applied at the right moment? Because underneath we know that death isn't personal. It's not about why now, why me, why her, why him. Death will come for us all. 

However, this is easier to say when I am not facing an immediate - forthcoming or recently occurred - loss. I, too, get triggered by reading about illness and death. Experience has not inured me. Just the idea of contemplating my wife's or brothers' or cats' or niece or nephews' dead bodies gives me paroxysms of anxiety. But something - just one further step - does help a bit more.

Seeing death as impermanence brings me some relief. This is true relief - not the relief of denial or not-quite-acknowledging or playing a slip with words. This is the relief of a bigger picture, that still pinpoints the facts as they are. 

Death is not the only part of impermanence. It is one of the most painful parts, along with illness, aging and any other range of losses: divorce, separation, you name it. But if we look at death as a part of impermanence, we get to let in the full range. 

My next door neighbors on one side have a one-and-a-half year old. The folks on the other side just had a baby a few days ago. Every morning, washing the dishes, I watch a new friend, relative, someone I've never seen come to their house knock on the door and bring them something - gifts, food, bottles, etc. It's powerful. And it's impermanence in action. Without impermanence, we'd never fall in love. We'd never have babies. We wouldn't exist in the first place.

Death will come for us all. But the reason why that is the truth is because life also has come for us all. We are here, alive. That's how you can be reading these words. If impermanence didn't exist, neither would we. Neither would your love, your pets, your co-workers. 

I hope this helps alleviate some of your suffering. It helps me. Pain is a given. It's going to hurt to lose - and eventually we will lose everything and everyone. But the suffering we can cut down on by taking those losses less personally.

*Melody Beattie says there are seven - she adds obsessing and controlling to the mix. See her incredible website - melodybeattie.net - is full of resources about raw grief and working through it, though as of this blog posting it appears to be down for now.

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