Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Lack Thereof

I haven't caught up on my emails from the weekend yet; McKay's grandfather died last Sunday (what did I say about my birthday and family emergencies?) and the funeral was yesterday.

I spent a good portion of the funeral trying to keep Margaret from being so loud you couldn't hear the songs or speakers and 95% of the graveside service keeping her from dancing on others' graves. Literally. The guy who ran the mortuary said it was fine, but I was afraid someone in McKay's family would look over, see Margaret dancing, and decide my parenting skills suck if I can't at least teach my daughter a little respect for the dead.

But I did find some time to think. I remember looking over at the little tent above the grave that everyone crowded into (except those of us with 2 year olds). And then I imagined similar tents and gatherings around each of the graves in that cemetery. And I can't help but think we Americans might do well if we reconsider our grieving rituals. Or at least take a good look at them. Or something. Because in my 25 years of being American, I've only learned one things: death is really awkward and almost no one has the tools to deal with it.

My grandfather died when I was in junior high. It was rough on me. I spent days after the funeral playing the piano for hours. Until my dad poked his head into the piano rooms and said, "Stop it." And I did. And what I learned was grief is awkward and no one wants to be around someone who can't figure out how to grieve properly.

I guess I can't fault him for it much. I don't think American culture gives us much to go on with grief. We need more ritual. Or we need to talk about it more.

At one point, McKay came to sit down next to me and he mentioned that it was a strange experience to see his grandfather in his casket. I think that hit him hard. I know it hit me hard when I saw my own grandfather like that. I was young and it was my first experience with death close to me. My young self needed some ritual that was a little more meaningful than just look at my grandfather. I had to do something. So I did. And in the process, I accidentally touched my dead grandfather (that link is 5 years old! eek.) That was... an experience.

When deciding whether or not to marry McKay, his lack of experience with grief was something that concerned me. He had never lost someone close to him. I had, and it was intense and confusing and even left unfinished. I didn't think I could marry someone who hadn't had that experience. I thought I would need empathy.

So I was there yesterday. And trying to empathize. I was also trying to figure out my role. Was McKay going to cry? Or be "tough?" Was I supposed to hold his hand and be there for him? Or chase my children around so that the rest of the funeral party could hear something? And when he comes back from seeing his grandfather in a casket, do I calmly empathize that I've been there before? Or do I open my mouth with something profoundly awkward because death is weird and it's easier to pretend it just doesn't exist? Ooh that one! Pick that one!

"Did you touch him? And was it weird?"


Yeah. Go me. I was supposed to be the empathetic spouse here, the one with experience with dead grandfathers, and the only dead grandfather experience I could come up with was "Did you touch him?"

Death makes you say all the wrong things. And we need better tools do deal with death. Anyone have a favorite death ritual? How do you deal? Do you empathize better than I do? Probably. And any suggestions for how to teach ourselves to handle death better?


  1. I guess I will get energy work when my parents die? Our culture is so weird about death. I wish I could just process it instead of having to pay someone to help me with it! Is there a hippie death movement like the homebirth movement?

  2. That would be a good idea, Joy. I actually thought of you these past few days, thinking, "I bet Joy will have an interesting perspective!" I was thinking about Dia de los Muertos and wondering if that sort of celebration makes death easier to talk about/handle.

    Add-on to my post:
    My goal isn't to not be phased at all by death- I actually think that would be unhealthy, but we should be able to talk about it without shifting uncomfortably in our seats.

  3. I guess it was different for me than for you yesterday. I didn't feel like it was awkward at all. I didn't even feel awkward in the tent. There were of course sad moments when we think about not getting to spend time with him again on earth, but for me the gospel perspective takes away the awkwardness. We could still joke around and chat just as always even though we felt a little sad. Maybe it was a little bit more awkward for you because of the feelings from your childhood and I don't have anything as close to compare.

  4. My deepest sympathies to your family Heather. Grief is weird and I don't think we know how it is going to affect us until it happens. I don't deal with loss very well and usually say stupid things or freeze.
    But, there are different types of grieving and loss. For me, when my grandfather died, I tried to do all of the things that he would like. Playing his favorite songs was one thing that made me feel closer. When my nephew died though, it was so sudden and awful that crying was all we could do.
    Most of all that I can offer is to let the grief take time and to not rush our feelings of loss.
    As a culture, we don't like to be sad. We push it aside and try to pen it up.

  5. Condolences.
    We don't do viewings in Judiasm. I couldn't imagine how hard that much be.
    I'd suggest a mourning book from the Jewish prospective. The process is very well defined and Biblically based. You can take what applies and leave the rest.

  6. There is a hippie death movement-called green burial. Instead of filling the body with chemicals for the viewing, buying an expensive casket and then paying others to lower it into a concrete vault you can either use a simple pine box or a shroud-both of which you can provide yourself. Then you can dig the grave yourself, lower the body yourself, and then fill the grave yourself. If you google green burial you can find places that offer it. I know Utah has one, not sure about other states.

    You don't get a grave marker to visit, instead the body is left to decompose naturally and feed the trees and/or shrubs that are planted over it. You hold your own graveside service. It also usually costs only about $1,000 compared to the $10,000's.

    I think we should talk about death before it happens more freely. About what we'd like to do. Right now my husband and I are expecting our first and we've talked about what we'd do if she died soon after birth. This naturally led to a conversation about what we'd like done for ourselves. It was very interesting.

  7. I agree with Melinda. I didn't feel awkward at all but then I also have had a lot of people close to me die and it is just a part of this earthly experience. I think it's only weird if you feel weird--and have unresolved feelings yourself. Grieving takes different forms with different people. We each have to find our own way to deal with it. It was fun to see your beautiful children!

  8. Oh the funeral was nice- as funerals go. I just wonder if maybe there's a way to commemorate death that speaks to more people. I wonder if it's like the 5 languages of love- perhaps there are languages to grief and maybe our culture is doing a lot of people a disservice to not provide different ways to grieve. I'm not sure what it would look like, though. Need to do more thinking.

  9. "any suggestions for how to teach ourselves to handle death better?"

    I took a psychology class on "Death, Dying and Loss" in college. Sounds dreary, but was one of my favorite classes. I'm pretty sure that this http://www.amazon.com/Death-Dying-Living-Charles-Corr/dp/049550646X/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top is the text we used, and I thought it was relevant enough to life that it was one of the few college books I kept. If you really are interested in finding better tools for dealing with death I highly recommend it. And, I agree completely, our culture is very lacking in this area.


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