Friday, December 26, 2008

Altering Fate

I often think that we are like the carp swimming 
contentedly in that pond. 
We live out our lives in our own pond, confident that our 
Universe consists of only the familiar and the visible. 
We smugly refuse to admit that parallel universes or dimensions 
can exist next to ours, 
just beyond our grasp. 

If our scientists invent concepts like forces, 
it is only because they cannot visualize 
the invisible vibrations that fill the empty space around us. 
Some scientists sneer at the mention of higher dimensions 
because they cannot be conveniently measured in the laboratory.

- Michio Kaku

Newton's idea of temporal absolutism, and our limited perceptual capacity, commit human beings to the notion of both unidirectional time and its strict linearity. Yet, quantum mechanics reveals a much more complex and relativistic view of time and space.  Klaus Riegel's work emphasizes the concept of time as dialectical, interrelated and says that events in our lives:

...lead to the formation of conflicts and resolutions... 
temporal markings, produced by the synchronization 
of these sequences and represent transitions in the 
sequences of qualitative changes...

thus, elucidating the relative nature of the events, the sequential measure used, and meaning and awareness within a person's sense of time and space. In other words, our development into full human beings is not necessarily measured or appraisable vis-à-vis the traditional ordinal or interval temporal increments.

Quantum physics, and more specifically string theory, are gradually refining and delineating our understanding of time continuity and discontinuity. And these new understandings, being explored by brilliant, iconoclastic quantum physicists like Michio Kaku, give rise to so many potentials beyond our current comprehension; including a restructuring of  our place in the Universe, time and events in which we play a role, and even the outer edges of transcendental possibilities such as time travel, parallel universes, and multiple dimensions.  

The most phenomenally mysterious, consequential forces in our Universe, I believe, are precisely those that cannot be measured within a flask or under a microscope or with a psychometric tool. There is simply no way to measure time, space, fractal dimensions and meaning, or even love within the four walls of science.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Architecture of Hope

I believe in rain, in odd miracles, 
and in the intelligence that allows terns and swallows 
to find their way across the earth.
-Paul Hawken

The essence of hope is something to which I've held for most of life. Hopefulness, as an emotional state of being and as a paradigm through which I view the world, is one of my core values. I hope, I believe, and I have faith most times, even when the forces of doubt and despair feel Herculean. At least, I try to hope- and for good cause.

There are empirical data mounting that explore hope as a core personality trait; as one of the most significant foundational underpinnings upon which a person's character is built. Peterson et al (2008) found that individuals who scored high on a tool measuring core hopefulness were more resilient. Resiliency is a pivotal attribute in helping humans to endure suffering.  That is, hope and resiliency interact; the effects of this interaction are profoundly important to psychological endurance and tolerance.

These are potently essential psychological resources to possess.

Hopefulness may be a more visceral character trait. And while it may bolster resiliency, I suspect, and some research supports this suspicion, that resiliency truly burgeons from endogenous and exogenous factors. In other words, the family system, the community, and the larger sociopolitical environment in which a person exists in the world can foster and facilitate or quash and extirpate resiliency.

Interestingly, research in animals (rats specifically) suggests that those faced with traumatic experiences, under the right circumstances, are more resilient- as a biological function- than those not exposed to such stimuli.  In comparing three groups, including a control, the group of rats exposed to trauma fared better than those not exposed to trauma. They were more hardy, and had a higher level of resiliency and functioning. The caveat: Those rats repeatedly exposed to the traumatic stimulus did not fare better. Seemingly the chronically unresolved rats- those who were "hopeless" for any relief- suffered the most out of all the groups.

I know rats are not humans, and there are significant ethical and comparability issues in such research. But even anecdotally, there appears to be strong support for the hypothesis that exposure to adversity- under the right circumstances- can help foster resiliency in such a way that we, as humans, can transcend; it's an opporunity to become believers in the rain; and in odd miracles; and in the notion that all things find their way home, to the heart.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

From the Stocking to Yann

From the stockings in Arizona....

To Yann in Cambodia 

Our family engages in many altruistic traditions throughout the year, including during the holidays.  We always buy a gift for a girl who is the same age as Chey should be that particular year. We volunteer and serve food to the hungry. My favorite, mostly because of the assigned anonymity, is the Kindness Project (tm), where I will often feel the most gratitude for having known my daughter in my own quiet way.

I began thinking about the holiday tradition of stockings. My children made their own stockings back in 1996, shortly after Joshua's birth. It was a special year for our family as we made room for our new baby.  

So I decided that this year I wanted to do something meaningful with our stockings. After all, a person could spend $50 or more on gadgets and gizmos that wander into the netherworld of lost children's toys  within moments after their emergence. I thought: Why not do something in my children's names that would be an enduring gift for someone else.

Enter Kiva.  Kiva is a fantastic organization of mostly volunteers who provide micro-loans to small business owners in many poverty-stricken nations.  It is a paradigm based on empowerment and enrichment not disempowerment and enslavement. 

So with my children's stocking fund, we were able to help Yann Voeun, 22, a young mother in Cambodia with two children to purchase cows for their breeding business; and Romel Paulo, a father of three, in the Phillipines who needed $325.00 so he could plant his next crop of rice and corn; and Edith Agho, mother of five, who requested a loan of $1200.00 to help her start her second-hand clothing business in Africa.

The children's "stockings" helped eight people they will never meet or know achieve their dreams and become more independent and self-reliant.

So, this holiday when they reach into their stockings, they won't find chocolate covered gold coins, or wind up toy cars, or dice games. Not even coal.  This year, they'll open an envelope and meet someone whose lives they were able to touch across the oceans, beyond language, and traversing culture. I think it may well be the best gift of all this year, and a new tradition I hope they will continue with their own children.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Extinction of Tolerance

If you see a spark, you will find it in the ashes.
-Elie Wiesel

A friend of mine called me today to ask my advice. She's enduring the ending of a long relationship, feeling destitute, lonely, and broken.  She asked, "Should I go on some meds to make me feel better?"

"Feel better?" I said. "Why should you feel better? Something really important is happening here in your life. It's a major change and what you're likely to feel is grief."

She blurted, "I don't want to feel grief. I don't want to be sad!"

Well, of course we don't want to feel sad. But...really...isn't there an appropriate time for sadness?  Have we, as a culture- as a people, lost our tolerance for feeling? Is there some cosmic treaty guaranteeing that neither you nor I nor our neighbor nor best friend will get through life absent suffering? 

Still, so many people seem to want a drive-thru cure, 30-second gorilla glue, for a broken heart- for normal feelings like sadness or grief or despair.  Many have not had much practice in sorrow, loss, hunger, desire, or want. Affluence attenuates tolerance. Low emotional tolerance increases the risk of depression and other negative psychological outcomes.

And, what do we miss by our evasions, as Jaspers asks? What happens when we obviate emotional risk?  There is a sublime, and I would argue necessary, beauty and aptitude waiting to be discovered in the dark emotions.  Suffering offers opportunities for change, transformation, and transcendence. 

Is it painful? Of course. But since there is no way to eradicate all suffering from the world, perhaps, the most genuinely humane thing we can do for ourselves and for each other is to feel our suffering and that of others. And in so doing, search for the spark, the light, within the ashes.

It just might be the spark that saves another.  

In the end, the best I can offer my friend is to feel with her- to confront the suffering by her side, and to fearlessly accompany her on her journey into the dark emotions.  In the words of de Montaigne, "the man who fears suffering is already suffering what he fears."

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Tis the Satirical Season?

My 12- year- old launched a full-blown-food-protest this morning (after too long between grocery trips), threatening a revolt if we ate veggie burgers one more night. So I got into my baby blue Prius and drove to the grocery store, hurried and harried to return back to a final draft of a paper on deadline.

As I walked toward the entrance of Safeway, I passed a woman standing at her car with her hand on the hood. She was leaning over as if she was in pain. I glanced at first, and continued past her, taking a minute for circumspect to strike me. Then the pause. 

I turned around and thoughfully approached her. "Are you okay?" I asked? She replied, "I'm just having one of those days. I can't seem to get to my truck."  She was parked in the disabled spot.  

"May I help you?" I asked.  "Sure," she said smiling at me with apparent gratitude, and maybe some surprise.

She moved with painful deliberation as I gently took her arm and helped her into the truck.  A few seconds later, a young employee of Safeway approached to see if he could help.  He put her groceries into the back of the truck as I continued to help her into the vehicle.

She drove away grateful for the assistance.

I headed back toward the door of Safeway, about 40 feet from where this woman was struggling and walked past the holiday season staple: Salvation Army bell ringers. There were four of them posted at this single spot, one furiously text messaging, another talking on her cell phone; about five others posted another 20 feet away. 

Again I hurriedly walked past them, and then I suddenly stopped. I walked back outside and looked at them. They were watching the woman as she drove away. They had seen her struggle to get to her vehicle as she had to walk past them to get to her truck. And I was both stunned and entertained at the irony: They were there collecting money so that they could help others in need.  

Yet, right there, within their very view, was a person in need, someone they could have helped in this moment- not in some intangible way, but in a very authentic-in-the-moment-way. I felt like I was in a bad piece of satire: Saturday Night Live's caustic condemnation of human behavior comes to small town Arizona. 

Where have we gone wrong that we don't pay attention to one another any longer?  Why do some humans ignore their moral duty to help?  What compels some to take the initiative to help even while others do not, or even while others will inflict direct harm? *(Milgram's experiments, while unethical, taught us a great deal about human behavior and helping/harming...)

It's easy to drop a dollar in the hungry metal bucket. It's easy to send a check in the mail to some obscure group that helps people who you will never know or meet or see. And they are, indeed, worthy and necessary causes to which others should give. But, there are so many more important things than fiscal responsibility to one another. There is a responsibility of compassion; kindness; mindfulness of suffering; advocacy for social justice; and our pause in recognition for their worthiness of our time. Those are the things that money cannot buy. Those are the things you will not find in any red bucket.  And apparently, those are the things that are the most difficult to offer to another, if for no other reason than we mindlessly are unable to see the need as it arises. Those are also the most imposing tests of our own humanity.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Four Quartets: An excerpt

I said to my soul
Be still
And wait without hope
For it would be hope for the wrong thing;
Wait without love
For it would be love of the wrong thing;

There is yet faith,
but the faith
and love
and hope
are all in waiting

Thus, wait without thought
For you are not ready for thought
And in the darkness there shall be light,
And in the stillness, dancing…
Pointing to the agony of birth and death.

T.S. Eliot

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Death Education on the Horizon

One of my former interns and death studies students, Krista

I've been teaching a class on traumatic death and loss at Arizona State University for several years. When I first proposed the new course, the only death-related course on campus was one that had a gerontological focus. I actually took that course to experience it. The deaths of children weren't discussed. Even in a death course, this epidemiological microcosm remained the last taboo.

There were concerns that my course would not be well attended; that it would repel rather than attract students.  Yet, during the first offering of this class, we met and exceeded the cap of 30 students. Then, another ten enrolled. The first course of its kind would bring 47 students to the new death studies course.

Years later and registration remains the same. This Spring, I will meet between 45-50 students wanting - yearning - to learn.  We could have easily enrolled 60 or more students based on the demand, but the classroom will not accommodate that number.  In fact, I have a waiting list in my office now.

I have never experienced such enthusiasm for a topic as I  have for this course.  It's an academic course, indeed. We explore Worden and Rando and Kastenbaum and Kubler-Ross. We discuss evidence based practice relative to psychosocial care.  The course includes cultural competency, ritualization in the historical context, and both epidemiological trends and etiology.  Yet, the most meaningful part of the course includes some self-awareness exercises.  Very few students come to this course without having experience some profound loss. They come to share, to discover, to confront, and to heal. They often develop an increased understanding of their own experiences of loss that leads them to something profound. And these profundities invariably help these students become better counselors, social workers, nurses, doctors, or just human beings.  Death studies is more than a course about death. It's a course about life.

And many express to me, at the end of the semester, their gratitude, noting that the simple act of confronting death has, indeed, helped them to really live again.

And so it is. And so it is.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Peace and Forgiveness

Forgiveness is one of the most important first steps
to ending conflicts
within ourselves,
and within in our families,
and within our communities,
and between nations.

-- Robert Alan

1994 was a bad year around the world. While I was suffocating with my own grief following Chey's death in July of that year, unspeakable atrocities erupted in Rwanda, where the Tutsis were being butchered en masse by the Hutus.

Dread and despair amassed in a small African country where genocidal unrest would leave nearly one million Tutsis dead. Amongst those dead included all five children of a remarkable woman of Tutsi descent named Iphegenia Mukantabana.

During the uprising, a Hutu militia that included Mukantabana's neighbor, John Bizimana, armed themselves with clubs, hoes, and machetes and murdered all five of her children, her husband, and many others in her village. It was an inconceivably violent slaughter that would last for 100 days at the behest of the Rwandan government.

Years later, Mukantabana took a remarkable step toward forgiveness for her neighbor, Bizimana, the man who took the life of her entire family. And, after serving only seven years in jail for the murders, Bizimana went before the city council and asked Mukantabana for her forgiveness. She granted that forgiveness. And she transcended it.

In an effort to promote peace, Mukantabana, a master basket weaver, agreed to participate in Path to Peace, a cooperative effort that joins Hutus and Tutsis together to benefit Rwandan children and families. Mukantabana now weaves baskets in her village with Bizimana's wife. Together, they have helped to employ more than 2500 weavers, raising much-needed money and support for education, HIV/AIDS, and for healthcare. More than that, they have created a milieu in which reconciliation and forgiveness can flourish.

I am startled by human endowment. It feels nearly supernatural to me, this forgiveness for such a heinous crime against her family. I do not honestly know if I would have this within me. Mukantabana credits her faith; And while I do not understand, I dare not question. Rather, I only stand in awe.

And I am reminded that peace- true peace- will only be possible within and between people. Peace will not come from institutions. It would be an grave and improvident error to anthropomorphize: Governments do not have the capacity for compassion, or kindness, or love. Governments cannot offer peace, nor harmony, nor tolerance. Nor forgiveness. In fact, a brief review of history will demonstrate that governments have most often brought systemic angst and despair to its people through manipulation and coercion. Divisiveness. Slaughter. Impoverishment. Exploitation. Oppression. Fear. It is not this machine that will change the world. The machine cannot feel. Rather, it will be conscious, courageous, and intentional human beings who change this world in which we live for the better.

Only people - with the possibility for those insuperably human traits of compassion, kindness, and love- can create peace, and harmony, and tolerance. These are the consummate qualities of humanity, what it really means to be a person.

Only people can forgive.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Neolithic Love and Death

An artist's rendering of the likely burial position 4,600 years ago

Come out of the circle of time
And into the circle of love.


Scientists have discovered a burial site in Germany that tenderly held the remains of a Neolithic family who died, apparently together, in a brutal attack about 4,600 years ago. DNA evidence gathered at the site suggests that the four were related: mother, father, and two children. They were carefully buried facing one another. " "Their unity in death suggests unity in life," the researchers asserted.

While the idea of core nuclear families during this period of human history may seem an unusual archeological discovery, family scientists, myself included, are not at all surprised by this finding. There is something timeless and pure about a parent's love for his or her offspring. Something that is able to withstand any force that rises up against it- even, or perhaps especially, Death.  

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Juxtaposing Joy with Thoughts of War (*Warning*)

Bella detesta matribus
Wars, the horror of mothers 


There is no government so worthy
as your son who fishes with you
in silence beside the forest pool.

There is no national glory so comely
as your daughter whose hands have learned a music
and go their own way
on the keys.

There is no national glory so comely
as my daughter who dances and sings
and is the brightness of my house.

There is no government so worthy
as my son who laughs,
as he comes up the river path in the evening,
for joy.

-Wendell Berry

I took my son to the fall carnival in Anthem, Arizona, a magical event to celebrate the transition to cooler weather from the long and relentless desert heat. I let Josh and his friends run and play in the park as I sat under a tree reading a book about Freud and Jung. Children to my left were standing in line for hair-raising rides decorated with flashing lights and wild music. Masked children to my right were dancing to the Monster Mash as proud parents watched and grand parents gloated. Sticky-faced children ate their pink cotton candy and red-patent apples. It was a smorgasbord of panoramic festivities. Laughter filled the air and shadows leapt on concrete. Several fighter jets from a nearby military facility graced guests with a gratuitous fly-over.

"How bizarrely ironic," I thought to myself. Military jets flying above the heads of hundreds of people, families, here in Arizona. There was no fear, no terror, no bloodshed or bombs dropping from the sky. No. Not here. But in Iraq (or Afghanistan or any other country plagued by war), nearly 8000 miles away, there are no family festivals, no enchanting rides, and no tooting community park choo-choos with giggling children on board, led by a strange bearded Santa-type iconoclast.

My son approached me, drenched from water toy combat with other boys at the playground. And I realized that somewhere in Iraq an 11-year-old boy, just like my own, was also drenched. Drenched in his own blood. A wound that is not pretend, that will not heal, and that will cost his family the ultimate price. I looked around and really saw... our children were playing. Our children were eating. Our children were joyful, laughing, unscathed, and fully-limbed. Our children were privileged with abundance.

And as our children enjoyed their comfortably cool fall day, somewhere in Iraq children, countless numbers of them, were dying. Starvation. Bombs. Disease. Lack of clean drinking water or electricity. Scarcity. Luxuries of our lifestyle are the antithesis of the suffering, terror, and death in battle spaces of America's choosing such as Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan.

War is ugly. We know this. But how many are willing to truly contemplate the cost? Truly? Wendell Berry, in The Failure of War asks:

"How many deaths of other people's children by bombing or starvation are we willing to accept in order that we may be free, affluent, and (supposedly) at peace? To that question, I answer pretty quickly: none. And I know that I am not the only one who would give that answer: please, no children. Don't kill any children for my benefit."

"We seek to preserve peace by fighting a war, or to advance freedom by subsidizing dictatorships, or to 'win the hearts and minds of people' by poisoning their crops and burning their villages, confining them to concentration camps; we seek to uphold the 'truth' of our cause with lies, or to answer conscientious dissent with threats and slurs and intimidations."

Berry goes on to answer his own question: Is there any reason for which he could surrender his own child's life to war. "No," is his clear response.

I cannot imagine a more necessary time in history for a radical change. It begs the question in my own heart: Is the life of an Iraqi child any less worthy than the life of my own?

I must also answer a resounding no.

And I packed for home, placed Sigmund and Carl in my bag, and walked to the car, past children doing the Monster Mash, juxtaposing joy with thoughts of war.

Monday, October 27, 2008

These are the Days of my Dead

Circa 1970

Daddy and his little girl

Josephine and John, fifty years of marriage

When bad news- really bad news- arrives, it often arrives within a framework of relatively predictable patterns of insensibility, a type of  emotional novacaining.  Disbelief and anesthesization- it just cannot be. Depersonalization- out-of-body experiences. Temporal distancing and alterations- a wrenching of of time and space. From these acute responses is born a cascade of emotions, a rollercoaster of ups and downs, inside outs, and all arounds. And of course, when looking backward while on the Hadesian ride the view is different. I realize that every loss I've ever had is deeply entrenched in my identity, and that disentangling one from another is nearly impossible. So this time of year conjures up sensate memories of all my losses, including the death of my parents.

On October 31 of 2001, as my four young children were amassing sweet delicacies from generous neighbors and committing acts of friendly tomfooleries, my phone rang.  My mother collapsed in her living room, and paramedics were transporting her to John C. Lincoln hospital. Together, Ari the ogre, Cameron the werewolf, Stevie Jo the kitten, and Josh the reluctant, purple Barney from public television, and I rushed into the emergency room, catching a glimpse of frantic blue shirts screaming at one another and yelling my mother's name as if angry with her, "Josephine! Josephine!".  Shock and terror descended on the waiting room as the moon lit the parking lot where candy-filled bags waited patiently in the car to be devoured by the costumed children.

For four days, my mother lay lifeless, tubes down her throat and in her arms, and iron lung machines forcing oxygen into her broken body. Her eyes were open, but her brain, in the ultimate act of defiance and apostasy, rejected any attempt at communication, affection, or pleading.  The people she'd loved her whole life- the children she bore- the grandchildren she watched come into the world- the man she loved for more than fifty years- were strangers in her world of insentience.  No amount of hoping, prodding, begging, praying, or commanding would change her condition.  On November 4, 2001, we said goodbye.  And in an apropos, but evanescent, moment, I witnessed as she took her final, laborious breath, just as she was with me as I took my first.  

Four years to the day later, on November 4, 2005, at 5:00 a.m., my niece, Amy, called. I knew something was wrong by the tone of her voice. "Papa is dead," she said. "What? What? No, no, no, no, no!" I screamed in futile protest. Not today. My father died suddenly during the night. My former husband took the phone and I fell to the ground sobbing. I tried to dress myself but couldn't think clearly enough to put my own arms through the top of my shirt. David tried to help, to calm, me. Again, I faced another goodbye for which I was wholly unprepared. The man who walked the floors with me when I had a fever. The man who would give me his last bite of chocolate cream pie. The man who would let me sneak into the bed next to him, pretending he didn't notice, when ghouls and goblins came from my closet to accost me. The man, with his doctrines and dogma, against whom I would rail during my rebellious teen-years and beyond. I sat next to his bedside, weeping over his cold, dead body. In that moment, I was transformed into a frightened little girl. Not all the pleading or negotiating or acts of contrition in the big Universe could incite Death's capitulation. My father was gone.

Not even four decades had passed since my own birth, and I found myself an orphan. My children, grandorphans, would live the remainder of their lives without really knowing my parents.  The mounting losses are, at times, too overwhelming to realize.

This time of year is melancholy for me.  I ruminate, despite repeated attempts at deflection, on the culmination of my losses: my parents, Elisabeth, and mostly my precious daughter. There are layers and layers of grief for my dead which, like both buried pain and buried treasure, are still undiscovered. I miss them. All of them. There is so much more mourning to be done. While bearable, tears still fall like rain, blurring the words on the screen. At times I intentionally immerse myself in meaningful, distracting preoccupations. But not today. These are the days when I will remember them.

Yet, I am mostly at peace even amidst the mourning that bites. I don't have the same acute reactions to these losses, of course. Like looking backward on the ride, the grief has changed form. It's become more pliable, quieter, more cooperative. Still, I miss them and I wish it wasn't so for me, for us. And that is okay.

These are the days of my dead. These are the days of my dead. 

Friday, October 24, 2008

El Dia de los Muertos: Day of the Dead is almost here

Other cultures are awash with death rites that have endured the test of time. One such tradition in Latin culture relates to rituals around death. For example, Hispanic culture often includes a novena after death, a nine-day period following the funeral when mourners recite the rosary in the name of the dead child. Families are often left undisturbed during this period.

Another during this time of year, El Dia de los Muertos (or some version of it), or the Day of the Dead, is celebrated throughout much of Latino America from Mexico to Guatemala to Brazil to Spain. This enduring holiday is recognized every November 2, and during this time of remembrance, all eyes turn toward the dead. It includes eccentric altars, offerings of food and drink and even fine fabrics. The rituals last four days. Families stay awake the entire night of October 31. If a child has died, family members await the return of the child’s spirit, known as Angelitos. A tiny candle is lit for each child and morning mass is recited.

Colorful paper banners, called papel picado (Spanish for "perforated paper") can be found hanging about the streets during this time. Usually made of tissue paper but sometimes of more durable plastic, the cut banners are hung together like a string of flags. For the Dia de los Muertos, the designs feature skeletons, skulls, crosses, and tombstones. Some artists create intricate designs that take many hours to make. Because of their fragility and the time spent creating them, cut-paper banners are themselves symbols of the transitory quality of life (AZ Central).

"The tradition of papel picado can be traced to pre-Columbian times when papermaking thrived throughout Mesoamerica. The bark of the amate tree, a type of fig tree, was used to make a rich colored brown or beige paper. Cut-paper figures used in ceremonies were created to represent any number of human and animal spirits. Today, a group of indigenous people, the Otomi from the village of San Pabilto, continue to make cut-paper figures from their handmade amate paper" (

Each day brings a new ritual until, on the final day, November 3, All Souls Day, three masses are recited and priests visit the cemeteries, blessing the graves and sprinkling holy water. At sunset, the graves are decorated with colorful accoutrements, candles, and flowers. Food may be offered at altars.  It is a death immersive, rather than death aversive, tradition:

The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips. The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast loves (Mexican writer, Octavio Paz).

Death is an accepted part of life for many heritage-consistent Hispanic families, integrated into daily routines, where children are included in rituals and mourners express their emotions openly (Corr, et al, 2006). Death is a ubiquitous theme where “it is in the literature, on murals, in cutout paper figures and on the streets” (Irish, et al, 1993, p. 76). In Latino culture, the dead are not separated from the living; rather, they continue their presence in the family as grievers often do not relinquish bonds.

Death Porn

According to blog ratings, my blog should not be read by anyone under the age of 17. Yes, I received an NC-17 rating. In the social taxonomies, my blog is nearly pornographic because of the following:

"This rating was determined based on the presence of the following words:

death (152x)dead (69x)pain (54x)suicide (7x)hurt (6x)kill (4x)dangerous (3x)breast (2x)steal (1x)"

OnePlusYou Quizzes and Widgets

I know, I know, it's not really applicable here. It doesn't really apply to my blog about thanatos (and eros) but as a feminist thinker, I cannot help but to find this amusing. And wow, I've said death/dead more than 220 times. That must surely be a record.

But hey, to really understand life and living, I believe, we must first understand death and dying. Right?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

On the first day of Scorpio...

Yes, I happen to be an astrological Scorpio. But here is a different kind of Scorpio...

My new little friend. And yes, these are common in the Ol' West...

(click on the photo to enlarge...this guy was big!)

Saturday, October 18, 2008


While you live, while you can, become good.


Marcus Aurelius, though not a self-proclaimed Stoa, was identified with Zeno's philosophies of Stoicism. I've often grappled with hellenistic ideas of austerity that spring from detachment.

But there are things I do appreciate about Stoa thought: The virtues upheld are ones to which most humans should indeed strive- courage, justice, self-control, wisdom- while rejecting the less desirable inclinations of the material world such as irrationality, greed, corruption, and lust. Life lived in the latter is vacuous at its best and tyrannical at its worst. Aurelius issues his caution against living mindlessly, superfluously. Time is short, he warns.

So he calls for humans to become good.

What I hear Aurelius saying is: Meditate on the connection between all things within the Universe. Be mindful of all things around you. Walk, do not run. Seek truth. Do your duty. Treat others, including animals, with generosity and decency. Develop virtue. And in realizing the finitude of the material world, confront Death. Either teach or tolerate. Abandon vengeance: "Leave the wrong done by another where it started." Do not squander yourself. This dictum against squandering illuminates our mortality. These aspects of Stoicism resonate within me.

Aurelius begs a willing encounter with the ephemerality of existence. He says, "So one should pass through this tiny fragment of time in tune with nature, and leave it gladly, as an olive might fall when ripe, blessing the earth which bore it and grateful to the tree which gave it growth."

Yet, here is where my mind, like quicksand, pulls me under the earth. An olive falls when ripe. In its time. It's incredibly painful- and beyond the realm of reasoning for me at times- to accept that so many young lives need be lost with such bitter untimeliness. The olive, in this case, did not fall gracefully to the welcoming detritus on the forest ground. The olive was plucked, forcefully, too early, like the bitter apple that held on by its stem in protestation.

Stoicism loses me here. I can much more readily accept the construct of an austere life. But there is something about a child's death against which I shall always recoil. I would not, and could not, as directed by Aurelius and his Stoa ilk, accept this as something that was meant to be. I would not accept the maxim that the gods intended these deaths, so young, or that they intentionally incited the accoutremental angst and agony. I can never follow the dictates of detachment: To go in peace or to abandon mourning for the dead. I reject that this is somehow in the Universal blueprint of the gods, as he asserts.

Still, there is so much I do appreciate about Aurelius. I can embrace his call to become good. And I will continue to work toward that end. But my idea of becoming good does not include my emotional acquiesence to Death or the relinquishment of grief rightly earned.

And I also believe that, somewhere, embedded in really feeling the pain of attachment are the potentialities for change and awakening. I feel strongly that Stoicism would have led me to another path wherein I did not become the person, woman, and mother who I am today.  While I would give it all back to have her here instead, in absence of that option I am so thankful I allowed myself to experience attachment and its resounding agony. Rejecting my circumstances- refusing to accept it all as part of a larger plan- has created within me the will to survive in a different way. And in so doing, I have come to accept it in my own way and in my own time. This is the beauty of really feeling loss. I'd have missed it all otherwise...and now, the love is bigger than the pain.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

October is Infant and Child Death Awareness Month

Seeking to forget makes exile all the longer. 
The secret to redemption lies in remembrance. 

Richard von Weizsäcker

Sadly, about 25,000 babies will die during or prior to birth this year in the U.S. alone. Another 10,000 or so will die during the first few months of life. Thousands more will die during their first year of life in accidents, drownings, and from illnesses. Thousands more toddlers, young children, teens, and young adults will die.

These deaths leave countless families with aching hearts, their lives irreversibly changed, transformed forever. The month of October is a month to pause and remember the precious lives gone too soon, not only in the U.S., but also around the globe where every minute 20 children die from preventable causes such as hunger, pestilence, poverty, and war.  

The effects of a child's death are intergenerational and long-lasting- in particular, the psychosocial tumult can devastate individuals and families. Like a pebble tossed into a still lake, a child's death ripples outward in waves of despair that are often unrecognizably related to the tiny stone. Across cultures and throughout time, the death of a child is recognized as one of life's worst tragedies.

In my many years working with bereaved parents and siblings, I have witnessed these effects. Women in their 70s and 80s hear of my work and seek me. They want to tell me their stories of loss and sorrow. No, they need to tell their stories, for they are still whispering, shamed by the secrecy so common decades ago. They seek redemption. I ask, "What is his name?" and they often look surprised at my asking, follow it with tears, gratitude, a hug. "Thank you. I haven't spoken his name in 37 years." 

One 80 year old woman wrote to me, "My daughter died in 1947...I want to join your group and get her birth certificate and finally remember her so that I can die in peace..." Siblings often recount to me stories of their brother or sister who died 40 or 50 years ago, still anguishing that "my mother was never the same woman after that..."

These deaths change us permanently. It is critically important to understand these experiences, to embrace and support those facing such traumatic losses, and help them find their voices. We need to, as a culture, pause and remember so that families can live their lives out of the closets of shame to which they were once condemned. Meaninglessness leads to purposeless and purposeless to hopelessness. If we can grant the compassion, empathy, and support so desperately needed, the outcomes for the bereaved can provide the underpinnings for a changed world. 

It is my great hope this October that every bereaved family who has experienced the death of a baby or child at any age and from any cause has the loving and compassionate support they so duly deserve. Lend your heart, lend your hand to them, so that one day- when they are ready- they can extend their hand to another. 

In memory of all our children who died too soon...

Monday, October 6, 2008

Myths, metaphors, and mourning

Muslims call the cyclical summer flooding of the Nile, Wafaa El-Nil, The Night of the Tear-Drop. In Egyptian mythology, the Nile floods because of Isis' lamentations over the death of Osiris. She has so many tears that it causes the Nile to overflow. I can relate to the metaphor an ocean of tears. And disintegrated, amorphous, weighty, and fragmented: this is how I would describe my own journey into the abyss of grief. I'd lost my identity, my purpose, and any sense of a just existence. This was my dark night of the soul. One in which I would surely either die or I would be, in a archetypal sense, reborn much like Isis.

Many indigenous tribes purposefully seek their own dark night of the soul. The Umbandan, for example, send their members on a 17-day initiation into the wilderness. During this initiation, they are without food or human contact. They become intentionally disintegrated from themselves and others, they experience terror, they begin to question their place in the world. It is not until they return from the metaphorical death of their former selves that they are recognized as being fully human. Whole. Complete. This journey of the initiate requires the death of their former self in order to achieve authentic wholeness.

This type of transforming does not come without agony, or doubt, or despair, or hopelessness. Shucking the layers of hubris, control, ego, security, narcissism, pride, and all of those characteristics which stick to us like glue throughout our early lives is painful. Fragmenting the equivocal scraps of ourselves - such as the belief that we are somehow safe and exempt from tragedy - the belief that those things happen to others less worthy - the inclination toward narcissism in loss, focusing all attention toward our child who died in the belief that ours is somehow more worthy or traumatic than another's - yes, it wounds us beyond our capacity for understanding, and it is devoid of compassion or mercy or grace. As Fritz Perls said, it is not easy to die and be reborn. Yet, we must shed those assumptions and our egos and selfishness and entitlements and self-indulgence in order to really and genuinely exist.

And oh how I longed to be a complete person, wholly present in life and love and longing. Intentional. Purposeful. Actualized. Merritt Malloy said that there is no way but through... St John of the Cross says there is no way but within... With certitude, to achieve such a life of meaning, one cannot stand outside the darkness or fight to remain the same, intact person of prior. It is the darkness that makes us whole, when we are ready to see that which exists there. It is the dark night that bids tenderly form, meaning, and purpose.

The darkness gives rise to our becoming human, really fully human, and all that means. I do not wish to merely survive. I wish to become.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Finding Meaning: Logotherapy

I  often fantasize that I am a time traveler, jettisoning my temporal reality and making the pilgrimage back in time. While I am intrigued by the potentialities of the future, the pleas of the past call me toward an about-faced trek.

Without stating the obvious destination, there is a long list of intelligencia I would seek:  Jung and Freud, of course. Sagan, Wiesel, Weil, Aquinus, Twain, Jefferson, Hugo, Siddhārtha, Lewis, Kollwitz, Camus, King, Jr., Descartes, Socrates, Gandhi, Bojaxhiu, and well, it's obvious to me that I've spent too much time in my imagination with this concept.  I digress. This post isn't really about time-traveling. It's about the one other person in my journey-to-the-past illusion- Viktor Frankl.

For those of you who do not know Frankl, you should. Born in Austria, Frankl (1905-1997) authored one of my favorite books Man's Search for Meaning. He was a neurologist and psychotherapist who, between 1942 and 1945, survived Auschwitz and three other concentration camps, where more than three million died. Included in those who died were his parents and his beloved wife. While imprisoned, he spent time working with others who were suicidal, hopeless, and anguished. 

That which is to give light must endure burning.

Viktor Frankl

After being freed in 1945, Frankl fathered a new psychotherapeutic concept: Logotherapy. Logos ( λόγος) is Greek for words, language, speech,  and meaning, and therapy is from the Greek therapeuein (Θεραπεύω) which means to heal or treat.  Elie Wiesel understood Frankl's concept when he said, "Whosoever survives the test must tell his story. That is his duty." The psychotherapist does not coercively cure, treat, or heal. Rather, healing comes from the sufferer's ability and willingness to, eventually, find words with which to speak of their tragedy and the successive meaning to understand and make sense of it. The sufferer does so as the therapist listens, fully present and in absentia furor sanandi (without a rush to cure).

He acknowledged that logotherapy takes time and great pains. The sufferer's story must evolve in such a way that meaning is discovered.  But Frankl, himself a sufferer of horrors I will never know, believed in the potential of human beings. He believed in the power of love to heal. He believed, and practiced, communion with the Other- in a sense, the I-Thou relationship of which Martin Buber speaks.  If another person creates a sacred space within which a sufferer can experience acceptance, patience, willingness of the Other to coenter the darkness by their side, and radical loving care (Chapman, 2007), then the sufferer has a much better chance of finding meaning.

It's not a simple task for us mere mortals: to make meaning out of indescribable suffering. Yet, without meaning, there can be no healing. Beyond finding meaning, there is so much more gained than what is lost in the fire. And while we always remember that which was lost in the flames of despair, it is only when we reach the summit beyond our former view of the world that we are able to truly transcend our loss.  

So, I would travel back in time and listen to Frankl. I'd sit with him over a cup of dandelion tea and ask him his story. I'd enter the darkness with him, stand with him, and watch as his own meaning, and transcension, unfolded. I would journey by his side as he painfully emerged from the ashes into the beautiful man he was, and watch in reverant awe as he brought light to the world.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Defined by loss...

A Chinese nobleman asked a philosopher to grant his family a blessing after the recent birth of his first grandson. The scholar thought for a moment and then replied, "Grandfather dies, father dies, son dies."  The nobleman was horrified but the philosopher said, "What other way would you have it?"

Since 1994, I have felt that, in some sense, I am defined by those I've lost.  Each loss is woven into the pattern of my life, and my path has been carved by those magnificently painful losses. Often, losses are interminable: their beginnings meld into endings and endings into beginnings. It is like the gossamer veil that exists between life and death- the demarcation between the world of breath and the world of breathless is indistinguishable.

The disambiguation of death is integral to the living; in order to wholly understand living we must first accept dying. This is such a such a foreign concept to a death-denying, immortality- seeking, and grief avoidant Western culture.  Yet, how does one accept so much pain and anguish, bearing the unbearable? How do we face the irreversible, irreconcilable absence of the flesh of our flesh?  Honestly, I am uncertain. There are some sufferings that elude sense or reason: this did not happen for any reason.

Perhaps, this is why the death of a child is the least explored human struggle across cultures. There are no pat answers when a child dies- in any language or discipline. And scientists, clinicians, teachers, and helpers - even ordinary humans- love the idea that answers offer closure. But there are no good-enough reasons, and there is no closure, and there is no magic following the mayhem. There is just grief and the human struggle to survive and discover meaning in death's wake. 

I wish that all parents could have had the benefit of the sage's blessing:  grandfather, father, that order. The process of defining life and loss following the death of a child is one that no parent should suffer; tragically, so many do.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Happy Jack and Spare Ribs

I spent some time this weekend in an area called Happy Jack just north of the valley, encircled by bird songs, teasing monsoon clouds, and pines competing for sunlight.  I am always conscious about the potential dangers inherent in the wilderness; but the potential risk is well worth the beauty of the stillness and solitude- a communion with Mother Earth. It is a place where chaos is reduced to the microscopic, time hiccups long enough to become irrelevant, and motion is anchored by the calm. 

Cognizant of potential threats like poisonous plants, angry bugs, and sharp-edged rocks, I bring first aid just in case: bandages, aloe lotion, cell phones, and a false sense of security that feigns an awareness of control.

When I returned to my safer home-of-little-risk, I put away my bandages and aloe and I sat down to check my emails.  As 400 messages downloaded through my server, I hastily- and unawaredly- arose to find my 100-plus pound Australian Shepherd tangled beneath my feet.  In an attempt to avert him, he scurried between my unbalanced legs as I knocked a hardwood chair to the ground. Unable to regain my equilibrium, I fell onto the thickly wooded back of the chair with my full body weight hitting on my left ribcage. I heard a snap, crackle, pop, and realized that in my seemingly-safer-than-the-forest home, I'd injured myself.  

"Oh, bloody great," I thought to myself.  "This is all I need three weeks before the international conference."  Recognizing the likelihood of one or more broken ribs, I called the local urgent care.

"Hello, hi," I said, "I think I broke a rib or two."  

As I recounted the story, the triage nurse listened sympathetically.  "Well," she said, "it sounds like you need to come in for pain medications."

Boy, did that sound good to me at this point, as the tissue covering my ribs was swollen with trauma.  "What do they do for broken ribs?" I inquired.

"We prescribe pain medications-- good stuff," she said.

"And?" I further asked.

"And, well, nothing," she said. "There isn't anything we can do for broken ribs. We just can't heal them or make them better. Only time. It takes time and you have to take care of yourself- you know, rest and don't reinjure the area."

Ah, profundity!

Grief is like a broken rib. It is not to be hurriedly healed- there is no curative therapy, potion, or pill  - there is no immediate relief- recovery, if it comes at all, is not to be rushed. Injuries like these come unexpectedly, in sometimes unexpected places. They are unpredictably swift, so no amount of bandages or aloe or preparedness can help. Control is my illusion of choice. And oh, I am so vulnerable. I may need others more now, to nurture me as I heal. Please touch me gently, do not shake, rattle, or roll. Fragile: Handle with care.

It is amazing how many bodily functions require the use of the rib cage- how when one part is broken the rest must work harder. I'd been wholly unaware - consciously- of their import, until today. Now, I have an appreciation for the sturdy-enough bones that protect my heart; and an appreciation for the helplessness of others to heal, even when it is welcomed, implored... It is amazing how you learn to protect your injury, keeping away from those who fail to remember the wound and poke at it relentlessly.

And, in the end, I opted against the pain medications. They may have given me a false sense of well-being, perhaps creating more problems for me. I may have felt artificially better; well enough, for example, to engage in activities that would cause me to work and not rest. Perhaps, this would postpone and elongate healing, or even cause me to exacerbate the injury, worsening the severity.  

Grief is a place of potential dangers, like both the perilous wilderness and the seeming sanctuary of home. Vulnerability to wounding is an inherent and unavoidable part of human existence. Fortunately, if you keep your heart open, so is the beauty of it all.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Mourning Mother

Gana holding her dead baby in Muenster

In a small zoo in Muenster, Western Germany, Gana, a gorilla is "refusing to let go of her dead baby's body" even after several days postmortem (Associated Press, 2008). Gana's baby died from unknown causes.  Despite the newly born male's death, his mother, nearly ritualistically, carries his body everywhere she goes. Zoo officials note that this behavior is not uncommon to gorillas.

According to them, Gana "is mourning and must say goodbye."   The baby was named Claudio. Indeed, sometimes even animals understand love better than humans.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Qui tacet consentit

Language is a very powerful tool with which to sway public opinion.

Politicians use euphemistic language and outright propaganda to influence perception- cleverly crafted labels such as "the PATRIOT Act" or the "Protect America Act" are intended to shape opinions and to shift the starting points for debate about politically or socially charged issues. With deliberate enthymematic strategy, sociopolitical issues are cloaked with pleasantries in order to manipulate meaning. These narrative structures are then used to advance often-clandestine social or political agendas. In an environment where torture is merely an enhanced interrogation technique, where collateral damage replaces the deaths of innocent civilians and children, and earmarks and pork barrel spending are magically transmogrified into legislatively directed appropriations, it can become well nigh impossible to disentangle reality from deliberately distorted and carefully constructed perceptions. We assemble assent and tolerance for the unthinkable.

It should therefore come as no surprise that we often use language to perpetuate the attitudinal avoidance of death. Flowery phrases dress Death up so we can sit next to Him politely at funerary processions where loved ones pass on, go to a better place, and are no longer with us. Euphemisms make others more comfortable around the discomforting. But in particular, it's how externally codified language is used to manipulate and control and to perpetuate the institutionally approved messages that I find particularly disconcerting; and how, for the most part, this messaging targets an unconscious place, whereby people are wholly unaware that their thoughts are being influenced, even at times controlled.

Another example:  The death of a baby to stillbirth is social, personal, and political. I am personally profoundly offended by use of the vernacular pregnancy loss to describe the reality of stillbirth. I worked with a mother last week whose ten pound baby boy died during birth: He was stillborn. The mom was in her 42nd week of pregnancy. If this isn't the death of a baby, I don't know what is. In dissecting that term - pregnancy loss - there is an inference that a baby or child, in fact, did not die: there is an implication that no life was lost; that only a transient condition was changed. By failing to recognize the death of the baby, we implicitly deny the baby's individualism, while simultaneously inferring that merely a pregnancy was lost.  

For many women, categorizing their baby's death as a pregnancy loss decries and derogates their reality. Historically, euphemisms are used to sanctify and cleanse the unpalatable. Yet, if we do not call it what it is, frankly, the birth of a dead baby, mothers will continue to be condemned to the closet of shame about their very real and traumatic losses when a baby dies as a result of stillbirth. These losses will continue to be marginalized, disenfranchised, and misunderstood as something other than what they really are.

In working with bereaved parents, I allow them to socially construct their own language with which they can speak of the unspeakable, and I adopt those words and phrases they have accepted, congruent with their experiences. It is, after all, their reality, not mine. If a father wants to say his child passed on, then those are the words which I will use in working with him. If a mother calls her 42-year-old dead son her baby, then he is her baby

Ask the tortured if they have been so, not the interrogators or policymakers.

In more than 13 years of working with bereaved families, I have never had a parent of a stillborn baby say, "I am so sad that I lost my pregnancy" or "I'm grieving over my pregnancy loss."  That is not, most often, their reality. They say simply, "My baby died, I lost my beloved child." 

And so it is...time for a linguistic coupe d'etat where torture is called torture, the "d" word is not a linguistic outcast, and stillbirth is recognized as the death of a baby. It is time to embrace language that is congruent with reality, and not dictated by the narrow agendas of the dominant political Goliaths.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Time Machines

if i believe
in death be sure
of this
it is
because you have loved me,
moon and sunset
stars and flowers
gold creshendo and silver muting
of seatides
i trusted not,
one night
when in my fingers
drooped your shining body
when my heart
sang between your perfect
darkness and beauty of stars
was on my mouth petals danced
against my eyes
and down
the singing reaches of
my soul
the green--
greeting pale
departing irrevocable
i knew thee death.
and when
i have offered up each fragrant
night,when all my days
shall have before a certain
face become
from the ashes
thou wilt rise and thou
wilt come to her and brush
the mischief from her eyes and fold
mouth the new
flower with
thy unimaginable
wings,where dwells the breath
of all persisting stars

e.e. cummings

The Industrial Revolution and Information Ages have aided in extending and enhancing our lives in many ways. In fact, the mortality rate in London for children younger than age five decreased from 75% in 1730 - 1749 to 32% in 1810 - 1829.

Yet, during the time when early deaths were more prevalent, death-related rituals were often less austere and forbidding. Western institutionalization has gradually swallowed death into it's economy with ritualization evolving into part of the orchestrated establishment of the funerary (and other) industry and where mourning practices are often strictly proscribed. In addition, today's funeral, on average, costs around $7000.00.

In many places, including the Cook Islands and Samoa, the dead are cared for in the homes by family members and then they are buried in the front yards of the family homeland. The homeland is never sold; rather, it is passed down from one generation to the next. Many of the tombs are above ground and family death is integrated into life in a way very different from Western culture.

Interestingly, the home funeral movement is emerging in the United States; a sort of grassroots time machine to the distant past.  Death doulas are being trained to assist those seeking home funerals for their loved ones- including babies and children who die.  Beth Knox knew intuitively that it was what she wanted when her seven-year-old, beautiful daughter, Alison Sanders, died in 1995.

Knox speaks of her experience and says,

"We're required by law to care for our children," she said. "But at the last hour, we're told that their body doesn't belong to us anymore. That makes no sense."

Knox found a funeral director willing to bring Alison's body home, where family members, friends and neighbors joined in a three-day vigil. By the time the funeral director returned to take Alison's body to her funeral and then to the crematory, Knox was, she said, ready to let her go.

Having imagined, as most parents do, that she could never endure the catastrophe of a child's death, Knox found that "when it actually happened, my senses were so highly attuned to the sense of love, I had a very precise presence of mind, very clear sense of direction." There is, she said, "a lot of comfort in being able to perform acts of love in these unbearable situation

In most states, 45 to be precise, it is legal to care for one's own dead in the home. Oddly, many do not think to ask if they are permitted by the State to take their beloved one home; rather, it is assumed that the funeral home will whisk away the dead. So the men in gray suits are summoned and the 'body' is cleanly lifted off, out of sight, to a sterile room of foreign mortar and unfamiliar melodies harkening back three decades. And then the 'body', now recently unfamiliar to us, is taken to a cemetery two or twenty miles from home. It just feels so detached from the reality of death- and natural loving instinct. So many still do not understand their own rights with regard to their dead - the very dead to whom they still belong.

I wish I would have thought to ask 'permission' for a home funeral when Chey died. I wish I had my own piece of family land where I could bury her sacred remains. I believe I'd have chosen this if I had supportive others - like death midwives- guiding me.  It is certainly not something that all would choose; but still the choice should be offered for this uniquely antediluvian ritualization of the dead.  

If only time machines really did exist...


The soul still sings in the darkness telling of the beauty she found there; and daring us not to think that because she passed through such tortures of anguish, doubt, dread, and horror, as has been said, she ran any the more danger of being lost in the night. Nay, in the darkness did she, rather, find herself.

--St. John, Dark Night of the Soul

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