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 Weizs├Ącker

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.


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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