Wednesday, December 19, 2007

On Death and Dying

Death has been on my mind a lot recently but that's not necessarily a bad thing. A friend of mine recently lost her husband to a long illness and, since she's not ready to talk about it yet, I've been trying to imagine myself in her place, wondering what would help me so that I can help her. Up until a few years ago I wouldn't have been able to perform this exercise because I hadn't ever had a "soul mate" (trite but true); someone who completes me. If you're fortunate enough to finally find this person, it's devastating to contemplate life without the other half of yourself.

My friend Don, a much more practical person than I, is more accepting of the natural progression of things but I, having read and reread Kubler-Ross, know that the knowledge of our inevitable demise doesn't preclude the pain of loss and the steps of the grieving process. As John Donne said in his beautiful poem, which was read at my mother's funeral many years ago, "any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind."

All of this is to say that I'm as immersed in death in my real life as I am in literature. In a couple of weeks I'll be hosting a discussion of Jim Harrison's Returning to Earth, a book one critic called "a valediction to mourning." That term speaks to me. It's a perfect way of saying that it's ok to not be immediately ok after the death of a loved one. Just read Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking or listen to Diane Rehm's recent interview with Calvin Trillin as he discusses his Alice, gone five years but still very much a part of his life.

I expect that this book discussion may be difficult for the attendees, depending upon their life situations. I hope it will also be life affirming. Harrison is another one of those authors of such literary renown that I'm ashamed that I haven't read him before. His stories are very regional, set in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a bit of land you can almost smell and hear, his writing is so perfect. The main character, Donald, is dictating his family's history to his wife Cynthia so that their children will have a deeper understanding of their ties to the land after he is gone. Donald you see, is 45 years old and dying of Lou Gehrig's disease.

There is no angst, no Sturm und Drang, in this tale. Donald, a member of the Anishnabeg clan of native peoples who inhabit the U.P. and Canada, is another person who sees his death as a natural part of life, to be taken charge of and embraced as a "returning to earth." The story though, is not as much about Donald's death as it is about the empty place he leaves in the lives of his kids, Clare and Herald, Cynthia and her brother, David. Through their reminiscing readers are able to glean insight into the mourning process and the many different ways that each person uses to cope.

Please don't by-pass this beautifully written, thought provoking book because of the subject matter. Not in the least depressing, it is in fact, an affirmation of all that is glorious and remarkable about the simple act of being alive.

1 comment:

Infobabe said...

The interesting thing, to me, about loss and grief is that it is not necessarily a linear and progressive emotion. Some days it is fine and some days not. I lost my grandmother 13 years ago but if you ask me to state quickly the time involved, I'd probably guess 6until I do the math. In real time, she has already been gone a third of my life, yet our feelings of grief are still close enough that sometimes my parents and I can't talk about her. Even now, typing this, I know I have to finish my thoughts soon. The worst part is that I know I will suffer grief far more profound than this someday. On the other hand, how fortunate to love and to be loved so deeply by so many many people. Perhaps it's worth it.