Sunday, November 11, 2012

My Relationship with Death (part 1)

Children have such a loose concept of death. They know that it's a thing and learn that it's a thing that means the person in question will not be there anymore, but they don't know what it means. It's sort of the equivalent of a broken toy in many respects leaving the child waiting for a replacement. But there is no replacement from death.

I remember  my first funeral. I think I was three. Maybe two. I remember all the people at my grandparents' house, like snapshots of strangers in the sun on the porch stairs, but, mostly, I remember the body of my great-grandfather, who was hardly a person to me, but whom my mother loved, and how he looked waxy laying in the casket. Like a wax figure. 40 years later, that is still the image in my mind. A wax man in a coffin. Like it wasn't real, because, at three, it's just not.

Childhood is a progression of meaningless deaths, in fact; distant relations that have no meaning to us. We can't feel the death, because, frankly, that person means much less to us than a favorite toy or even the goldfish that sits in our room and that we're responsible for feeding (I never owned a goldfish). Sure, there are exceptions for some people, but, see, they're exceptions. Most of us go through childhood and funerals watching other people cry and wondering why. We just don't get it.

And that continues... until it doesn't.

Because, even after we've figured out what death is, for most of us, it's still meaningless. We don't mean it to be; after all, we get that someone has died, but it just doesn't touch us. It's someone else's tears, someone else's pain, and we might cry, but it's for that other person's pain, not our own.

Until it isn't.

This is why, though, teenagers get so wrapped up in death. Those that do. It's never been close enough to understand, not really, so the idea of suicide doesn't really seem real. Because death has never really seemed real. It's easy, then, to play the suicide card, because other kids get it enough to say "no, don't do that," but not enough to really take action. Because, really, who would do that, right?

It was a suicide that brought my first real discomfort with death. I think I was 17 and I didn't know the girl. But, see, she knew me. She knew me well enough to talk about me and the fact that she had a crush on me. I was nice to her, you see, but I didn't know her. She used to visit my youth group, and I made a big impression on her, because, the first time she ever came, the time she came when she didn't know anyone except the one person she came with, I went up to her and introduced myself and welcomed her into the group and brought her over to everyone else and made her feel like she belonged. But I didn't know her. That's just how I was. She made friends, and people knew her, but I never really did.

So when someone asked me why I hadn't gone to her funeral, I didn't know what she was talking about. First, the name of the girl didn't mean anything to me. I had no idea whom she was talking about as the girl hadn't been to youth group in months. Worse, though, I couldn't bring any picture of the dead girl to mind, and no one's attempts to remind me of whom she was did any good. I hadn't been to the funeral simply because I hadn't known she'd died. Because I didn't know who she was.

Of course, then everyone felt obligated to let me know what I'd meant to her. That she'd had a crush on me since I first introduced myself to her. That, really, she'd come to our youth group (because she actually went to a different church) as often as she did because of me. That she spoke of me as "the nicest person ever." That she talked about me. A lot. Asking how I was and all of that.

And I didn't even know her name or her face, and the guilt just poured on, because, maybe, if I'd paid better attention, I could have done something. Of course, in my head, I know it wasn't my fault and that I had nothing to do with it. In fact, one of the things I later learned is that she had been talking about suicide since well before she met me and that meeting me actually delayed it. But that doesn't change how it feels. The feel of it is "how could I have been so important to her life and not know who she was." I wonder if celebrities ever have those thoughts.

That was when I first really became aware of death in a real sense. In a meaningful sense. In the sense that death was a thing that could affect me in a meaningful way. And that moment, that confrontation of this girl's death, the girl I didn't know, has stayed with me for 25 years. It still makes me uncomfortable, because I still wonder how I could not have known any of this beforehand. Not that I had a reason to. No one told me. I suppose they all just thought I must already know.

Not long after, one of my closest friends would lose her father and another friend (in the sense that I had classes with him and had known him for years) would go off the road from driving while intoxicated and kill two children. Showing great mercy and forgiveness, the parents of the children did not press charges, but I can only imagine what it must have been like for him. In all honesty, he became a much more likable person afterwards.

Mostly, though, Death was just a distant thing all through high school. I had brushes with it, but I didn't come face to face with it. Not yet...

On a morbidly related note, there's a blogfest on Friday:
Pop in over here, read all about it, and get signed up! Seriously, go do it. Now.


  1. For me, death struck me in my teenage years due to strangers. I think teens have a certain sense of immortality, but when one of us dies, it brings home that this just isn't true. We had a suicide and a murder during my time at high school. The suicide was the big brother of a girl I ended up working with, and I saw how terribly it damaged her and impacted her life, sent her spiraling to a bad place. The murder was a teen who was murdered by a retired Air Force sharpshooter during a road rage incident. The older man said he hadn't known the safety was off, and had "accidentally" shot Carmen through the heart. A sharpshooter didn't know the safety was off? Anyway, that's beside the point. Those were my first tastes of death. I didn't lose any loved ones until later in life, except one uncle who I grieved not knowing more than I grieved having lost him.

    I'm glad you were able to be a positive force in that girl's life, though I'm sorry you had to deal with that sort of guilt. How could you have known?

  2. Nice lead in to our blogfest.
    That's also why teens feel they are immortal. Death isn't real yet.
    It became real to me when my grandfather died, because I was close to him.

  3. It's odd, I had three friends on one street die while I was a child -- two in car accidents and one from a disease. I never went to any of their funerals. I suppose my parents thought they were protecting me?

  4. Great posting on a subject that many shy away from. I was 4 when I lost my grandma. We were close. I only remember that she got sick, went to the hospital and a couple of weeks later she died. Until at 18 when I had my first kid I had a terrible fear of doctors and hospitals because of my grandma. No one ever thought to set down and explain it to me. So way until my teen years if I was sick and had to see the Dr I would freak out bad. Enjoyed your posting and definitely checking out the linky list for the blogfest!

  5. For me, death struck at a really early age because my cousin died in a car accident when I was about 10. It was unreal to know that my cousin was never coming back, and I guess I somehow eluded that teenage sense of immortality because of that.

  6. Great post today, Andrew. I'm sorry to hear about the poor girl that committed suicide, and you have some great insights into this topic as you no doubt have dealt with it far more than myself.

    For a moment though, I thought you were going to talk about the goldfish seen in Kill Bill Volume 2. What a great way to describe how a child views death.

  7. Shannon: I'll be dealing with some of those topics soon.
    You know, it's never really mattered that I couldn't have known; it's never made me feel like I shouldn't have.

    Alex: I'll be talking about my grandfather next post on this topic.

    L.G.: They probably did. I'm not sure how that works, though.

    G_G: People just don't think kids will get it or that they will get over it, so they don't bother to tell them anything most of the time. My parents never explained anything to me. About anything.

    ABftS: I never experienced that immortality thing; I don't really know why. I knew plenty of people that did.

    Michael: I don't remember that goldfish, but it's been a while since the one time I saw that movie.

  8. In Ireland there's no escaping what death is. From a young age, we know and that's because we didn't live in a protected idyllic world. We were surrounded by the slaughter of our people by the British up North. And our people died do to poverty and hunger. An Irish child who didn't understand the meaning of death was one that would surely enter an early grave.

    Be thankful that you grew up in a country where you could be protected from harsh realities such as these.

  9. Interesting story that is particularly relevant to me of late. It's strange how we can sometimes learn after the fact how much we have meant to someone else without even hardly knowing them.

    I've been fortunate in not having to deal with too much death in my lifetime. I heard about people dying when I was a kid but couldn't relate to it much. In fact, I never actually went to a funeral and saw a dead body until I was in college.

    Having experienced the death of my father when I was almost 40 was when death started getting really close. Now as I inch closer to my own passing--perhaps closer than I would hope--I am resigned to death as the inevitability that it is for all of us. I'm not afraid of it, but not anxious for it to come either. I just hope I have all my life affairs as in order as my Dad and my step-father who died more recently. I guess I need to get those things in order because death can often come in the most surprising manner and when unexpected. Don't want to be cleaning up my life if I'm too sick to do it.

    Another thought-provoking post that left me contemplative.

    A Faraway View

  10. My paternal grandmother died when I was 15, but I didn't really know her very well so it didn't affect me too much. Then a schoolmate died the following year and I was shocked someone so young could die of a disease. But still, I didn't get it. Then I was in a mall when a plane crashed into it and I saw people burn to death. And 2 weeks later, I was front and center at a late-night car accident. I thought I could save or at least help the victims, but when I opened the car door, I realized I was too late. Those deaths, of people I didn't even know, hit me hard. Then my mother-in-law died of cancer and her husband shortly thereafter from stroke. Too much death in too short a span of time. I understand death. I've faced it myself once. Hope I don't have to go there again for a very long time.

  11. Anne: Well, actually, I am grateful. I do know that it's not the same in every part of the world.

    Lee: Getting your affairs in order can be a hard thing to think about doing when it means contemplating your death.

    Nancy: Wow, that's horrific. I hope you've been able to use those experiences in your writing.

  12. Great post Andrew. I lost my father when I was 24 years old 2 months before my wedding. My daughter was just 5 years old but she was greatly affected as she spent so much time with him. It was a sudden and quite crushing blow when he passed and I feel it everyday. I agree with you assessment about teenagers. A local girl just recently hung herself and shortly after another intentionally overdosed. My husband works at the school they both attended and he said it is just surreal the way her classmates are both saddened and morbidly jealous of the attention these deaths are getting.

  13. My heart goes out to everyone who has had the misfortune to experience death in such personal and horrific ways.
    When I think back, I thought I knew what death was, what it really meant, through the passing of a grandmother when I was a child, a favourite aunt when I was in my thirties, a classmate in highschool...but I really didn't know anything about it until the suicide of my younger brother last year.
    Your statement..."..and the guilt just poured on, because, maybe, if I'd paid better attention, I could have done something.", rings so true with me...I have such guilt still, about not answering the phone when he called me about six hours before he died...I didn't know..I didn't know how utterly empty he felt..and so alone..I never thought he would do what he did because, it's like you say, 'really, who would do that, right?'...I didn't even know he was thinking about it..there's nothing I, or anyone can do now..but I could have done something then, and I didn't. I could have answered the phone, but I was busy. He left me a message, the last thing he said was, "Love you. Bye."
    Every morning, he is the first thing I think of, and every night, the last.
    Life does go on though, and you learn to live with the feelings of guilt, but they don't really go away..not for me anyways..
    I think this was an important post Andrew, and I thank you for it.

  14. Jennifer: I'll be getting to the significant deaths next time. I sort of think teens or pre-teens should be required to have counselling on the finality of death worked into school. I just don't think they get it.

    Eve: Wow... see, I still think about the death of this girl, this girl I didn't even know, more than 20 years later; I can't imagine if it had been a family member. But, as you say, life goes on.

  15. Wow. Timely post, as I'm about to spend 3 weeks with my sister, whose husband died the Tuesday after Thanksgiving last year. He and my sister and their girls spent the holiday with my mom and dad (all of us sisters were there with our families) and then they drove home on Thanksgiving Day so that my sister could work 12-hour shifts at her new job on Friday, Saturday and Sunday (her husband had been looking for work after losing his job to downsizing). Terrible doesn't even begin to describe it. I spent five weeks with her this February/March. The death still tears into us. The pain is unique to me in its persistence and depth. It's the death that has changed things for me.

  16. Jessica: Not that death is better at any time of the year, but a death at a holiday can be especially painful. I'm glad you'll be there for her this year.

  17. When I was 30 I lost my dad and I was awash in grief. Couldn't imagine never seeing him again. At least not in this life. Then 8 years later, we lost our oldest son and I felt as if I were drowning. Death had tricked me somehow, fooled me into seeing life twisted in a knot and our son had died by some cosmic mistake. Fifteen years later, I was beginning to come to grips with his death, understanding that this isn't all there is, etc, etc, when we lost another son, his twin. I'm back to square one again. He's been gone 5 years and I'm still no closer to articulating what death means.

    Last month a young girl in BC left behind a video with her using flashcards to illustrate her enormous pain. Two days later she finally succeeded in ending her life. She'd been trying for a long time because she was being bullied online. Amanda Todd was her name.

    Great post, Andrew. Your words resonate.

  18. Joylene: I can't imagine what it would be like to lose one of my kids, so my heart goes out to you. We did have a very traumatic miscarriage experience, and that was bad enough.