Paging Dr. Kubler-Ross

February 16th, 2012

Due to current events in my personal life, I have been thinking again about how poorly our culture prepares us to deal with death and with people who are dying.  Not strange, I guess, for a nation founded on the pursuit of happiness.  People wonder why I put Thomas Jefferson in hell in To Join the Lost.  Mostly, it’s because of his hypocrisy as a slave-owner who not only knew that he was doing wrong, but knew the degree of evil that it involved.  But I could have put him there for this seemingly benign phrase as well, which shackles the body politic to a warped, limited vision of the human condition, easily subverted into greed, lust, and the quest for satiation.  A people dedicated to the pursuit of happiness is not going to have a lot of time and thought to spare for such unpleasant things as death.  They’re going to shove it aside into hospitals and nursing homes; prettify it in funeral parlors; hide it in closed caskets that no one is allowed to welcome home from Afghanistan and Iraq; have broadcast journalists censor it from Syrian twitter feeds as too upsetting for the average viewer.  We have no emotionally satisfying rituals for grief and mourning, which we regard as disturbed conditions to be “gotten over” as quickly as possible and otherwise to be presided over by quasi-medical specialists.  We use the word “closure” a lot, as if the process of accepting a loved one’s final and permanent departure were similar to putting a bunch of stuff away in a closet.  You hear it from the relatives of MIAs – “I can get closure once he’s properly buried.”  And the reporter holding the microphone nods sympathetically.   “How does it feel?” she asks.

Okay, I’m being unfair to TJ.  Late nineteenth century America, after all, was obsessed with death, and saw – I mean saw in its most literal sense – a lot of it.  That was a nation no less dedicated to the pursuit of happiness than is our present McRepublic, so obviously it’s not all Tom’s fault.  Some time in the twentieth century, among the many wrong turns our country took in the course of its unfortunate rise to becoming the World’s Preeminent Empire, we were moved to sweep mortality into the corner with all the other unexamined dust bunnies of our lives.  At some point, death was transformed from a fact of life, as it were, to a  mostly avoidable unpleasantness; from something waiting just around the corner to an unusual and distant aberration.  I’m a poet and lawyer, not a historian, but I would be willing to bet that this devolution in consciousness occurred about the time that medical science took its huge strides forward with the introduction of antibiotics and other technologies for the management or reversal of evitable forms of morbidity.  With every step forward, after all, we leave something behind.  In this case, it was the daily, present awareness of where we’re each and all of us going.  There’s always the hope, which no sane person in the age of curing by leeches and bleeding could have entertained, that Dr. House will apply the paddles and find the right pill and revive us to go forth and consume again.

Concurrently and probably not entirely coincidentally, people drifted away from traditional religion.  I think this is overall a positive development, but it also involved jettisoning the churches’/synagogues’ role in guiding survivors through the aftermath of a death without anything substantial to take their place.  Maybe the current evangelico-protestant revival has something to offer here.  I wouldn’t know; but my impression of those megachurches is that they have more to do with building community, providing unguilty entertainment, and policing sexual morality than with meeting the needs of the bereaved.  Maybe we could look to our new scientistic quasi-religion.  There is the medicalization of grieving, but I don’t think that a Valium prescription is really a viable replacement for socially sanctioned wailing and gnashing of teeth and tearing of clothing and draping of mirrors and dressing in black.  There are psychological counselors, but that is merely another form of medicalization, the treatment of an individual disorder – “I am going to help you return to functionality after the death of your mother.”  What we lack are social institutions and cultural procedures focused on the fact that we are going to die and the people who are important to us are going to die, too, probably before we do.

The whole thing makes it harder to die, of course.  Not only is the person with a terminal illness deprived of the support of someone who has skill and experience in dealing with the non-medical needs of someone in her situation; a scrim of medico-technological optimism descends between him and the recognition of what is actually going on.  Fortunately, in many places there are hospice programs, staffed with people who have lots of relevant expertise and, in my experience, who are full of lovingkindness and wisdom gleaned from a range of traditional and nontraditional emotional, spiritual, and technical resources.  One can see the process of cultural reinvention at work here.  We had abandoned the dying, but the dying are still in the world, and they have needs, and our culture is devising ways to meet them.  So far, so good, if you are a dying person and you have geographic and financial access to hospice.

That leaves everybody else.  Where do you go to scream?

This entry was posted on Thursday, February 16th, 2012 at 11:11 pm and is filed under Daily life, society. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.