Death—That’s Life

In the last few years I have lost a few dear friends, two aunts, and — quite recently — my ninety-year-old mother-in-law, Estelle. Being completely inexperienced and uneducated with the process of dying, I went through a “trial by fire” when my wife and I sat with her mother for the final six days of her life. While I was not prepared for what was to follow, there was never any question as to what our course would be. We were determined to stay by her side no matter how long it took, and we found ourselves completely open to experiencing the death process — or, in this case, the beauty of the passing.

A lot of physical contact was made with Estelle during that time. We massaged her mottled feet, daubed her face with a wet cloth, moistened her parched lips and tongue, and — of course — did a lot of hand holding. In what was to be her final hour, she would stop breathing for about 30 seconds before resuming again. It wasn't until after one particularly slow and feeble exhalation that we realized that there would be no other. The 30 seconds had extended into forever. Her last breath had ended at exactly midnight.

It felt perfectly natural and comfortable to continue to touch her by holding her hands, brushing her hair, kissing her ashen forehead. Had I merely arrived an hour before she died I’m sure that my sense of comfort with her lifeless body would have been different. For me, dying was not a part of living.

Death had been a foreign and frightening thing to me, containing inconceivable horrors. My first experience with death was when I was about six years old playing at my friend’s house. His younger brother ran into the room screaming that their baby sister had drowned in the pool. I raced home, terrified, not wanting any chance to see the body, which later probably contributed to my being scared of the Native American mummies that were on display in a museum in Santa Fe. I had another trauma seeing my father carry the bleeding body of the family dog after it was hit by a car. And while my grandfather chopped the head off and butchered a Thanksgiving turkey, my cousin Teresa watched with studied curiosity — I hid in the barn. Teresa is now a doctor, and I chose the gentler, less bloody path of working in the film music business in Hollywood, although with million-dollar budgets and killer stress, I sometimes wonder.

Over the years I have witnessed quite a variety of reactions to death. Some survivors have handled it well, combining their natural grieving with a sense of celebration for a long, fruitful life. Others have been paralyzed with grief and experienced the loss as a terrible tragedy — which of course it can be. A child’s life cut short either by disease or accident may be a greater loss than an elder dying from an expected and natural cause. I have seen some friends completely shut down, unable to function because they could not accept the fact that death is definitely part of the process of life. For them, perhaps there had been no closure to issues left unresolved, and no blessing on their part had been given to the loved one to leave this earthly existence. For many of us, there is no bridge from the “now” — the living — to the “other side,” and without that bridge, the other side can be a scary and ominous thing. And so if death can become such a paralyzing force for some, it’s obvious that there has been no healthy connection to what is an inevitability for us all. That connection must come from the family.

The modern family unit, as most of us know it, has changed so dramatically over the years that it hardly resembles that of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, and much less that of early tribal society. Tribes functioned as an extended family, offering protection, food, counseling, love, education, housing, and a sense of pride of membership and heritage. Over time, high divorce rates, families moving far away, and new and specialized careers have contributed to our present situation where almost no one participates in any of those early tribal roles; we now seem to live in barren, isolated enclaves of existence.

Just about every function of life that was provided by ourselves or the tribal unit has been delegated to others. For protection we have a paid police force — not to mention those elected strangers who occupy the hallowed halls of local and federal governments, supposedly on our behalf. We no longer procure our own food; we finance a long chain of participants to put food on our table, including farmers, ranchers, processors, distributors, warehouses, truckers, and retailers. We seem to be unable to counsel our own family members; instead, we hire expensive psychiatrists of different persuasions and slants to tell us what’s wrong with us. Our children do not learn valuable life lessons from the parents; the father is usually suffering his morning commute before the child awakes, and returns home maybe in time for a goodnight hug. If both parents work, children are raised in daycare until the school system can take over. And with that dynamic there is certainly no rite of initiation into adulthood as what existed in tribal societies. Perhaps the closest entity in which our young are finding protection, self esteem, love, and a sense of family and belonging is the modern-day gang. And it is that same entity that is also providing a very close exposure to death.

Initiation into a gang oftentimes includes the killing of a random stranger — just some poor innocent who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. By putting a bullet into the chest of a downtown shopper, a twelve-year-old can gain respect and acceptance into a club that, for the wrong reasons, provides what he cannot get at home. But that violent act of murder also introduces him to a continuing and ever-increasing relationship with death. Killings become easier and human life no longer has any value. While that kid so callously took a life, my wife and I, in a very sacred and tender manner, participated in the end of another. From total disregard to a deep and tender love.

So where does that leave us? Certainly gangs are not the answer. They are a terrible by-product of a greater problem. Faith-based organizations can provide the last remaining semblance of a loving and nurturing community; however, even they can have their problems no different from anyone else: infidelity, anorexia, drugs, spousal abuse, homicide. And at the extreme end, radical fundamentalism is usually embraced by the uneducated or misguided, sometimes with tragic results. When asked about those who feel that faith is anti-intellectual, author Madeleine L’Engle said that people who feel that way “...are not very bright. It takes a lot of intellect to have faith, which is why so many people only have religiosity.” Does religiosity then preclude a healthy perspective of death? Is the “after life” a great concept while one is alive, but a terrifying prospect too ominous to fathom once the end is near?

While there is no practicality in reverting back to all the ways of tribal society, at least perhaps we can take a lesson from just one of the family values that has largely been lost. Quality parenting can go a long way in mitigating society’s ills. How many thieves, rapists, arsonists, serial killers, and despots are products of a cruel home? There is no room in any family for child abuse, while never punishing children is a form of cruelty as well. A parent does great disservice to a child (and others) by not instilling a healthy sense of accountability and responsibility. Too often, the result is yet another selfish and ethically challenged person taking his “I’m better than you” values out into the world, further contributing to the Robert Ringer “You are Number One” climate in which we find ourselves today where materialism and wealth have greater value than human life. Simply take a look at the vehemence with which the tobacco industry defends its products; or the Ford Corporation unwilling to recall the Pinto because of a faulty gas tank — their idea was that it would be cheaper to settle injury and death cases on an individual basis out of court; or the pharmaceutical giant Merck, leaving the multibillion-dollar painkiller drug Vioxx on the market despite studies suggesting that the drug could cause a heart risk (which it does); or CIA-funded coups in third-world countries to protect and further American oil and mining investments. Blood shed for corporate profit is simply not an issue. And in our present state of war, the term “collateral damage” — we’re talking about people here! — uses a word based in economics.

If we place such a high value on materialism — if we are so obsessed with accumulating the most and best of what money can buy, from $6000 umbrella stands to multi-million-dollar paintings — what do we do with all that stuff when we are done, literally? At the end of our lives, having spent so much time and energy screwing our neighbor to further our own aggregate wealth, it must be a terrible, cruel blow to finally realize that we can’t take it with us. The greedy zillionaire lying on his deathbed is no better or richer than anyone else; he’s simply human flesh about to move on. We come into this world naked and we go out naked. Is that our reward? Is that God’s cruel joke to those who have spent their lives amassing so much?

There is one “possession” I did not mention: love. For most of us, we came into this world as naked little babies in a climate of love, and it is the poor soul who leaves merely — and pitifully — naked, leaving behind only jackals to ravage the riches left behind. Anyone raised in a poor but loving household is far wealthier than those showered with the latest cell phones, computers, and expensive cars, then shuttled off to summer camps and expensive boarding schools by otherwise indifferent and “too busy” parents. In a loving context, one gains self respect and self assuredness. When artistic and intellectual growth is nurtured, and development in each praised, rewards in both are plenty. When the extended family — cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents — are a part of a child’s life, as well as an awareness and appreciation of ancestors through stories and pictures, no bank account is big enough to replace these family values. And it is precisely in that sort of environment where a child can gain a healthy attitude of the life and death process by proper education and by being included in those very passages. I was almost five years old when my sister was born, yet I hadn’t a clue of how she came into this world. At that time, birth and death were equally mysterious and ominous. If we can finally dispense with storks and the Grim Reaper, then perhaps we can bring both rites of passage back inside the family and embrace them as significant extremes of the wondrous journey that they truly are.

I realize that our time with Estelle was our gift to her. We were part of a team of dedicated people, the nursing and hospice staff included, that made her transition easier. But my wife and I both feel wealthier from the experience. We received the greater gift. Estelle showed us what a true warrior really is. She showed us that life has potential down to the very last breath. We also learned that, as sad as it truly is, death can be a beautiful thing. It brings a life full circle. It is a holy sacrament. The Tibetans believe that one of the highest honors is to be present at the passing of a loved one. And for us it truly was.

At age 70, Estelle Bedard Prigmore joined the Peace Corps and went to Honduras to teach cooking. She then enrolled at the American Institute of Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she earned a double Bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing and Art. Her Indian bust sculptures were featured in the August 2001 issue of TheScreamOnline.

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