Thursday, June 21, 2007

On Death & Dying, Grief & Grieving

“It makes a difference in one's day, life, to witness a death of any kind, even the death of a small bird. Any death, even of a bird only held for 30 minutes, can be symbolic of many deaths past and future - and one should stop, pay homage, and then rejoice at all the life still surrounding. But always, stop, shed a tear, treat it as a gift, pay homage.”

How timely that I would read this on Katherine’s Apifera Farm Blog when I have been thinking the past few weeks about death & dying, grief and grieving. It was like she was giving me a little push – “Go ahead, write what you have been thinking”.

To tell you the truth, I generally try to refrain from getting too “deep” on my blog – sometimes a picture can say a thousand words, so to speak. Some people write daily essays that seem to flow from their keyboards like water – I have to carefully craft each sentence (my 8th grade English teacher coming back to haunt me, I guess). But, this topic has been rattling around in my head for a while now - with questions, comments, opinions, so, here goes. (And if you were looking for something light and frothy today, you may want to just jump over to Cute Overload - that’s where I go when I need a lighter subject)

I grew up on a wheat farm in Douglas county in North Central Washington The only “livestock” we had were my grandma’s chickens and an assorted bunch of barn cats. Grandma sold eggs to the local grocery store and when the old girls stopped laying eggs, they became stewin’ hens – and yes, chickens do run around after they’ve had their heads cut off.

It’s a grizzly sight to be sure. In her book “On Death and Dying” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross says “We cannot afford every child the learning experience of a simple life on a farm with its closeness to nature, the experience of birth and death in the natural surrounding of the child”. After you've watched a hen being slaughtered, defeathered and the gory “all” that goes into turning it from a farmyard animal into chicken and dumplings - there is no mistaking that as an experience…and you definitely learn where your food comes from.

I have lived my whole life loving cats. As a child, although our cats were theoretically “barn cats” and they supposedly weren’t allowed in the house – the kittens were often tucked under a shirt and smuggled in so they could be dressed in baby doll clothes and pushed around in the little baby buggy. Why they stood for it, I’ll never know, but it is an endearing memory. The other memory that haunts me was the litter of kittens that were born when my dad was out of town on business. They were horribly misformed. I was probably 10 or 11 at the time – my mom said I would need to drown them. (remember, this was 1963, she was ill, and we were a LONG way from a vet) I won’t go on any more about it, but like I said – it is a memory that haunts me that I had to take those little lives.

I have been lucky that most of my cats that I have had as an adult have lived over 10 or more years. When they are your companions for that long, it leaves such a huge hole in your heart when they die. A blogging friend, Toni just lost her cat of 16 years – The outpouring of support and sympathy that she received from the blogging world was enormous and heartwarming. That same day, another friend had to put her dog down. She got similar support from her “cyber pals”. If you have read my blog for a while, you know we have sheep and chickens here on our little farm. We have lost lambs for one reason or another and I know that most of the wethers that we have sold over the years have gone for lamb chops. I have had to resign myself to knowing that they had the best life we could give them while they were living here on our farm - shelter, water & food and lots of love – what more could you want if you were a sheep?

I’ll always remember a conversation I had with a co-worker several years ago when another co-worker, a single fellow, was having a hard time because he’d lost his “dog friend” of many years. The guy said “What’s the big deal, it was just a dog?” Just a dog? Nope, I’m sorry, my friend, our pets are our confidants, they make us laugh, they wash away our tears with their rough sandpaper tongues, they are our four legged "fur children" – and when a friend’s pet dies, it reminds us all too well that these critters are only on loan to us – we grieve for our friend’s loss, but I think we also secretly grieve for the potential and future loss of our own pet or even our spouse or our parents.

My Mom & Dad both smoked - lots - If my sisters and I all live to a ripe old age without getting lung cancer from second hand smoke, it will be nothing short of a miracle. My dad was a farmer and my mom was a housewife. Like everyone those days, they both smoked, but then there is my Hanford Downwind theory. Between 1944 and 1960 Hanford Nuclear Reservation released all kinds of radionuclide particles into the atmosphere. They drifted up the Columbia river and blanketed themselves over the farmers and the housewives who lived in the area. They (the Hanford people) said they were doing it for science – Well, in the late 1970’s there were a lot of deaths in our community from cancer, including my parents in 1978. Hmm- science indeed. I’ll bet those scientists didn’t bring their families up to Lake Chelan after they let out those clouds of radioactive dust – do ya think?

So now, I am 55. Most of my close friends are similar age – and suddenly their parents have begun to fail or pass away. “Been there, done that, got the T-shirt”, my sisters and I say. From what I can tell, the deaths of one’s parents have a way of either bringing siblings closer together or tearing a family apart. I’m really glad that it brought us closer together.

Which brings up the other death that I am dealing with right now - Losing a spouse – Not mine, of course, but my sister Merrill, whose husband James appears to be loosing his battle with cancer. To tell you the truth, I have never “prayed” on a regular basis – I have meditated, and I have done other “spiritual things” that might equate – but these days, I try to pause a few minutes each day – to pray for strength and courage for my sister. Sometimes during the day, and often after we speak in the evenings, "my eyes will leak" (to borrow a phrase I've learned from my friends in the cat blogosphere - think about it - it makes sense). I scared the heck out of my poor DH the other night because I simply could not contain my grief after a phone call with my sister. I cried and cried (well actually, I wailed and sobbed). I know it puzzles him – this connection between me and my sisters because he is an only – and that the grief that tore through me was for my sister, not necessarily for myself.

So what would happen if we all came stamped with an expiration date? Would some of us fight to last longer like sweet cream that is still ahead of it’s shelf life, or would we take off early like that bag of “Fresh Express” salad that turned brown and slimy days before it’s pull date.

Would it change the way we look at death? Would it change the way we look at life? As a Unitarian Universalist, I personally do not worry about death and salvation – for what loving God would condemn anyone to hell for eternity? Instead, my view is that everyone will be reconciled with God eventually. (But then, that is a whole ‘nother essay – it’ll have to wait for later)

In the week that I’ve been working on this post, more than 25 American soldiers have died in the Middle East. Every day, I go out and get into an automobile to drive to work. Less than 100 years ago people felt sure that the auto was going to be the death of us all (now, it’s only if the other driver is talking on their cell phone!) Have I answered any of my own questions about D&D, G&G, or have I just generated new ones? I guess I’ll have to wait and see. Let me know what you think.


Leigh said...

Very thought provoking, Tina. You have spent a lot of time thinking about this and carefully writing from your heart. Your thoughts are very well put.

Benjamin Fuzz said...

that is beautiful! it's just...right. what i needed to hear. thank you


Karen Jo said...

I can tell that you really put a lot of thought and work into this post. It rings true to me. I believe that each death we experience hits us a little differently and each one prepares us a little better to deal with the next one.

Kathy L. said...

I wonder if we all have some sort of "switch" internally as now that I am also at 55 this subject has been "nagging" me too. I don't know if my up-coming surgery triggered it, but I have been thinking alot about my father's death. Mom died years ago from a fall, but Dad was as healthy as a horse until he got an infection near that old pacemaker lead.

Maybe at this age, when we lose family and friends, we begin to realize that we're getting closer to that jumping off point ourselves. we can see the past and know some of the things that the future holds.

I agree with you about the cats, too - well all our pets. I think that's the price we pay for longevity...we must watch our friends pass ahead of us.

Thank you, Tina...for sharing this part of yourself with us. Never fear...we will take good care of it.

lordjaders said...

It is interrresting that you visited my bloggie since today--my lady bean found out herrr Daddy bean will be making his own trrrip to the Rrrainbow Brrridge (cat terrrm for Heaven). He battled cancerrr once and won, now it has been discoverrred in the esophogus and chest. He is only 65. I haven't even told my cousins Kimo and Sabi yet. Although my bean is deeply saddened she knows that prrraying forrr him to completely rrrecoverrr may not be God's plan. You see, everrryone in our house believes and has had enough prrroof in ourrr lives that therrre is one God and his son is, was, and will always be Jesus. God is NOT a wimpy, loving God. He is AWESOME and FIERRRCE, and wants us to love and obey him. He is alot like the Lion, in the movie, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. "Afterrr all, he is not a tame lion..."
I guess to underrrstand wherrre I'm coming frrrom on this is underrrstand that sometimes we experrrience trrremendous pain in orrderrr to brrring us back closerr to HIM who made us. Instant healing is not always the plan for those with terrrminal illness. The beans next doorrr to us have a little sticky perrrson who needs a new liverrr. Everrry day to be arrround herrr is a sheerrr joy, and she is a light in ourrr valley of darrrkness.
What that little girrrl does on a daily basis is save souls!She has been in the news,t.v., she speaks about the rrrarrre condition she has so that otherrr people will be morrre awarrre of it and otherrrs can be saved. She is serrrving herrr purrrpose well. We, my beans, and ourrr neighborrr beans--believe that we arre herre forrr a rrreason. A trrraining--because whetherrr you orrr otherrr people believe it orrr not, we arre living in a spirritual warrfarre--Good vs. Evil.
I hope I do not frrrighten you, I am a deep cat. Howeverrr, I am cerrrtain that if you look back on the lives of yourrr sisterr and brrotherrr-in-law you will find that they have had many rrreasons to celebrrrate. Rrrememberr though that sometimes we don't know how many people we influence in a positive way. Yourr grrrief forrr yourrr sisterrr is norrmal--and it is alrrright to miss someone. But think what a wonderrrful gift his time with yourrr family was and now he gets to "go home."
With sincerrest sympathies,

Tina T-P said...

Thanks to everyone for their comments - altho I may not agree with Jade, I love the fact that here she can express her opinions and be respected. And I did ask... Hugs to all, T.

melanie said...

I think you are right - each death touches us in a different way. The constant for me has become the fact that each death reminds me of the precious gift that life is...and to make more out of each day I have. We can so easily forget that goal, that I need the constant reminders.

As a mother, I was pleased to move my daughter to a farm so she could experience the joy of birth and life, and yes, the experience of death as it comes. Well, we had so many tragedies with her chickens in the first year or two, I began to seriously doubt and criticize my choice. (This was not exactly what I had planned!) But even that situation motivated us to make a good decision to mitigate risks - we made her cat an indoor cat. Arguments about the "correctness" of house cats aside...that was one death we did not want to experience. And she has a bond with her cat that I know is just as important as the other lessons on the farm...

Never shy away from the thought provoking on!

shepherdgirl said...

I think age [I'm on the way to 50] brings with it perspectives that are simply different. I mean, when the weekend comes, friday nite has a different feel that Sat. nite. I too am feeling like my writings are getting sort of deep, and I really want to talk about the impending death of my parents who are in 80's, but my father reads my blog and I just don't feel I can. I think I will, we will, always be thinking about these things. You memories of the cats as a child, a haunting - I wish you peace with that - and joy today for the animals and family you care for!

I need orange said...

I recently got a diagnosis of leukemia for my dog.

I started thinking -- well, of course *everyone's* days are numbered. We just don't know what the number is........ So it's shocking when we find out, more or less, how many days are left...... Or find out there are way fewer than we had thought.

I've been wandering around, wondering how things would be different if we had little balloons over our heads, ticking down from so many months, so many days.........

Would we live differently, if we knew our own number? Would we treat others differently if we knew their numbers?

I hate suspense; I think I might rather know.............

Of course quality of life is a whole nother kettle of fish -- my first dog lived to nearly 16.5, and spent the last year and a half or more almost totally senile, incontinent, deaf, nearly blind..... Her number was big, but......