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Death, The Unknown, and Trying to Talk About It

Anna Ziegler’s The Great Moment is a funny and poetic meditation on beginnings and endings, birth and age, and the moments of transition that mark our passage from life to death. In response to The Great Moment, hear from Seattle Rep’s Gift Processing Specialist Linnea Ingalls in her editorial, “Death, the Unknown, and Trying to Talk About It.”

 

How big is the universe? I asked my father. I was six. When he replied infinity big, and explained the meaning of infinity, I listened and attempted to conceptualize what he was saying. I couldn’t help but imagine that instead of infinity, our universe actually sat inside an aquarium where two scientists in a lab watched us. But then, it would dawn on me, what’s outside the lab?

My childhood was filled with these questions, and I would get into such existential spirals that I ended up in tears, resolving to just pretend I was a unicorn until I felt better (really). No question captured my imagination more than death. The closest thing to religion my family had were lectures on comparative mythology by Joseph Campbell, which my father would watch and I would absorb but not necessarily understand. Campbell’s big topics continued to prompt big questions, and when I asked my father how it would feel when I was dead, he replied, how did it feel before you were born? And I tried to imagine what nothing felt like, and how long eternity was. If it’s possible to feel panic, curiosity, and excitement all at the same time, that would most accurately describe my relationship with these questions. And I wanted to talk about it constantly. 

Developmental psychologists have found that typically between the ages of 4 and 11, children come to understand that death is universal, inevitable, and irreversible. And, as they grow older and grasp the biological facts about death, they typically develop a “dualist” view that combines biological and spiritual beliefs. Even though this is a natural development process, norms of dominant American culture discourages honest, open discussion about death. So eventually, I let the questions fade into the back of my thoughts— I found that asking those questions didn’t make me popular at school and my teachers certainly weren’t going to breach the topic.

In my teen years, death took on a new shape, one that was more painful than straightforward curiosity. Several of my friends died during high school; some to illness, some to suicide. The morning after one of our friends was gone, I was in gym class. I remember looking at my fellow classmates, jogging around the track at 8 am. I couldn’t stop thinking how fragile our bodies were! It suddenly seemed as if each one of us was constantly on the brink of death. After each passing, questions and feelings formed that remained unvoiced, either because I quite literally didn’t know the words, or because there was nowhere to express them.

Those feelings and questions wrapped in my chest and settled there, I carried them with me, not knowing what to do with them. I am still learning what to do with them.

In college, I took classes on philosophy and religion, pursuing my big questions academically – a method that keeps contemplation in the head and away from the heart. It was right before a midterm in one of these classes that my father called me to tell me that my mother was sick. Shortly after that, my parents separated (according to a New York Times article, about 21% of married women separate or divorce after diagnosed with cancer). Several years later, my mother, my sister, and I were at my mother’s new condo a few days before Christmas. My mom sat on the floor wrapping presents, when she suddenly stopped and said girls; I need to talk to you about something. She looked down and ran her fingers through the rug (a nervous habit that I still have) as she told us she had about six months to live. I can remember the sensation of an iron door coming down over my heart. I swiftly became numb, I felt nothing, I became like a deer in the headlights.

I remained a frozen deer in the headlights for many years after her death. My family did not have a method of discussing things like death beyond philosophical conjecture. Near the end of her life, I asked my mother if I could drop out of undergrad to stay home with her and my sister. My mother asked me to finish school – after all, I would be her first child to graduate college, and it meant so much to her. So, I threw myself into my studies. She died a week before I graduated. I was asked to tell my youngest sibling, who was 12 at the time, when our mom had a few days left. I stumbled and faltered over my words when I tried to explain what was happening. I didn’t have the words for him, as I didn’t have any words for myself.

According to historical research, dominant American society was much more comfortable with death before the Civil War. House funerals, a process in which the dead are cleaned and cared for by the family, were the norm. However, during the Civil War, death became so common that the creation of the role of the “undertaker”, or funeral director, was necessary. The role continued on past the end of Civil War, and according to Joanna Ebenstein (founder of the Morbid Anatomy Museum), “Death became distant to us, and we continued to push it further away, until it became an even more terrifying mystery.” The rapid advance of medicine, while incredible in so many ways, has also bolstered fear of death. I can’t count the number of times my friends and I have spoken about the future, jokingly (or not so jokingly) assuming we would live to be 150 because, by then, medical technology will surely be able to get us to that age.

I desperately put off any kind of grief therapy for a long, long time. Just recently, I found The Dinner Party, a national group with local city chapters meant for young people who have lost someone close to them. I felt like I was sheepishly crawling into the party, having waited five years to talk to anyone about it. But when I got there, there were people who waited 8 years, 10 years, 16 years before feeling ready to talk with others. Over and over again I heard I just needed someone to talk to about this. To not feel alone.

I still don’t know how to talk about death, because there is no one way. I still don’t have words. Not everyone is going to be able to talk about it, but I’m finding that maybe, by beginning to try to allow the words to come and the connections to form, I’m starting to feel more than aching numbness. The risk is there, of course. Not being numb risks a feeling of expansive sadness, but it allows in moments of beauty as well. I went from never engaging in these conversations and never consuming media even remotely related to sadness or death, to joining “The Dinner Party”, curating a She is Fierce Stories event about grief and loss, and writing this article. I don’t recommend this track to everyone, but the risk has been great and the reward even greater.

So, will those questions I incessantly asked when I was six years old ever be answered? Probably not – and I am becoming comfortable with the mystery. There is something lovely about not knowing the answers. Curiosity and the unknown make being alive all the more beautiful. What I do know, however, is that those who have died never really disappear. In a speech by Aaron Freeman, he says the conservation of energy means that the energy of someone who has died is never truly gone – “all your energy, every vibration, every BTU of heat, every wave of every particle of (you) remains in this world […] All the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off you like children, their ways forever changed by you.”

The energy my mother put into this world is still here. I had a dream once that I was in a zombie apocalypse, surrounded by monsters, and all of a sudden my mother emerged, fully decked out in warrior gear. She started epically battling the monsters and when she had annihilated them, we came together and I gushed, so THIS is where you’ve been all this time! And she replied yes, I’ve been training to fight your monsters. I held her hands in mine and I asked her to stay, but she said she said she had no choice but to go back into the earth. Since then, I’ve thought of the anniversary of her death as the beginning of her official warrior training. And I thank her for helping me fight my monsters.

If you are looking for ways to start your own conversations about death, or are looking for people to talk to please take a look at these resources:

  1. Death Over Dinner: A website that can guide you through curating your own discussion about death with friends and loved ones, based on why you want to talk about it. They have an entire “death library” which I highly recommend!
  2. The Healing Center: Located in the University District, they provide group grief counseling for all ages.
  3. The Dinner Party: This is a national organization with a local Seattle chapter that just opened. It is designed for 20 and 30 somethings to get together for informal dinner parties, so that they can connect with people with similar experiences.
  4. Death Cafes: There are several located around Seattle where people can gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death.
  5. If you know someone going through a difficult time, I highly recommend the book There’s No Good Card for This by Kelsey Crowe and Emily McDowell.

 

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Linnea Ingalls was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. She is a master’s student at Seattle University in the M.F.A. Arts Leadership program, and will graduate in June 2020. Linnea is the Artistic Producer and co-founder of she is FIERCE: stories from the female and genderqueer perspective.