Thursday, February 13, 2014

Nursing Homes as Goth?: A Special View of Death and Dying

Since my life is currently rather centered around my mom's close brush with death and now her recovery, I've been thinking about the goth view(s) on death and dying, and I wonder how many goths actually are acquainted with at least one aspect of either.  We may talk about it, we may act like we know something about it that others don't, but when push comes to shove, how many of us are really ready to stare death in the face?  How many of us have already done so?

In my personal experience, the best place to get a real glimpse of death and dying is not in a cemetery or a funeral parlor, but in a nursing home.  Since 1984, when I started performing as a belly dancer, I've danced in so many nursing homes that I've lost count of them. In every one, there were residents who were full of life, regardless of their age, illness or disability, and there were others who seemed to have given up on life and were just waiting to die. Then there were those who appeared to be in another world entirely; they didn't necessarily seem unhappy, they just didn't connect with what was going on around them.  It was as though their bodies were in the same place we were, but their minds/spirits were somewhere else, often completely oblivious of us.  I've often wondered if they were in the process of dying, and had progressed to a level where they were in many ways disconnected from "life" as we know it.

I do know it seemed almost weird and surreal performing such a sensuous, life-affirming dance in a place where we felt death and deterioration all around us; I couldn't help thinking of that phrase in the burial service, "In the midst of death, we are in life."  It certainly did feel that way sometimes.  And yet, at other times, we felt the life flowing out to us from the audience and then flowing through us back to them.  What a wonderful experience THAT is!  :-)

Currently both my mom and grandmother are in the same nursing home, recovering from their respective surgeries.  I expect my mom will be going home fairly soon (the doctor says her heart is good for another ten years now!), but my grandmother's return to her own home is doubtful.  After fracturing her hip, we are worried that continued solo living will be dangerous for her, especially since both her vision and her hearing are deteriorating.  My mom thinks it's possible that she might decide to just give up if she can no longer live alone, but we really do not see any alternative, as she is not willing to have someone live with her and doesn't want to live with my uncle and aunt (who live seven hours away, are in their 70s, and also have health issues).

Going through the process of being "in charge" for both my mom and grandmother during this period has been an eye-opening experience for me.  It's one thing to "know" that your parent(s) will someday die and leave you, but it's quite another thing to actually see the process happening.  I thought I was going to lose my mom a few weeks ago, and it's possible I will lose my grandmother this year.  While I can deal with Grandma's death more easily (she IS 97 years old, after all, and we are fond of each other but not all that close), I know it will be both hard and a relief for my mom, and I will have to help her through as much of it as I can. 

So, back to the nursing home as a place to get a really good look at one's attitude towards death and dying.  From what I've been reading lately, people who know they are dying and have accepted the fact are often willing, even eager, to talk about it to a sympathetic listener.  Unfortunately, most of the time their family and friends don't want to hear that kind of "defeatist" talk, believing it to be morbid, and worse, it might actually happen if spoken of.  And even more unfortunately, many doctors and nurses refuse to discuss death and dying with patients because they have been taught that health care is all about "winning" them back from death's door.  So the dying person either clams up and puts on a "happy face" or retreats inside themselves because they don't want to offend or upset their friends and family, or alienate their health care professionals. 

Tomorrow I'm going back up to visit my mom and grandmother.  When I do, I will try to be sensitive to the other residents at the nursing center, to see what kind of feelings I get from them.  Since I will be in a heightened state of awareness, perhaps I will be able to see a little bit more into their world, and how they relate to the approach of death, whether close or in the more distant future.

How about you?  Have you had any experiences with death and/or dying?  If so, I hope you will share them here.

18 comments:

  1. I am pursuing a career in death, a medical examiner. For me I see it as giving the dead life. Giving them justice. A phrase comes to mind that I plan on getting a tattoo of...mortui vivos docent. The dead teach the living or may the living learn from the dead. My uncle who passed away years ago due to a bad blood transfusion in the war...I remember hearing his heart monitor start to grow slower. His death was peaceful. This was my first experience face to face with death. It took me awhile to actually mourn him. But I know he would have preferred me to be smiling and laughing. I have grown to come to terms with death and accept it as part of well...life. I think we all must come to terms with this. Accepting that you are dying is in a sense beautiful. That you are not afraid.

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    1. Thank you for your thoughts on this! At one point while getting my degree, I thought about minoring in Criminal Justice Administration, with the idea of possibly becoming a pathologist or coroner. However, halfway through the first class I realized that, while I am totally comfortable around mummies and skeletons, I can't deal with "wet" (fresh) remains. I salute you for your ability to do so, and for your intention to give the dead justice. It's an awesome calling, and an awesome responsibility.

      I've also heard that saying in both ways that you wrote it; it's on the envelopes of some of my stationery, in fact. I agree very much with it, the dead DO teach us, and the dying can teach us as well, if we have the courage to let them.

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  2. The fear for death and the fear for talking about it, is a modern thing . We keep our children away from the dead and it should be something to fear. But I don't agree to that view. When I was 10 and my grandmother died, I wasn't allowed to attend the funeral with my parents, I can still argue with them about that.
    When my mother in law died, she died in her home and we visited her often. She was in very bad condition, one breath every second minute, by every breath her soul jumped in to her body again, and during the lapse faded out. We also visited her at the morgue and our 6 and 1 years sons was there with us. Her body was like an empty shell, but she was there in the room around us. We also let the kids attend the funeral, because I wanted them to have a proper good bye.
    I think it's respectful to listen if a person want to talk about their own death.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts on this! I agree that children should not be "protected" from death, because then they start to believe it is something to be feared, and the cycle continues. I was younger than 10 when I went to my first funeral, and I've always been grateful my mom took me.

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  3. Back in "96" my dad had a heart attack. Though he recovered it really drove the point of his mortality home for me. I was also ten or about that age when my father's mother passed away and I was allowed to go to her wake and funeral. That was my first up-close view of death.

    These days, my sisters and myself are trying to talk our aged parents into selling their house up in the Northeast and moving down here. Although one of my sisters lives relatively nearby to them, most of the family lives here now. They're getting to the point where they cannot really do for themselves as they used to and their eventual passing is very much on our minds in in our conversations. I hope we can get them here because we could do for them in ways we cannot now.

    In spite of all our collective religious/spiritual beliefs and/or experiences, death remains a great mystery. While we goths might enjoy cemeteries, vampires and other specimens of the living dead, I'm not necessarily convinced that we deal with death much better than anyone else does. Sure, there may be exceptions; but like I said, it's the great mystery. No matter how morbid we might be, life is the here and now--and it's quite comfortable, all things considered.

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    1. Thanks for your comments! I hope you are successful in getting your parents to move closer to you. Although my mom and grandmother live in the same state I do, it's still almost a three-hour trip each way, including a drive over a windy mountain road, and basically requires three days every time I go for just a short visit.

      I have to admit that I enjoy the fact that death is truly a mystery. One of the most freeing decisions I have ever made was deciding that it's okay to NOT know what happens to the soul during and after death. I no longer worry about "going to Hell" (or going to Heaven, for that matter!). Whatever happens will happen, no matter what I believe... so why have any specific belief at all, unless it makes me feel better instead of afraid.

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  4. Okay, this is probably going to sound terribly unenlightened of me, but the absolute truth is that I find the realities of death and dying utterly depressing and it's something I don't like to confront. I think that is why I am drawn to things of a dark and supernatural nature because I'm trying to find the extraordinary amidst the ordinariness and indignity involved in the process of dying. I think I love gorgeous old, gothic cemeteries because they lend a beauty and dignity to death. And Tim Burton's gothic whimsy actually manages to give death a sense of joie de vivre.

    My husband's father went into a high care nursing home about 6 months ago. He is suffering from Parkinson's and some dementia. He is much better than most of the other patients, but he kept falling over at home and my husband's mother couldn't lift him, or cope anymore. He is well cared for and is visited constantly by his loved ones, but he gets depressed by the other patients. I just go into cheerful mode when I visit and block out the people who are obviously near death. It's my coping mechanism. My husband needs to do a lot for his mother now, so I'm finding myself faced with the realization that I'm entering a new phase of life where it's not only my child relying on me, but increasingly it will be elderly relatives too.

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    1. You doesn't sound "unenlighted" at all, you sound extremely honest, and I appreciate that! I find the "realities" quite depressing as well. Hmmm, perhaps that is actually WHY many goths take extreme approaches to death/dying, to make them more beautiful and dignified, and remove some of the fear and distaste that our society has covered them with. It would certainly make sense, along with the Victorians' very elaborate rituals surrounding death and dying. It's much harder for us these days, when it is all so hushed up that we feel alone and have NO idea of what to do when it happens. Thank you for that insight, it definitely gives me food for thought.

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  5. When my dad died (24 years ago now), he said to me on one of his last days in the hospital that 'dying wasn't so bad.' During my mom's final hours, she kept asking me why I was crying and kept saying I shouldn't be sad. At the time, I thought it was because she had Alzheimer's and didn't understand she was dying, but now I wonder if she wasn't trying to tell me the same thing ... that dying wasn't anything to be sad about, only she just didn't have the words to say it.

    It's funny you should write this post, Lucretia. I've been thinking about death and dying a lot this past month, too. Two weeks ago, the youngest's boyfriend committed suicide; I got an email from the people who bought our house that a note was left on the door saying an old friend of mine had died (she was a year younger than me); and now last night another friend of the youngest has committed suicide. And although it might not be too sad when someone dies who has lived a full life, I find it extremely hard to deal with when it's an 18 and 20-year old.

    Wow, this was a depressing comment, wasn't it? :P

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    1. I'm SO sorry about your daughter's boyfriend and friend; she must be so traumatized. And I'm sorry to hear about your friend, as well. (Now I understand your decision about the letter-writing.) These things always seem to come in threes, don't they... I wonder why.

      I do like what you said about your parents; I think it's probably that you are right, they WERE telling you not to be sad about, because they weren't sad. But really, the sadness we feel is usually for ourselves, because we are the ones losing someone we love, and we are the ones who are left behind. So I think we need it to help us get through things.

      I lost two cousins to leukemia many years ago; she was 14, and he had just turned 21. They were brother and sister, and died about two years apart. Hers was especially painful because she had watched her older brother deal with his illness and death, so she knew exactly how things would progress. Her funeral was attended by mostly 12- through 15-year-olds and their parents and teachers, and it was heartbreaking. Yes, it is MUCH harder when they are young and haven't had a chance to really live their lives at all.

      Sending you and your family my favorite Egyptian prayer/blessing: May the gods stand between you and sorrow in all the empty places where you must walk.

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  6. Though I am no longer pursuing funeral directing with any fervor, I did have plans to become an apprentice, and may still follow them through in the future. I believe that, when we become surrounded by death and grieving, we are given a far better understanding (and love) for life. Our own mortality becomes apparent, and like Violet Gein said, I think there is a great deal of beauty in understanding, and accepting, that we, too, will come to death.

    As for dealing with death, or understanding it in any way, I don't think goths are in any way immune or enlightened. Our supposed morbidity is merely another form of life, and life is still what we cherish. Death is as hard for us as it is for anyone.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts on this! I came to the goth scene so late that I haven't really had a chance to discuss this with others before now. I like what you said about how "our supposed morbidity is merely another form of life". That makes a lot of sense to me! And yes, I can see how being surrounded by death and dying is making me more appreciative of the life I have while I have it.

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    2. You're welcome!
      Yes! I have a quote on my door that speaks of tragedies, and how they are not truly about violence and death, but about beauty and life--they portray beauty by illuminating horror, and speak of happiness by showing its loss. And I think that definitely applies to the conversation here––how death can make us more appreciative of, and even give us a healthier outlook on life itself. :)

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    3. I agree. One of my favorite sayings is "Perception is not always reality." I guess it's really all in how you look at things, like whether you see the glass as half empty or half full. We can look at the glass and perceive that it is half empty, but never notice that it is also still half full. :-)

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  7. As you know from your kind comments on my blog, my father passed away rather suddenly last week. He was a scientist, a rationalist, who had no real spiritual belief. His funeral in on Friday and I have just spent the morning with a Humanist minister planning the service.

    These rituals are for the living, to remember the loved one with affection and humour, and above all love. He wasn't a perfect human being; but he loved me with all his heart. I am so pleased he wasn't alone when he passed, and it was very gentle in the end, even surrounded by the apparatus of death in the hospital. Whilst his death hadn't been predicted, he was weary in himself after losing his partner six months ago, and his thoughts had turned more and more towards his own mortality, asking me for certain observations at his funeral, which I am glad of.

    Like my dad, I have a fairly rational, scientific mind. In terms of passing over, I believe - as Carl Sagan posits - that we are all star stuff, collecting sunlight. We came from the stars, and when we die our elements go back to the stars. Our bodies and spirits move on.

    Monuments, momenti mori - again, these are for the living and with them we keep the memory and spirit of the dead alive. I am devastated at his loss, but I am also comforted by the many people who have contacted me to tell me tales about his life and his irrepressible good humour. It may sound odd, but I am actually looking forward to the wake, because I think there will be much more of this.

    Apologies, this is rambling a little. I'm a little tired, and a little emotional, and a lot glad I could express this. Thank you.

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    1. No need for apologies, I enjoyed your comments thoroughly. And I'm glad you are looking forward to the wake; if it turns out to be the kind of wake you are hoping for, you will feel his presence there, and be with him again, even if only for a short time. I think I may have mentioned at some point that I learned more about my father at his memorial than I ever knew about him during his lifetime.

      One of my favorite translations of a line from the Egyptian Book of the Dead (which was actually called The Book of Coming Forth by Day) is this: "He who can be named is remembered; he who is remembered lives." They believed that whenever the name of the deceased was spoken, s/he lived again, if only for a moment. Yes, this may just have been a form of comfort for the living, but if it works, who cares? May we always remember and speak the names of our Honored Dead!

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  8. Sigh ... that's sincerely all I can muster about this topic. It's be seven months and I'm still exhausted, still emotional, still a bit lost ... though I am moving forward and coping a whole lot better than I was just a few months ago. It's not the dying part that bothers me -- good spiritual/pagan foundation -- it's the not being able to see the person, hug the person, and have daily contact with the person that seriously bothers me. I miss Mom with my entire person and there are nights that I spend bedtime trying to remember what she sounded like or felt like when I hugged her. I know her smell, that I'll never forget.

    As hard as being there for Mom and "helping" her die (in the comforting, making things calm and pleasant, etc. way) was, I wouldn't trade it for the world. I helped my Mom pass in a calm, peaceful and loving way. Yes, she was in pain ... though the morphine took care of most of it ... but I was holding her hand, I was talking to her, I played her music. Hearing is the last thing to go, you know. I feel honored that Mom trusted me that much to share this very delicate and personal moment in her journey.

    And I have to say, and this isn't meant to sound morbid, watching the spark of life/the soul/the anima weaken and pass from the machine-shell we call a body is fascinating. Sad, slightly terrifying, but fascinating. It's so true that a person isn't really that specific person without the spark/soul/anima. Once her anima was gone ... she wasn't there. The body was nothing.

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    1. Thanks very much for commenting; I honestly wasn't expecting you to, since this is such a sensitive topic for you right now. Your mom was so very fortunate to have you with her, and I agree, it is an honor to help people make that passage, especially those we love.

      Although I have never been with another person when they died, I was with two of my cats when we had to euthanize them, so I have also seen the life leave the body. It IS fascinating, because you can almost "see" it, but not with your eyes; it's more of a knowing with the soul is gone. My son watched one of our cats when she passed away on the sofa one night, and he said her eyes glowed very brightly for a second or two, then the light faded and she was gone. It was his very first experience with death, so I'm glad it was a positive one for him.

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