death and dying in america

February 8, 1999

America is, needless to say, a unique place in many ways. One of the ways we’re unique is in our attitude toward death and dying.

For example, there is a funeral home in California that puts the body in an outdoor kiosk with a glass pane on top — a drive-through lane allows the bereaved to just cruise through, pay their respects and drive on. Admittedly, California is a car culture, but this takes it to a rather bizarre extreme. It’s a good illustration of my belief that we’re just not really comfortable with the notion of death in this country.

Several years ago, I felt deeply privileged when a dying friend — a born-again Christian minister — asked me to stay by her side during her last few weeks on earth. At her memorial service, the minister described my friend as standing in a gown bedecked by jewels standing next to our lord Jesus. The minister went on to say that we should not cry for my friend, for she lives on in heaven.

I went home with her mother after the service and we sat at her kitchen table drinking tea. I saw such agony in her eyes, such pain. She was a body bursting with tears. I looked into her eyes and asked why she wasn’t allowing herself to cry — I could see the tears struggling to come out.
She responded that the minister had said not to cry because her daughter was alive in heaven. My response was to tell her that wherever her daughter was, she wasn’t here anymore and we all had a need to grieve over the loss of someone we love. I told her that crying was a good and healthy thing. She looked at me and asked if that was really true. I told her that it was. She started to cry and I held her. She cried for three days.

Because we’re so out of touch with the reality of dying and death, we get confused about how to grieve or what the purpose of grieving really is. We all die. I will, you will, as will everyone you know or have ever known. Yet, in this country, we are remarkably unprepared for death and dying.

I have a wonderful parable to share about death.

Once, there was a very devout Jew who lived in New York. His great dream was to meet a very famous rabbi who lived in Europe. But our man was very poor, and was only able to save a little bit from his earnings each year in order to someday make the trip. Finally, after many years had passed, he had saved enough to pay for passage to Europe. He had the rabbi’s address, so he packed a small valise and set off on his journal.

After several days of travel, he found the rabbi’s residence. It was a small, two-story house. He knocked on the door and a woman answered. He asked her if he could see the rabbi. The woman pointed to a staircase and indicated that the rabbi lived upstairs.

At the top of the stairs was a plain door. The man knocked on the door, and a frail voice answered. Our man opened the door and saw a small bed, a table and little else. The great rabbi was sitting at the table, reading from the light of a small lamp.
They greeted each other, and then the traveler began talking to the rabbi. “I don’t understand, rabbi. You are such a great man, but you have so little.”
The rabbi smiled and pointed at the man’s small valise and said, “Well, so do you.”
The man responded, “But I am only traveling through.”
The rabbi smiled at him and said, “But so am I, my son — so am I.”

We are all just traveling through life, and it’s amazing how some folks will just go out of their way to spoil our little outing here.

America keeps trying to sell us immortality. Buy this, buy that — the more you own, the longer you’ll live.

Years ago, I spent an evening with one of America’s wealthiest men. This man was born with a platinum spoon in his mouth. And all his life, he had never met a problem that he could not pay to go away. About six months before we met, his son had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, leaving this man in a massive state of confusion because all of his money could not make that problem just go away.

We all try not to think about it. Bringing up death in a conversation is considered impolite. Yet, by burying our heads in the sand regarding our own mortality, we forget how important it is to love life and to really live life.

None of us are surprised when we hear the story of someone who has nearly died. They always say the same thing when asked how the experience has changed them: they talk about how little things mean so much more to them now, about how much more important it is to spend time with their family, about how precious each moment is.

But when someone we care for dies or gets terminally ill, so many of us are surprised. It’s as though we really never believed this could happen.

I’ve told you the story of the ninety-year-old woman who, when she realized she was dying, said, “How could this happen to me? Just bad luck I guess.”

How many of you are willing to go eyeball to eyeball with the idea of death and finally come to terms with it?

Personally, I see the whole thing like this: I am a wave and God is the ocean.
It’s a metaphor. Let me explain.

I love the ocean. Birth is like that little roll of water forming on the ocean at the beginning of a wave. At first, it’s a slight, formless rising in the water. As it rises higher, the child begins to grow and take his or her own particular physical shape and the formation of a unique personality begins. Then the roll begins to look like a wave as it gets bigger and keeps growing. Finally, it begins to have a crest and is all broiling bubbles and power — this is adulthood, the person manifesting his or her strength, showing the world what he or she can do.

Somewhere along the line, the wave or the person looks around and sees all these other waves and says “I am me and I stand alone.” Long ago, the wave/person forgot the ocean it arose from in the first place. It thinks of itself as fully unique and separate, separate from its source, separate from others of its kind and ultimately separate from its own nature.

But just then, the energy that had powered it diminishes and it begins to fall. It falls back toward the sea, then goes completely back to the ocean, gone forever. At the same time, it has gone back to what it has always been: water in the ocean.

While this cycle is happening, you notice another small swelling elsewhere in the ocean. It’s the birth of another wave — another life doing what it is meant to do.

That’s my view of life. Life and death are part of the same cycle. Death is just a matter of returning to where we came from in the first place.

Now, that’s not to say there aren’t great tragedies. The greatest is that of a child dying — really, anyone dying before his or her parents could be considered a tragedy. There is almost no solace for that.

And yet, there can be. I had a wonderful friend who died of leukemia at sixteen. He had leukemia all his life. But he was still a champion swimmer and a good student. He was full of life, and at a young age he came to terms with his condition. He decided that there was truth to the notion that each moment is a choice between love and fear. And he chose love.

A week before he actually died, he gathered all his friends together — he had so many of them — not to say goodbye, but to help them. He wanted to help them be less afraid of what he was going through. In his sixteen years, he lived more and knew more than many people I know who live for sixty years.

His father was immersed in grief for more than a year. But he was very wise, and allowed himself to feel those feelings. Then, slowly, he forced himself out of it. He held onto the memory of his son, but as best as he could, he let go of the pain of loss and was able to get on with his living. That’s what the process of grieving allows us to do.

My young friend’s mother who wouldn’t let herself cry also couldn’t let go — she just couldn’t let go of her grief for her daughter, and she ultimately sank into a five-year depression.

Grief manifests itself in many ways, but it’s our job to honor it and let it do its work with us. In the end, grief is a gift that enables us to let go of our loss and enables us to go on.

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