A Glasnost of Death

Glasnost, for those who are wondering, was the buzzword of Gorbachev on his way out of offiice. It was his encouragement of “openness” and if not of government accountability then at least of transparency…and somewhat of letting people grow their own damn vegetables. I’m trying an openness policy over death – I suspect glasnost is part of what resulted in the breakup of the Soviet Union, and perhaps my own glasnost will end in a breakup of the way we don’t talk about death.

In my family, not only do people not talk about death, but my extended family behaves as though a funeral is a fucking business reception. It’s a WASP’s nest, in and out, and all that suppressive behavior is bound to wind up in a BDSM club sooner or later. This is not healthy. One WASP I used to be familiar with expressed horror at how the Greeks handle death – they hire people to shriek and cry at the funeral, and encourage those who are there to do so. Yes, it sounds awful – until you look at the psychiatric evaluations of those who participate. (Can you tell I’ve had practice at the grieving and how grieving works thing?) The people who get healthy and move on with their lives are the shriekers. It’s the people discussing the pate’ that take their mourning into their lives and raise themselves to a whole new level of dysfunction.

I’m not a shrieker, and I’m only 50% WASP, thank G.O.D. I’ve dealt with grief and loss in some way or another almost every year since I was 14. Some losses are deeper than others, felt more sharply. Some actually make sense and I felt relieved. Some people were taken away suddenly, without warning, and I was left struggling to create a sense of order where no structure could stand. But now I’m getting a new experience: a warning bell. I’m getting some time to “prepare” for something that can’t be prepared for, and it’s also one of those adult rites of passage: the loss of a parent.

And this loss is really showing where the glasnost needs to be: one friend will change the subject when I mention it,  one person recommended I see a shrink, others are trying to dangle hope in front of me because it’s what they would want, and notably all my friends who have a parent with cancer (we have enough for a charter club) are sharing my reactions. I’m careful not to take over dinner parties with talk of what’s going on, but I’m not about to avoid the subject, either. It’s what’s going on in my life. It’s going to change me. And we should all be prepared. All too often I’ve observed a friend, coworker, acquaintance go from relatively functional to mad and erratic only to find out from a third party that so-and-so’s close loved one is ill, dead or dying. But the people that say “yes, this is going on, here’s an update, now let’s talk about this, yes I’m sad, today I’m good…” have never to my observation hopped on the train to Crazyville. Death doesn’t change the dead, it changes the living. And rather than hoping to avoid the change, I need to accept that along with the coming absence in my life.

So –

It’s official that my father is dying. The leukemia diagnosis came in, he’s refused chemotherapy (and I have said I would do the same if I were diagnosed with cancer, as I still sense that relapses have as much to do with chemo as they do the original cancer.) He’s being moved to hospice care, and I’m waiting to hear whether that’s going to be home hospice or in a facility, since Dad asked to spend a little time with Mike and I before he goes. And he wants a family portrait. I don’t know what it is with my family taking portraits whenever someone’s about to die. Something about that seems more morbid than all of my gothic jokes put together.

I have a lot of peculiar beliefs about death, in part because I’m a Sixth Sense kiddy and in part because I get it as much as a living person is allowed to have it got. I do have these odd, eyes-of-God moments where I’m given a peek at a corner of the Big Picture (TM) and then I find myself nodding and saying “Oh, yes! Yes! Death is a very good idea an quite reasonable, too!”

However, I spend most of my time walking around and being a Normal Human Being. So my inner child is shrieking “Daddy, noooo, don’t leave!” and my inner adult is standing back, observing, monitoring, reminding me to shower and run the dishwasher and write in small steps that aren’t too taxing on my attention span. Grieving is a biological process. It HAS TO HAPPEN. Crying, sorrow, moments of drama are normal, but must be watched closely lest the experience of grief become addictive. (It sounds strange, but if you check out stuff on brain chemistry, there’s something to it.)

I’m coping. I have decent coping skills. But I fucking hate the word “cope” because of what it means on the deeper levels: it means the tower has fallen (referring to the Tower card in Tarot) and there’s nothing you can do on your way down, and you’re going to have to wait for external influences when you land. Cope is the verb du jour when you just have to ride a situation out for what it is, and I am there. It’s unpleasant for me; I get very embarrassed whenever anyone sees me cry, even my fiancee. I was raised by a WASP, so it’s all suppression until you implode, and I have been told outright that my emotional suppression is where nearly all my health problems began. I’m still pissed at my mother for telling me, when someone dear to me died who she didn’t know (and therefore assumed was not important to me) that I was “allowed to cry, but not too much, and don’t get dramatic.” She essentially told me I wasn’t allowed to have feelings.  Given the meltdowns I had to deal with from her when her sister died after losing a second or third round of cancer when I was 18, she owes me a written apology for that bullshit. No child should have to pull their  mother off the living room floor after she starts screaming and sinks to her knees. I can only imagine the crap that my niece and sister have to tolerate and have to look forward to.

My father is dying. It’s affecting me already, and it’s going to change my work, my worldview, me. My art will be different. I can’t just skip through and be OK with it, and I am calling upon my core values, the very basic things I believe that come from my own connection to the divine:

  • My father has a right to choose what happens to his body, his life, and his death.
  • My father’s wishes in death and regarding no resuscitate orders are to be respected absolutely so far as they concern himself and his belongings.
  • It is a time of sorrow, but it does not absolve me of my basic responsibilities, including the responsibility to be courteous and a responsibility to protect myself from abuse.
  • I will make time for the grief to run its course.
  • I will not smack Dad upside the head for going out this way, no matter how badly I want to.
  • I will not let my mother use my grief to manipulate me.
  • I will not use chemicals to avoid the effects of grieving. A night off is OK here and there, but in the big picture, I should stay as clean and sober as possible.
  • I will start and finish the spy novel my father and I have been plotting together. I will try to obtain and finish any other creative works he may leave behind.
  • I will do my damnedest to continue to find things that make me laugh, to reach out to my friends and to be available to them and to continue on the creative path that I’ve started.
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