What Is Day Of The Dead, And What Can It Teach You About The Grief Process?


The Mexican holiday has nothing to do with Halloween, but lots to do with normalizing death.

This summer, it seemed like death was everywhere. In the course of a few short weeks I had a miscarriage and watched my dog be struck and killed as we walked down our dead-end road. Two weeks later, my aunt unexpectedly passed away in her sleep.This trio of tragedies would have left anyone reeling, but I realized that I was hurting deeply in part because I didn’t have an adequate vocabulary to talk about death. This was especially evident when I tried to answer questions posed by my 3-year-old daughter, who kept inquiring about our dog and her great aunt for months. I wanted her to understand that death was normal and even expected, but I was having a hard time remembering that myself. (Here are 5 reasons you should talk about death, even if you don’t want to.)

And then, by chance, I stumbled upon information about Dia de Los Muertos—Day of the Dead—and I was captivated. Day of the Dead is most commonly celebrated in Mexico, although other South American countries celebrate as well. It’s believed that spirits arrive on October 31 and leave on November 2. November 1, however, is the main day of celebration, and the day most commonly referred to as Day of the Dead.

Most Americans, if they have even heard of the holiday, associate it with Halloween and colorfully painted skulls. But despite the coincidental timing, it’s really a fun-filled but complex acknowledgement of death as part of life, and it combines the Catholic All Saint’s Day with indigenous traditions and beliefs.

People who celebrate it believe that, on and around November 1, spirits can easily pass between our world and the afterlife. Families might set extra places at the table, exchange stories, and prepare gifts for their deceased loved ones. But mostly the day is about fun, since many people believe spirits would be insulted if they came back to find everyone in mourning.

This seemed vastly different from how many Americans view life, death, and grieving, so I wanted to learn more. It turns out there’s a whole lot that we could all learn from Dia de Los Muertos about the grief process.

Death is a part of life.
I’ve always thought of life and death as opposites. However, Day of the Dead celebrates death as a part of life, rather than the end of it. And recognizing that life and death go hand-in-hand can ease the grieving process, says Kriss Kevorkian, PhD, an expert on grief.

“Day of the Dead connects life and death in a way that, generally speaking, Americans don’t often do,” says Kevorkian. People who celebrate it realize that their loved ones are still present in their lives, even if they aren’t physically there. “You’re not taught to believe that once your loved one dies that’s it.” By normalizing death, the grieving process also becomes normalized and less of something to fear.

A relationship doesn’t end just because someone has died.
“The first chapter of grieving is really recognizing that someone is gone from this world, and your relationship with them is changing” rather than ending, says Tracee Dunblazier, a spiritual empath and grief counselor based in Los Angeles. Whether you believe like Dunblazier does that it’s possible to communicate with the dead, or you merely believe in keeping them alive through memories, recognizing that some sort of relationship can be maintained can be very healing.

“When you think of death as final, you’re looking from a specific sliver of a perspective that does not show the whole story,” Dunblazier says.

Grief doesn’t follow a strict timeline.
When someone you love dies, everyone expects you to struggle—but only for a little while. The problem, of course, is that people don’t heal on schedule, and sometimes it takes months or even years to “move on,” especially after someone passes unexpectedly. This idea is known as complicated grief, and Western cultures usually view it as something to treat (perhaps with therapy and/or antidepressants).

Cultures that celebrate Day of the Dead, however, don’t try to force a sense of closure. Having a holiday that acknowledges the presence of the dead can make complicated grief easier to address, particularly on November 1, when the spirits are thought to be nearby. Believing that your loved ones can hear and understand you on this holiday means that you have the chance to say anything that was left unsaid before they died, says Merrie Haskins, a counselor and psychotherapist based in Minnesota.

Funerals (or at least memorials) can be fun.

In America, death is a very somber event. We wear black to funerals and talk in hushed tones. However, anyone who has ever listened to a lovingly-delivered eulogy knows that smiles and laughter are an important part of the grieving process. Although South American cultures have sad funerals as well, they incorporate happiness and fun into Day of the Dead to honor their loved ones in a more spirited way. That’s something that’s not common in American culture. (See how these 3 alternative therapies can help heal your grief, according to Prevention Premium.)

“We don’t usually have a celebration with levity, happiness, song, and dance,” says Shoshana Ungerleider, MD, chair of the End Well Symposium, an organization that focuses on quality end-of-life care. “People who celebrate the Day of the Dead take this lightness very seriously, due to the belief that spirits who come to visit would be insulted if they found everyone in mourning.”

Haskins suggests adopting that focus on fun as a way to celebrate your loved ones. For example, each year she attends an Academy Award viewing party given in honor of a particular deceased family member who used to love watching the awards show. “That makes it fun for us to remember her and for new people to get to hear about how wonderful she was,” she says.

Stop fearing death, and your own death will be better.
Everyone dies, but many people are too terrified to think about it—to their detriment. “In America, we often shy away from talking about death, loss, and grief. As a physician, I see many gravely sick people in the hospital who have never considered what they want at the end of life,” Ungerleider says. As a result, their final days can be stressful for them as well as their families, because everyone is struggling to make decisions that align with their beliefs while simultaneously dealing with the grief of imminent loss.

A celebration like Day of the Dead can make people think about their own death and plan for what they want at the end of their lives. “By accepting and discussing openly that death is a part of life, you make sure you receive the care you want.”

Complete Article HERE!


Dia de los Muertos (Day Of The Dead) 2017


More than 500 years ago, when the Spanish Conquistadors landed in what is now Mexico, they encountered natives practicing a ritual that seemed to mock death.

It was a ritual the indigenous people had been practicing at least 3,000 years. A ritual the Spaniards would try unsuccessfully to eradicate.

A ritual known today as Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

The ritual is celebrated in Mexico and certain parts of the United States. Although the ritual has since been merged with Catholic theology, it still maintains the basic principles of the Aztec ritual, such as the use of skulls.

Today, people don wooden skull masks called calacas and dance in honor of their deceased relatives. The wooden skulls are also placed on altars that are dedicated to the dead. Sugar skulls, made with the names of the dead person on the forehead, are eaten by a relative or friend, according to Mary J. Adrade, who has written three books on the ritual.

The Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations kept skulls as trophies and displayed them during the ritual. The skulls were used to symbolize death and rebirth.

The skulls were used to honor the dead, whom the Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations believed came back to visit during the monthlong ritual.

Unlike the Spaniards, who viewed death as the end of life, the natives viewed it as the continuation of life. Instead of fearing death, they embraced it. To them, life was a dream and only in death did they become truly awake.

“The pre-Hispanic people honored duality as being dynamic,” said Christina Gonzalez, senior lecturer on Hispanic issues at Arizona State University. “They didn’t separate death from pain, wealth from poverty like they did in Western cultures.”

However, the Spaniards considered the ritual to be sacrilegious. They perceived the indigenous people to be barbaric and pagan.

In their attempts to convert them to Catholicism, the Spaniards tried to kill the ritual.

But like the old Aztec spirits, the ritual refused to die.

To make the ritual more Christian, the Spaniards moved it so it coincided with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 1 and 2), which is when it is celebrated today.

Previously it fell on the ninth month of the Aztec Solar Calendar, approximately the beginning of August, and was celebrated for the entire month. Festivities were presided over by the goddess Mictecacihuatl. The goddess, known as “Lady of the Dead,” was believed to have died at birth, Andrade said.

Today, Day of the Dead is celebrated in Mexico and in certain parts of the United States and Central America.

“It’s celebrated different depending on where you go,” Gonzalez said.

In rural Mexico, people visit the cemetery where their loved ones are buried. They decorate gravesites with marigold flowers and candles. They bring toys for dead children and bottles of tequila to adults. They sit on picnic blankets next to gravesites and eat the favorite food of their loved ones.

In Guadalupe, the ritual is celebrated much like it is in rural Mexico.

“Here the people spend the day in the cemetery,” said Esther Cota, the parish secretary at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. “The graves are decorated real pretty by the people.”

Complete Article HERE!


‘Memento Mori’: USU exhibit focuses on the art of death and mourning


Michael Wolgemut’s 1943 piece “The Dance of Death”

By Sean Dolan

Dylan Burns doesn’t dwell on the fact that he will eventually die, but he is aware of the inevitable.

That’s one of the side effects of spending several months preparing an art exhibit that celebrates the macabre. Burns, the digital scholarship librarian at Utah State University’s Merrill-Cazier Library, is the curator of, “Memento Mori: The Art of Death and Mourning.”

The exhibit itself is a reminder of death. Black curtains beckon the viewer to stand in the center of tall white boards arranged in the shape of a coffin. Inside the display, images of skulls and centuries-old drawings of dancing skeletons hand-picked from rare books in the library’s special collections invite the silent contemplation of death.

“The whole exhibit asks this question — implores people to ‘memento mori,’ which is ‘remember that you’ll die,’” Burns said. “And that’s something that I think we don’t do that often in our contemporary world.”

Bruns found inspiration for the exhibit in a collection of Compton Studio photographs, a family-run company founded in Brigham City in 1884. In addition to documenting life in Utah, the Compton Studio took elaborate funeral photos.

Dylan Burns

In one photo, three young children stare bleakly into the camera as their deceased sibling lies motionless in a cradle.

“They’re extraordinarily striking and intimate,” Burns said.

At the time, Burns said funerals and the handling of the deceased was generally left to the family. When a grandmother died, for example, the body would be washed, dressed and displayed in the parlor. Friends would come and pay tribute.

Over the past 100 years, Burns said death has become more sterile. As soon as someone dies, they are whisked away and embalmed behind closed doors, only to be seen briefly by the family.

“We have funeral homes and they take care of everything and it’s all kind of sanitized and it’s out of the home and out of the family,” he said.

Burns isn’t suggested that everyone should go out and wash their next dead family member, unless they want to. But there is a movement in some funeral homes called, “The Order of the Good Death,” which encourages people to approach death with a different attitude. Instead of fear and anxiety, this movement reminds people that death is a part of life.

“It’s sad, but it is what it is,” Burns said.

Using the funeral photos as a jumping off point, Burns then took a deep dive into the library’s special collections to find old sources that reminded one to “memento mori.”

Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius’s 1543 publication called, “De Humanis Corporis Fabrica,” depicts scientifically accurate sketches of skeletons with an artistic flare.

Burns said Vesalius was a doctor who made a significant contribution to the world’s medical knowledge. In addition to scientific experiments and dissections, Vesalius posed and sketched skeletons in ways that gives the appearance of contemplation of demise and death.

‘Memento Mori’: The art of death and mourning

“Yeah, they’re weird,” Burns said. “The point that I’m making here is I’m talking about these memento moris, which are these objects that remind you that we are going to die.”

One of the most striking, and locally significant, example of a memento mori is the skull of Old Ephraim, the mightiest grizzly bear known in Logan Canyon.

“We’re reminded that even the most powerful can’t escape death,” Burns said.

Another section of the exhibit is devoted to the allegory of the Danse Macabre, or the Dance of Death, which depicts motifs of skeletons dancing with the living. The exhibit displays the work of Hans Holbein, a 16th century German artist. Holbein drew skeletons interacting with powerful people, like the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope.

“No matter who you were, it came for everyone,” Burns said.

The exhibit, which will remain on display until Dec. 10, coincides with the library’s Family Art Day this Saturday. The event’s theme is, “Telling a Spooky Story — With Art!”

Children are invited to create Halloween-themed silhouettes from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. If they desire to explore the morbidity of death, kids can check out the adjacent “Memento Mori” exhibit.

Burns said part of his intention was to just invite people to think and talk about death. It’s going to happen to everyone, but it’s rarely discussed.

“I don’t think it’s healthy for it to be a taboo subject that we never talk about,” Burns said.

Complete Article HERE!


Remember that you will die


By Bonnie Kristian

I don’t often think about death.

Well, to be precise, I don’t think about my own death. So rarely, in fact, do such personally existential topics occur to me that my far more reflective husband has suggested we may be of different species.

But I do think about other people’s deaths almost daily — not in, like, a serial killer way, but in that my occupation as a writer covering politics and current events means death constantly invades my work. There’s death in the headlines as soon as I wake up and death in the policy topics, like foreign affairs and criminal justice reform, on which I often offer commentary. Last year I completed a seminary degree, and I wrote my master’s thesis on the theology surrounding the death of Christ.

It is that exposure to death, distant but incessant, which perhaps made a line from late night host Jimmy Kimmel’s mournful monologue on the mass shooting in Las Vegas so striking to me. “I just want to laugh about things every night, but seems to [be] becoming increasingly difficult lately,” he said. “It feels like someone has opened a window into hell.”

What happened in Las Vegas was indeed hellish, but the window is not newly open. This is the way our world has worked throughout the great bulk of history, and it is the way it continues to work around much of the globe today. Think of the persistent evils of conquest and slavery and genocide, plague and flood and fire. Think of the Lisbon earthquake, which in 1755 killed as many as 100,000 people and caused so much anguish it changed the course of European philosophy. Think of the famine and cholera in Yemen right now, where conditions are so dire children are dying of dehydration in the womb. Think of the slaughter in Myanmar, the decimation of Puerto Rico, the refugee crisis in the Middle East.

Yes, we have a window open to hell, but we did not open it last weekend in Las Vegas. It has been open a very long time.

Here in the United States in the start of the 21st century, we are significantly insulated from natural and man-made evils alike. Make no mistake: I do not mean to discount real suffering or to suggest that such insulation is a bad thing. Far to the contrary, it is wonderful to live in a time and place as historically prosperous and safe as ours. For all our debates about health care, for example, we modern Americans are justifiably confident that we will not meet our end in an epidemic of bubonic plague, our bodies consigned to a mass grave stacked — as one medieval Italian put it — “just as one makes lasagna with layers of pasta and cheese.”

But our insulation comes with side effects. It makes us unduly surprised and incapable of appropriate response when grave evils do befall us. We are fixated on asking how such an evil could happen to the detriment of more valuable questions.

As a potential remedy, I propose reviving memento mori, the practice of remembering death. Though there are injunctions to meditate on mortality to be found in pre-Christian and non-Western philosophy, memento mori — Latin for “remember that you will die” — is classically a Christian phenomenon that flourished in the Western world from the Middle Ages through Victorian times.

Memento mori was never a single act or image, but its most identifiable form is the representation of death and the fleeting passage of time in medieval and Renaissance art. Skulls were a favorite theme, as were running hourglasses, wilting flowers, and burning candles. Sometimes full skeletons appeared, inviting people from all walks of life to join the inevitable danse macabre. In poem and fresco alike, the story of “The Three Living and the Three Dead” saw three kings meeting three walking corpses of monarchs past. “Quod fuimus, estis; quod sumus, vos eritis” — what we were, you are; what we are, you will be — the corpses say, cautioning the kings against a frivolous and immoral life.

That warning is central to the message of memento mori, which is neither an effort “to find comfort in the commonality of our mortal lot” nor the indulgence in morbidity and despair it may initially seem. The point of remembering that you will die is to reflect on how you are living now: If life is fleeting, it is all the more important to use it well. For Christians, it is equally a reminder of our hope in the victory of Christ and the coming destruction of death itself. As we remember death, we also remember it will not have the final word. “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

Still, I am going to die. You are going to die. We are all going to die. That is something we should remember.

Memento mori should not make us cynical about death and other evils, but rather mindful that they are happening to others and better prepared for when they happen to us. This mental habit becomes all the more necessary when you live, like Jimmy Kimmel and me, in circumstances where “laugh[ing] about things every night” is plausible. It is a habit that keeps us from being taken by surprise that our world has a window open to hell, and that keeps us doing what we can to shut it.

Complete Article HERE!


The Poetry of Death


When death, as public as a President or as private as a lover, overwhelms us, it speaks itself in elegy’s necropoetics.


Jane Kenyon and I almost avoided marriage because her widowhood would have been so long, between us was there such a radical difference in age. And yet today it is twenty-two years since she died, of leukemia, at forty-seven—and I approach ninety. I was a high-school freshman and decided to write poems five years before Jane was born. She finished primary school in 1958, the year that I took a teaching job in her home town of Ann Arbor. With me came my wife, Kirby, and my son, Andrew; my daughter, Philippa, arrived three years later. The marriage crumbled after a decade, and I endured five wretched years of promiscuity and booze. To our endless good fortune, Jane and I found each other and, three years later, I quit teaching and we moved to New Hampshire. My children came east for their education and remained here as our neighbors. In my twenty years with her, everything in my poetic history happened again, this time to Jane: her first poem in Poetry, her first book, her second, an N.E.A. fellowship, her third book, a Guggenheim, her fourth book, multiple poetry readings, her reputation rising and spreading.

When we knew for certain that she was about to die, she told me the whereabouts of her unpublished poems, and I read them for the first time. They were dazzling, and I faxed them to the New Yorker. When we heard back from the poetry editor Alice Quinn a few days later, Jane’s eyes were open but she couldn’t see. I told her that Quinn was taking seven poems. She had stopped speaking, but her oncologist said that she could still hear.

Poetry begins with elegy, in extremity, as Gilgamesh laments the death of his companion Enkidu, watching worms crawl out of Enkidu’s neck. Homer sings of heroes as they die in battle, and Priam weeps to see the body of his son Hector dragged around the walls of Troy. Virgil follows Aeneas from the graveyard of Troy to the founding of Rome, Dido’s pyre flaming on the way. In the fifteenth century, poetry emigrated from Chaucer’s England north to the Scots, where William Dunbar wrote his elegy for the makers—in Greek, a poet is a “maker”—and grieved over twenty-five dead and dying Scots poets. Not a line from them remains. In “Lament for the Makaris,” Dunbar writes:

I that in heill wes and gladnes,
Am trublit now with gret seiknes,
And feblit with infermitie;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He hes done petuously devour
The noble Chaucer, of makaris flour,
The Monk of Bery, and Gower, all thre;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He hes Blind Hary and Sandy Traill
Slaine with his schour of mortall haill,
Quhilk Patrik Johnestoun might nocht fle;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

The refrain translates as “the fear of death confounds me,” but conturbat is more violent than “confounds.” A few years later, in Shakespeare’s English, Hamlet dies, Lear dies, and Prospero dies. In Milton’s “Lycidas,” the vowels of lament are golden, as erotic in sound as they are in “Paradise Lost,” but the grief is formal, not intimate; literary, not literal. Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” embodies grief before resolving it by theology. The profoundest or most mournful American lament is Whitman’s for Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” A great elegy from the seventeenth century, rooted among the best poems of the English language, is Henry King’s “The Exequy”:

Accept thou Shrine of my dead Saint,
Insteed of Dirges this complaint;
And for sweet flowres to crown thy hearse,
Receive a strew of weeping verse . . .

His bride has died in her twenties: “Thou scarce had’st seen so many years / As Day tells houres . . . ” In almost a hundred lines, tetrameter couplets hurtling with a passion of grief, King looks ahead to his own death and the inevitable reunion with his bride. It is not compensatory.

Sleep on my Love in thy cold bed
Never to be disquieted!
My last good night! Thou wilt not wake
Till I thy fate shall overtake:
Till age, or grief, or sickness must
Marry my body to that dust
It so much loves; and fill the room
My heart keeps empty in thy Tomb.

When Jane and I lived in New Hampshire together, we suffered the deaths of dear friends and of cousins. Edna Powers, the granddaughter of my grandfather’s brother, was a parishioner of the South Danbury Christian Church—affectionate, large, warm, outspoken. She died, in her late fifties, on the operating table at the Franklin Hospital. I read Henry King’s “Exequy” aloud.

When death, as public as a President or as private as a lover, overwhelms us, it speaks itself in elegy’s necropoetics, be the subject a twenty-five-year-old bride or Enkidu or Edna Powers or Blind Harry or Abraham Lincoln or Jane Kenyon. “The Exequy” kept me company again when Jane died.

When I was nine or ten, Great-Uncle Wilfred felt a pain in his back at Cousin Nannie’s funeral. We buried him five months later. I woke in the night hearing myself declare, “Now death has become a reality.” My first poem, at twelve, was “The End of All.” At one point, I decided that if we flattered death, it might spare us, so I wrote “Praise for Death.” Between my two years at Oxford, I returned to the United States for my own wedding. My New Hampshire grandparents couldn’t attend—the year before, my grandfather had suffered a malfunction in a heart valve. The day after the wedding, before sailing to England, Kirby and I had only a day to drive to the farm where I had spent my childhood summers, listening to my grandfather’s stories, haying with him every afternoon, eating my grandmother’s chicken fricassee or red flannel hash for dinner. My mother’s father, Wesley Wells, had been my life’s love, the measure of everything. Kirby met Kate and Wesley; we ate a hen fresh from the henyard; we chatted; and when Kirby and I started upstairs for sleep, Wesley could not help but tell a funny story. The night he and Kate married, Kate’s cousin Freeman had wired a cowbell to their bedsprings.

Three days later, Kirby and I boarded the Queen Elizabeth for England and Oxford. In March, the airmail letter from my mother arrived—transatlantic telephone calls had to be scheduled—telling me that my family was burying my grandfather. In our Banbury Road flat, for a season, I sat at my desk writing “An Elegy for Wesley Wells,” fiercely iambic, making him the high point of the dying world. “Soon I will leave, to cross the hilly sea / And walk again among the familiar hills / In dark New Hampshire where his widow wakes.”

Two and a half years after our wedding, Kirby gave birth. When the baby turned out to be a boy, we named him after my father and me, Donald Andrew Hall. We would call him Andrew. Every night, with pleasure, I gave him his 2 A.M. bottle. Every day, I worked on a poem called “My Son My Executioner.” The New Yorker published it, an anthologist put it in a college textbook, teachers assigned it, and for decades textbook anthologies reprinted it. I was the fellow whose son strapped him into the electric chair.

My son, my executioner,
I take you in my arms,
Quiet and small and just astir
And whom my body warms.

Sweet death, small son, our instrument
Of immortality,
Your cries and hungers document
Our bodily decay.

We twenty-five and twenty-two,
Who seemed to live forever,
Observe enduring life in you
And start to die together.

In Andrew’s first autumn, Kirby enrolled for her senior year of college. We had married after her junior year. I fed Andrew breakfast while his mother took classes and studied or wrote papers at the library. I gave him his bath, played with him, changed his diapers, put him down for his morning nap, changed his diapers again, walked around with the baby on my shoulder, and gave him another bottle. At noon Kirby relieved me. I liked to be part-time mother while remaining the father of my executioner.

My father turned fifty-two on December 6, 1955. He died, of lung cancer, two weeks later, and we buried him, on Christmas Eve, in the Whitneyville Cemetery in Hamden, Connecticut, a block from the house he grew up in. During his seven months of dying, I drove the two hours to see him once a week. He could not speak outright of his approaching death. In a low voice that cracked and shuddered, he murmured, “if anything . . . should happen . . . to me . . .” Week after week I watched as his skin paled, he grew frailer. My mother, Lucy, rubbed his balding head. He died a few hours before one of my weekly visits. The last time I sat with him alive, I thought that every breath might be his last. I had not yet observed the brain-stem breathing—three quick breaths, a pause, and a long one—that I would see as my ninety-seven-year-old grandmother, and, twenty years later, my wife, died.

Everyone was there for my father’s funeral. My grandmother took the train from New Hampshire, from the tiny depot of Gale, three-quarters of a mile from the farm. She wore her Sunday black dress. Kirby brought Andrew, and I remember him playing with a plastic toy telephone. My mother, a widow at fifty-two, hadn’t had a night’s sleep for many months. She would live until almost ninety-one without dating another man. It was cold as we buried him in the early darkness.

For many months afterward I worked on “Christmas Eve in Whitneyville.” I used Thomas Gray’s stanza, if not the rhythms, of “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” It was the best poem I had written, and it lamented that my father never did what he wanted to do. “’The things I had to miss,’ you said last week, / ‘Or thought I had to, take my breath away.’ ” I decided that, for the rest of my life, I would do what I wanted to do. I sent the poem to the Kenyon Review, the prestigious literary magazine of its day, and John Crowe Ransom accepted it, calling it “pious.”

Jane’s own necropoems began when her father died. During his cancer, she and I flew from New Hampshire to Michigan and, with her mother, took turns staying up all night beside him. Not long after he died, Jane’s poems attended my almost-death. Two years before her leukemia, I lost half of my liver to cancer. My surgeon said that, after such an operation, a man of my age had a thirty per cent chance of living five years. We wept driving home from the hospital. She showed me her poem “Pharaoh” as I lay in bed recovering from surgery:

I woke in the night to see your
diminished bulk lying beside me—
you on your back, like a sarcophagus
as your feet held up the covers. . . .
The things you might need in the next
life surrounded you—your comb and glasses,
water, a book and a pen.

“Is it all right?” Jane said, bending anxiously over me in the bedroom’s half-light. Jane had the habit of repeating a difficult sentence with a heavier emphasis. She said again, “Is it all right?” “It’s a wonderful poem,” I said as I finished it. I paused and added that, yes, it was remarkable to read of my own death, I was so used to writing about other people’s. When I was still skinny with chemotherapy, she showed me a draft of “Otherwise” beginning:

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.

As she showed me the poem, it ended two stanzas later: “But one day, I know, / it may be otherwise.” I wonder if Jane suspected that I would change a word; frequently, we revised each other. I crossed out “may” and wrote “will.” And so it was, but not as we assumed.

When, twenty-odd years later, the New York composer Herschel Garfein set several of my poems to music for tenor and piano, he mentioned my name as he visited the medical school at Columbia. “Oh, yes,” a doctor-teacher told Garfein. “We use him.” After I published my book of poems about Jane’s death, many medical schools used me. Sometimes they invited me to read to their students and to answer questions. Twice, the University of Utah flew me from New Hampshire to Salt Lake City to read my poems at the School of Medicine. I told student doctors about our oncologist, Kris Doney, in Seattle, where Jane had her bone marrow transplant. Dr. Doney adhered to Jane’s suffering and to my own as husband and lover. After the successful transplant and our return to New Hampshire, when Jane’s leukemia outwitted her new marrow, Dr. Doney flew cross-country for Jane’s funeral.

Stories of dying and death used to reside outside medical discourse. Death was medical failure, and doctors concentrated on the not yet dead. Then, in the second half of the twentieth century, attention turned to the only event common to everyone. In 1967, in England, the doctor Cicely Saunders founded St. Christopher’s Hospice, not to prolong life but to comfort the dying. Death and grief were subject to intimate analysis in Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s “On Death and Dying.” Gradually, we have equipped ourselves to think and talk about the dread of terminal suffering. Palliative care has become a medical profession, and dying the subject of lyric and narrative attention. Columbia offers a master’s degree in narrative medicine, directed, appropriately, by Dr. Rita Charon. A doctor at the Yale School of Medicine, Anna Reisman, quoted Jane’s last poem, “The Sick Wife,” on NPR, saying that doctors still “don’t really understand what patients are going through.” Ira Byock wrote “Dying Well.” Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal” was a bestseller for a year. Every season adds to the literature of dying. Necropoetics includes necromemoir. The young neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi wrote “When Breath Becomes Air” as he was dying of cancer at thirty-six. Smitten with multiple tumors, he continued to operate on patients. While dying, he made his suffering into a devastating memoir. Last year, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Jed Myers, a psychiatrist who lives and works in Seattle, wrote “Poetry’s Company” after he watched his father die over six months of glioblastoma. He quotes from my poems about Jane’s death, then from my friend Christian Wiman, afflicted for decades with his own multiple cancers. Myers ends by addressing the medical profession. “I commend to you, fellow physician, the pragmatically useless treatment called poetry, whereby we might leave our patients less alone when our medicine leaves us all alone.”

Before she became my student, Jane had lived a quiet, rural life, just outside the bustle of Ann Arbor. Her parents were musicians, and she grew up in a house full of books. In junior high, she started writing poems and keeping a journal. She enrolled in the University of Michigan, flunked biology, dropped out, took a job, returned to major in French, studied to be a teacher, switched to English, and took my lecture course in Yeats and Joyce. The following year, she applied to take my poetry workshop, and most of the poems she submitted were slight and fantastic, a habit of the moment that Robert Bly called “light verse surrealism.” Yet one of her poems was darker and stronger. She wrote of trying to capture the attention of her sick grandmother, approaching the hospital bed “like the young nurse with the needle.” The image brought her into my class and altered our lives forever.

In the first three years of our marriage, when we stayed in Ann Arbor, she worked on poems mostly when I flew out of town to do poetry readings. When I was at home my presence appeared to inhibit her. In New Hampshire, for the first time, she worked on poems every day. Here she had no job, no local past nor friends. We had each other, we had our house, we had our landscape, we had my cousins in the small white clapboard church. Every day was devoted to each other or to making poems. She wrote tentatively about inhabiting my place, my history. She saw, or imagined she saw, my ancestors haunting our kitchen. She floated in space like an astronaut detached from the mother ship—or was she attached? She found in the shed a woman’s long gray hair.

A poet from Ann Arbor had moved to Boston, a woman Jane’s age who belonged to the Alice James Poetry Cooperative. Joyce Peseroff recruited Jane, and the Cooperative published her first book, “From Room to Room,” in 1978—the beginning of her career in poetry. Jane and Joyce started a poetry magazine, Green House, addressing their generation of young poets. It was eight years before Jane did another book, the second of the four, but as she published new poems in magazines she came to national attention. I remember when the New Yorker bought its first poem by Jane, “Thinking of Madame Bovary.”

The year when Jane published her first book, I brought out my seventh—that’s what she had to put up with. “Kicking the Leaves” was a breakthrough for me, deriving its force from the ecstasy of marrying Jane and the change from university teaching to life in New Hampshire. My bland first collection, in 1955, had been overpraised. When the second book followed—and the third and the fourth and the fifth and the sixth—no one paid much attention. (Just before “Kicking,” I published a prose reminiscence of older poets. Friendly reviewers found it ironic that the author of “Remembering Poets” had once been a promising poet.) “Kicking the Leaves” was reprinted many times, selling in the end ten times as many copies as my first six titles together. With my marriage to Jane and my return to old sources, I had found myself as a poet.

Meanwhile, Jane’s reputation bloomed, poem after poem and book after book. Three or four times a year she workshopped with Peseroff and Alice Mattison, who published short stories in the New Yorker, and would return from the three-woman workshop triumphant. I watched her excitement and progress with joy and envy.

For decades, she and I had written what could be described as the same sort of poem. It was free verse—mostly short poems in lines of largely similar length, delicate rhythms with forceful enjambments and an assonance of diphthongs. My earliest poems, long before Jane and I knew each other, were rhymed and metrical. Ten years after Jane’s death, out of love for Thomas Hardy and the seventeenth century, I wrote metrical poems again, many of them about Jane. But in the long middle of my life I improvised, like Jane, a sensuous sound without meter. Our work had been different enough—people knew us apart—but we belonged together to a stylistic consensus. Then, as Jane moved from glory to glory, the language of my poems began to diverge from hers. In one lengthy collection, my lines became more ironic and more ingenious in structure. A subsequent, still weaker book collected brief plain poems of anecdotal reminiscence. It appeared just after Jane died, and a compassionate reviewer attributed its failure to my anguish. Over the years I have come to understand how or why my poems altered and deteriorated. Working beside her, I felt overwhelmed as I read “Let Evening Come” and “Briefly It Enters.” I admired the embodiment of her struggle with depression in “Having It Out with Melancholy.” I remember when she handed me “Twilight: After Haying,” one summer after a neighboring farmer finished cutting our fields:

Yes, long shadows go out
from the bales; and yes, the soul
must part from the body:
what else could it do?

The men sprawl near the baler,
too tired to leave the field.
They talk and smoke,
and the tips of their cigarettes
blaze like small roses
in the night air. (It arrived
and settled among them
before they were aware.)

The moon comes
to count the bales,
and the dispossessed—
Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will
—sings from the dusty stubble.

These things happen . . . the soul’s bliss
and suffering are bound together
like the grasses. . . .

The last, sweet exhalations
of timothy and vetch
go out with the song of the bird;
the ravaged field
grows wet with dew.

Such sensuous beauty. As the dew falls the soul eases into bodily receptiveness. These devastating enactments of Jane’s art became daily events. The emotional abundance of her language climbed to the summit of literary achievement, the pupil exceeding her teacher, and I made my poems as unlike Jane’s as I could manage.

When Jane was put to bed in Dartmouth-Hitchcock, an hour north of our house, I rented a motel room next door and spent every day with her. I took notes in brief lines of verse—observations, anecdotes, humors, terrors. I found and used a few of these lines later, when I assembled my poems of her death. Only six months into Jane’s leukemia, I had drafted the poem “Without” in the present tense. She had been diagnosed in January. In the New Hampshire Hospital, as we waited for a stranger’s bone-marrow match and a flight to Seattle in late August, I saw the trees begin to turn yellow from the window. I had not noticed the melt of March nor the green leaves when they arrived in April. We inhabited not the natural world but the landscape of leukemia. I read a draft of “Without” to Jane. From her bed, Jane said, “You’ve got it, you’ve got it!” A year later, I put the poem into the past tense, and eventually it became the title of my book of Jane’s death.

In the weeks after her funeral, I drove four times a day to her grave. I read novels only if they exercised rage and misery—“No Country for Old Men,” not “The Ambassadors.” I took pleasure only in disaster: Oklahoma City, an airplane crash in New York with everyone killed. My days were misery, except for an hour in the morning, when I revised the wailing and whining I had drafted beside her hospital bed. Today I realize that these death poems had already begun to bring my language back to life. One morning I looked out of the window at her garden. Her peonies, basketball-sized, stood tall and still unopened late in May, with weeds starting from the black earth around them. I began the poem that, by autumn, became “Weeds and Peonies.”

Your peonies burst out, white as snow squalls,
with the red flecks at their shaggy centers
in your border of prodigies by the porch.
I carry one magnanimous blossom indoors
and float it in a glass bowl, as you used to do.

Ordinary pleasures, contentment recollected,
blow like snow into the abandoned garden,
overcoming the daisies. Your blue coat
vanishes down Pond Road into imagined snowflakes
with Gus at your side, his great tail swinging,

but you will not reappear, tired and satisfied,
and grief’s repeated particles suffuse the air—
like the dog yipping through the entire night,
or the cat stretching awake, then curling
as if to dream of her mother’s milky nipples.

A raccoon dislodged a geranium from its pot.
Flowers, roots, and dirt lay upended
in the back garden where lilies begin
their daily excursions above stonewalls
in the season of old roses. I pace beside weeds

and snowy peonies, staring at Mount Kearsarge
where you climbed wearing purple hiking boots.
“Hurry back. Be careful, climbing down.”
Your peonies lean their vast heads westward
as if they might topple. Some topple.

It was Jane’s “prodigies”; it was Jane’s “magnanimous” blossoms; it was Jane who saw Gus’s “great tail swinging” and the “repeated particles” of snow. After her death I was able again to assume a diction as potent as Jane’s. I revised and finished “Without” and “The Porcelain Couple” and “The Ship Pounding.” I wrote “Letter With No Address” in our common language, and continued my posthumous one-way correspondence through “Letter After A Year.” After “Without,” I continued to write about Jane in “The Painted Bed,” sometimes returning to metrical forms. In the months and years after her death, Jane’s voice and mine rose as one, spiralling together the images and diphthongs of the dead who were once the living, our necropoetics of grief and love in the singular absence of flesh.

Complete Article HERE!


Why the Irish get death right


We’ve lost our way with death, says Kevin Toolis – but the Irish wake, where the living, the bereaved and the dead remain bound together, shows us the way things could be done

Kevin Toolis … ‘My father’s dying, his wake, his willing sharing of his own death, would too be his last parental lesson to his children and his community. A gift.’


In the narrow room the old man lay close to death.

Two days before, he had ceased to speak, lapsed into unconsciousness, and the final vigil had begun. The ravages of cancer had eaten into the flesh leaving only a skeletal husk. The heart beat on and the lungs drew breath but it was impossible to tell if he remained aware.

In the bare whitewashed room, no bigger than a prison cell, 10 watchers – the mná caointe – the wailing women, were calling out, keening, sharing the last moments of the life, and the death, of this man. My father. Sonny.

“Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us now, and at the hour of our death.”

In the tight, enclosed space, the sound of this chorus of voices boomed off the walls, the ceiling, louder and louder, reverberating, verse after verse, on and on, cradling Sonny into death.

This death so open, so different from the denial of the Anglo-Saxon world would, too, be Sonny’s last parental lesson.

How to die.

If you have never been to an Irish wake, or only seen the movie version, you probably think a wake is just another Irish piss up, a few pints around the corpse and an open coffin. But you would be wrong.

Kevin’s father, Sonny Toolis.

In the Anglo-Saxon world, death is a whisper. Instinctively we feel we should dim the lights, lower our voices and draw the screens. We want to give the dead, dying and the grieving room. We say we do so because we don’t want to intrude. And that is true but not for these reasons.

We don’t want to intrude because we don’t want to look at the mirror of our own death. We have lost our way with death.

On the Irish island where my family have lived in the same village for the last 200 years, and in much of the rest of Ireland, death still speaks with a louder voice. Along with the weather reports of incoming Atlantic storms, the local Mayo country and western radio station runs a thrice daily deaths announcement enumerating the deaths and the funeral arrangements of the 10 or so daily freshly departed. There is even a phone line, 95c a minute, just so you can check up on those corpses you might have missed.

There should be nothing strange about this. In the absence of war and catastrophe, humans across the planet die at an annual rate of 1%; 200,000 dead people a day, 73m dead people a year. An even spread. It’s happening all around you even as you read this article; the block opposite, the neighbouring street and your local hospital.

If the local radio in London or New York did the same as that Mayo station, the announcer would have to read out the names of 230 dead strangers, three times a day, just to keep up.

Of course, if you live in a city such as London, where 85,000 people die each year, you would never know of these things. Such a very public naming of the dead, an annunciation of our universal mortality, would be an act of revelation in the Anglo-Saxon world. And likely deemed an outrage against “public decency” – which would almost certainly lead to advertising boycotts and protests.

More shocking still then would be the discovery of another country where the dying, like Sonny, the living, the bereaved and the dead still openly share the world and remain bound together in the Irish wake.

And death, in its very ordinariness, is no stranger.

My father, Sonny Toolis, was too a very ordinary man. He was never rich or powerful or important. He never held public office and his name never appeared in the newspapers. The world never paid him much attention and Sonny also knew the world never would. He was born poor in a village on an island, devoid of electricity, mains water and tarred roads, in much the same way the poor have been born in such places for most of human history.

Sonny never got the chance to get much of an education and worked most of his life as a foreman on building sites earning the money to pay for the university education of his seven children.

Sonny was good with his hands though. Useful to have around if things went wrong with the electric, the drains, or you needed the furniture moved. He had his limitations; he did not like strange peppery foods, he wasn’t very comfortable wearing suits, and he was terrible at giving speeches at weddings.

He did have a great singing voice, played the bagpipes and the accordion, and taught his children to sing by what he called the air – by listening along. In the 1960s, he bought a 35mm German camera, took pictures, and ran the prints off in his own darkroom. He even shot film on Super 8. But it was never more than a hobby. Like a lot of us, Sonny had some talents he would never fully realise in life.

But Sonny really did have one advantage over most of us. He knew how to die. And he knew how to do that because his island mothers and fathers, and all the generations before, had shared their deaths in the Irish wake and showed him how to die too.

His dying, his wake, his willing sharing of his own death, would too be his last parental lesson to his children and his community. A gift.

The wake is among the oldest rites of humanity first cited in the great Homeric war poem the Iliad and commonly practised across Europe until the last 200 years. The final verses of the Iliad, the display of the Trojan prince Hector’s corpse, the wailing women, the feasting and the funeral games, are devoted to his wake. And such rituals would be easily recognisable to any wake-goer on the island today.

For our ancestors, a wake, with its weight of obligations between the living and the bodies of the dead, and the dead and living, was a pathway to restore natural order to the world, heal our mortal wound, and communally overcome the death of any one individual. An act, in our current, thin psychological jargon, of closure.

Through urbanisation, industrialisation and the medicalisation of death, the wake died away in most of the western world and death itself came to be silenced by what might be called the Western Death Machine. But out in the west, among the Celts, this ancient form of death sharing lives on.

When he was 70, my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer – still among the most fatal cancers among western men. Sonny never flinched. He did not want to die but when he knew he had no choice, he never wasted the time he had left. He wasn’t angry or embittered but something wiser – he accepted his death. He got on with his dying the same way as he had got on living, day by day, pressing forward, husbanding his energy.

Sonny’s time had come but neither he nor his community denied his impending death. Unlike the shunning of the Anglo-Saxon world, his house filled with visitors who came to see him because he was dying.

Dying is an exhausting, self-centring act. Sonny, always a powerful physically imposing man, rapidly shed powers like a snake shedding skin. His world shrank to two rooms and Sonny knew he would never see the end of that fateful summer.

Sonny’s fatherhood was ending and my own beginning. Our last words together on his deathbed were very ordinary, bland. “I’ll let you go, son,” he said as I left to return to the city. When I returned, he had lapsed into a coma and could no longer speak.

But our parting was fitting. There was no more mystery to share. No revelation to be uncovered. Our identities as father and son had already been written out in the deeds of our life together; Sonny changing my nappy, not losing his temper in my teenage contrariness, encouraging me in my education and the summers we shared on building sites when I worked alongside him while still a student. And in all the countless ways he showed me in his craft how to be a man and father myself.

Sonny died just before dawn on the longest day of the year at home in the village of ancestors. No one called for help, or the “authorities”. He was already home with us. His body was washed and prepared for his coffin by his daughter and sister-in-law. He was laid out in his own front sitting room in an open coffin as his grandchildren, three, five and nine, played at the coffin’s feet.

His community, his relatives, some strangers even, came in great numbers to pray at his side, feast, talk, gossip about sheep prices or the stock market, and openly mark his death in countless handshakes and “Sorry for your trouble” utterances.

We waked together through the night with Sonny’s corpse to guard the passage out for his departing soul and man the Gate of Chaos against Hades’ invading horde lest the supernatural world sought to invade the living world. Just as the Trojans too before us had watched over Hector’s corpse. A perpetual quorum; dying in each other’s lives and living on in each other’s deaths at every wake ever since.

It was blessing of a kind, an act of grace. We give ourselves, our mortal presence, in such death sharings, or we give nothing at all; all the rest of our powers, wealth, position, status, are useless.

To be truly human is to bear the burden of our own mortality and to strive, in grace, to help others carry theirs; sometimes lightly, sometimes courageously. In communally accepting death into our lives through the Irish wake we are all able to relearn the first and oldest lessons of humanity. How to be brave in irreversible sorrow. How to reach out to the dying, the dead and the bereaved. How to go on living no matter how great the rupture or loss. How to face your own.

And how, like Sonny, to teach your children to face their death too.

Complete Article HERE!


Grief Isn’t Something to Get Over


The notion that one gets over it is a myth.

by Mary Lamia

The emotion of grief may be triggered by the loss of a loved one or the result of a life circumstance. Many people believe that if you have effectively mourned a loss you will then achieve closure. The notion that one mourns a loss and then gets over it, to the extent that emotions about the loss are not triggered in the future, is a myth.

Similarly, children have such expectations about getting over loss. They seem to believe that one needs to do something in particular in order to achieve that goal. Several years ago, as host of a radio talk show for kids, I asked listeners about the issue of loss. An 8-year old boy told me that his grandfather had died two weeks before and he wanted to know how to get over it-he thinks about him all the time and can’t concentrate on anything else. A 12-year old boy explained that his dog had died and he wanted to know what to do since he couldn’t say good-bye to her and didn’t think that he could ever “fill [his] heart with anything else.” I didn’t ask what he meant by his choice of words, however, I felt its meaning. A 13-year old girl said that she asks her brother about what clothes look good on her because she doesn’t have a mom, and it always feels like something is missing. She asked, “How do I get over my mom dying?”

The misguided notion that grief is a process that allows a final working through of a loss is likely the fault of my own profession–mental health professionals who have promoted this notion in their work with grieving individuals. Clinical data makes it clear that any significant loss, later and repeatedly, brings up longing and sadness. Is it because these people have not achieved closure by traversing prescribed stages of mourning or because they have not “worked through the loss” as some therapists boldly claim? No. It’s because you never get over loss. As time passes, the intensity of feelings about the loss will lessen, you might also find ways to sooth or distract yourself, or you can partially bury grief-related feelings by creating new memories. But you’re not going to get over it because that’s impossible: you cannot erase emotional memory. Besides, it’s not about achieving closure. Instead you have to figure out what you are going to do when your emotional memories are later triggered.

Emotions that have to do with loss are triggered throughout our lives. Usually they are in the form of anniversary reactions, such as the birthday or death day of the lost loved one or any significant holiday in which you might want to be with the person who is gone. Reminders, such as visiting a place you’ve been with the person you lost, will trigger a similar response. Episodes of depression or anxiety that seem to come from nowhere may have been activated by anniversary reactions or situation-matching reactions.

Grief can also be triggered by an age-matching anniversary reaction, which is when a person’s age matches the age of a parent or loved one when they died. The remarkable power of age-matching anniversary reactions arising from the loss of a parent in childhood was demonstrated to me when I began training as a psychologist nearly 40 years ago. I had been treating a severely depressed man who, for many months, was not responsive to intensive psychotherapy or medication. Upon discovering with the patient that his depression began at a time in which his age matched his father’s age of death, the depression miraculously lifted. Beneath his depression lay a myriad of fears that he would be like his father, which included dying at the same age of his father as well as guilt that he was not like his father and could live a full life. Although he had been unaware of the age factor, his painful feelings seemed to recreate the trauma of his father’s death, which was too overwhelming for him to feel when he was ten years old.

One of the reasons that grief happens to be triggered by external reminders, such as in anniversary reactions, is because grief is an emotion that sends a vague alert to help you to remember, rather than to forget. Even so, what most people do with grief is attempt to forget–to get over it–which is quite contrary to the purpose of the emotion. Rather than try to forget, one must attempt to remember and accept what the emotion is trying to convey. There are many ways to remember. You can remember what you learned from the person you lost, remember what you enjoyed, and you can cry if you feel like crying. Even if your grief is about a relationship gone bad, there is always something that you can learn through recollection.

There are related themes of loss that people express, and later grief responses related to those losses, such as the many women and men who have given up a child for adoption. The child’s birth date does not pass by without an emotional reaction, whether or not they recognize it at the time. Similarly, the date a child would have been born for a childless woman who has had a miscarriage can trigger grief. The experience of loss when a relationship ends can be triggered on the former partner’s birthday, on the anniversary of when you met, or on any holiday.

Whenever I am bothered by the thought of just how misguided the notion of stages of grieving can be, I remember one patient in particular who wanted help with the depression she had every summer, which at the time she told me was when her 12-year old child had died 25 years before. She sought therapy because she was convinced that something was wrong with her. Every June, for 25 years, she had experienced a grief response. Simply knowing that she wasn’t crazy because of the intense emotions she felt made it a bit easier the next time June arrived. Rather than try to get rid of her painful feelings at the time, instead she learned to think about exactly what she would do to remember her son.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow sums up the lifelong experience of grief in the first 3 lines of his poem, Secret Anniversaries Of The Heart:
The holiest of all holidays are those
Kept by ourselves in silence and apart;
The secret anniversaries of the heart.

For more information regarding my books about emotions: http://www.marylamia.com

Complete Article HERE!