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Coming to Terms With Death and the Unexpected

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It is no secret that I write about death. Given that I grew up underground near a cemetery in abandoned mining land, it is probably also no surprise. In my fiction, my research and my non-fiction essays, I have tried to engage the subject as it really is: a natural process of life rather than a horrifying and unnatural conclusion to our human story.

This is also my aim as a member of and organizer for Death Salon (deathsalon.org). The Salon -- a gathering of intellectuals, scholars and independent thinkers -- explores our shared mortality through open dialogue about death and its anthropological, historical, artistic and spiritual contributions to culture. (The conference meeting this year will be in LA.) But, you might fairly ask, what about death that occurs unexpectedly -- "unnaturally" -- violently? What about those killed in the Boston bombings, or by handguns, or by the war and oppression affecting myriad countries, cultures and individuals at any given moment?

I am grappling with this on a personal level as well as a philosophical one. A number of years ago, I lost my cousin to the blade of a paroled felon. More recently, I lost a family friend who took his own life. They were young, these two men. They had futures ahead of them. Then, they were gone. How do we engage with death when it comes unexpected? And as family members, as friends, as educators, how do we help others to engage with it in a way that is healthy?

I have been thinking increasingly about mourning rituals as a means of progressing through grief and death. In so many ways, our culture-in part due to the advent of modern medicine and the screen of hospital care-has lost the ritual practices we once had. Death, especially when unexpected, used to be a kind of public grief. The Victorians had incredibly complex mourning rituals, mourning jewelry, momento-mori photography, and the public wearing of mourning clothing. Like birth, it was a social event and included the community. It drew together. People hovered over the dying as well as over the dead-they witnessed it, understood it, knew it better than we do today (and not just because mortality was higher in previous centuries among even the young and the healthy). There is a very useful book on the subject, The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow Into Depressive Disorder by Allan V. Horwitz, Jerome C. Wakefield, and Robert L. Spitzer. It is an academic look at this phenomenon, but I think we can engage the topic more broadly as well. We can, and we should, and I hope to.

In my recent Huffington Post review of The Natural Death Handbook, I talk about "Death's summer coat." That was not to put a rosy hue on what is hard and unfathomable. It was not an attempt to make palatable a bitter pill. This phrase, to me, is a recognition that all things ephemeral are made lovely in their brevity. We long for summer or spring because it is fleeting, a glimpse of life's bud followed by fall and by the long, dark winter. The image of summer remains with us, and we ritualize it by cleaning house, by planning reading lists and summer vacations, by celebrating Easter or any of the other holidays that rejoice in the thaw. We shed our layers and put on new clothes like a new skin. Death's summer coat is life's unexpected beauty, and when we pass ultimately into that last winter, I believe it, too, will be followed by a new spring. What that spring will be like, I don't know. Many religions describe it. Many who are not religious nonetheless see continuity in our return to the earth and our part in the life cycle and the seasons. Death, like winter, is the sleep of a weary season-a sleep that my cousin joined early, a sleep and a quiet that my friend longed for.

But it is also a separation, and one that we feel as keen as amputation. It is not fair. I know it isn't. And we who remain ache and pine and weep, but let us not think of death as a disease. Let us think of it as winter, as the deepening of roots and the hibernation of seedlings. I plan to remember my lost loved ones as I remember summer; warm sun on smooth stones, green trees and wet earth. Ritual helps us to do this, but I do not mean fixed or inflexible ritual. I mean facing death with loved ones in our own way, with our own mechanisms for grief and a recognition that grief-like death-is natural and need not be medicalized. Death is with us always, the dark heart of becoming, the shedding of so much skin. I hope we remember to celebrate life even when death is unexpected.