Though I saw it all around
Never thought I could be affected
Thought that we'd be the last to go
It is so strange the way things turn

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Story Bone

I've been debating this one for a few days. Jay Lake shared his experience that dying of cancer seems to be his new career. He discusses how people, because they know he is dying, feel more comfortable sharing their experiences, fears, and dread about death.

This is one of our societal quirks. Once you know someone is either experiencing or will experience something that you have gone through, a bond is created. You can share more intimately than you normally would. People who have known death in an up close and personal way don't share a lot of that event unless they know you have also been there (trust me on this, for those of you who haven't experienced a close death or serious illness, when the others of us mention the guilt, impotence, and anger we have gone through you all look at us like we had lobsters coming out of our ears, let alone the complications of chemo or the visceral dread and then odd calm of waiting for biopsy test). At work, there are a few of us who have been close to people who have had cancer, or who have had cancer themselves. We talk differently to each other when we're alone. It's a more direct and matter of fact way.

As an example, another coworker was experiencing their first taste of mortality. The rest of us wanted to help, but they had cocooned their emotions. Badly I might add. We wanted to help them, give them advice, guide them to a more gentle experience than most of us had, but they wouldn't let us in. And so our group's conversation took a different turn. We started asking questions like, "Do you think they've reached this stage, yet?" and, "Do you think they've made their peace with their family member?"

It's a different way of communicating. You may know someone who has had cancer, but unless you experience it at a close range, you miss a lot. One of my coworkers has gone through breast cancer, after I shared my cancer experiences with her, and asked her a lot of focused questions, our working relationship changed. There are fewer walls between us, and we have often shared things that most coworkers would never share with each other. And it is a comfort than I know people with whom I can have those conversations. In the sharing, it lightens all our loads. A monster brought into the light is always less scary than the monster in the dark.

So here is the story bone. What if a society "uses" people who know they are dying as a way of easing their own collective psychology? In the way of a sin-eater, they would gather our fears of death, and become our confessor of life. So that with their passing, they would take those fears, worries, regrets, all the so called baggage of life with them and reduce the load on the rest of society.

What does this mean to such a culture? What does a terminal diagnosis then become? An honor to serve, or even more of a nightmare than some people already believe? And what does this do to the person who has that diagnosis? What price do they pay for hefting our load? What if this is an actual career for someone, the person chosen to whom you can go to for this type of thing (without the terminal illness)? If those people are selected by lottery or those who travel the path of the shaman (note, most shaman's never chose that profession, the profession choses them)? What if this is the function we ask of those condemned to death as part of their penalty? What if they were thought of as those who could take messages to the dead and it was their job to memorize all the personal messages from the living to those who have passed on? And in this last case, what if they are sworn to secrecy about the messages, only to have someone confess some horrible secret (the classic "criminal confesses to their priest" conundrum)? Are these people required to travel so that others have access to them?

Frankly, I think the resulting social changes would be very interesting, as would the psychology of the person dying.

Edited 10-01-2013 Christopher Gronlund also has a take on Jay's post that might be helpful, The Wisdom of the Dead. "It’s as if people believe once one knows they are dying, suddenly a flood of wisdom falls into their heads… just waiting to be dispensed." Yea and verily. (Grokked from Jay Lake)

Along these lines, there's a poem I just half remembered, something about that maybe there are some secrets the dead are telling us.

5 comments:

Random Michelle K said...

I've been fascinated--perhaps obsessed? I don't know--with death for as long as I can remember.

I really started thinking about it when I was 18 or so, but for a year in 4th & 5th grade, there were a lot of deaths in my life, and I went to a lot of funerals and spent a lot of time seeing how people reacted to death.

Intellectually, I don't like have death has become mechanized and industrialized and removed from "polite society."

Most of my MPH courses were in gerontology, and my research papers always focused on end-of-life care. So I know what is the idea versus what is the actual.

We have euphemisms for death. We sequester death in hospitals and nursing homes. Funerals are removed from the home into special place where we go only to see dead people.

In short, as a society, we don't like to talk about it, and we don't know how to deal with people who are dying, and we know even less how to deal with those who have lost a loved one.

More personally, I know that don't handle death the way I intellectually would like it.

I was there when one grandmother died in a rehab facility--we knew it was the end of her life, but didn't know it was immediate. She was gasping for air and didn't seem to recognize we were there, and then she just stopped breathing.

It was awful--we were just standing around watching her because we knew not what else to do and then she died.

When my beloved grandmother died, we knew the end was coming, and she was settled into my aunt's house. The week prior, she was in good spirits, and so many people came by to see her--it was really a big party.

But I chickened out and didn't stay the rest of the week to be there when she died.

Despite that, she had a good death--a much better death than my mother's mother. She was home, in comfortable surroundings and ready.

I want everyone to go through the latter experience, yet when I was actually present, it came upon me unprepared and it didn't feel good.

I'm not sure where this was supposed to go, except that I hate the way death is dealt with in society, and I hate that although I can know intellectually what should be done, when it comes down to it, I'm no better than anyone else.

Random Michelle K said...

I have more to say, but it seems separate and distinct from what else I was saying. So...

It bothers me that as a society we lack the skills to talk about death and dying.

That so often the dying and the grieving are inadvertently isolated, because we don't know what to say to them, don't know how to talk to them, don't know how to deal with someone who is grieving. Don't know how to deal with someone who is suffering.

I've watched friends back away from those who are suffering, because they don't know what to say. I've experienced people around me walking in egg shells, afraid to say anything, and compounding my sense of isolation in my grief.

I hate it.

But I don't know how to make it better, other than one person at a time, and that seems like throwing a tissue into a raging flood.

So... yeah. I have no answers. And I don't think this is what you were really wanting to discuss, but it's what it made me think, so you get the word and feeling vomit. :)

Dr. Phil (Physics) said...

I like the idea of mixing your story bones. Someone gets a terminal diagnosis and people treat him as a sineater and a wonderful boon to society. But our hero discovers it's all a lie to make people feel better, especially the survivors and to make people more comfortable with the dying.

Maybe.

Dr. Phil

Steve Buchheit said...

Hey Random Michelle, those are some of the exact points I was trying to make. Once you've been through the process, things change. Once you've seen your first close friend or relative's corpse, it'll affect your perceptions and how you deal with death and disease. The change doesn't stop there, but there is that first hurdle. And you learn that not all deaths are the same.

Dr. Phil, it's those unexpected combinations that produce some of the best stories. As writers we often talk about the Big Idea (trademark of John Scalzi, I think), but it never really is just one idea. In this case as I was reading Jay's post, I was strongly reminded of a story about the sin-eaters (I can't remember the author at the moment). And the confluence of those ideas just clicked in my head.

Also I'll note here that the UCF (of which I'm an outlier) seems to have been dealing with deaths for the past four years (including the two of you with people who were close) or so, and I've noticed a subtle change in our online personalities.

Random Michelle K said...

Because of where I fall generationally (on both sides of the family) I spent my childhood going to a lot of funerals, and not very many weddings.

I think mourning makes you more aware both of the fragility of life, but also of the suffering of grief, and how long lasting that grief is.

I've never paid much attention to the concept that the dying have wisdom to impart. For me, the day-to-day life of my grandmother provided me with a guide for my life. There wasn't anything special at the end, except a reminder of how much she loved me.

And she'd already shown me that, every day of my life.

We shouldn't spend the end of our lives making up for our mistakes. We should spend the end of our lives with those we love, because we apologized for our errors as we realized them, so our last days are filled with joy and love.

Since it seems appropriate here, this is one of the pictures I took about two months before my grandmother died. http://www.flickr.com/photos/random_michelle/5544684407/

We spent those last months just enjoying her company, and make sure she remembered to enjoy life, not having to make up for anything. Which is how I believe it should be.