“We need Montaigne,” I’ve thought, all through this past year of pandemic isolation and losses of many kinds. Among other gifts, my hero Michel de Montaigne articulated (way back in my college French Lit classes) the freedom in living with and thinking about death.
Death is a topic that our culture prefers to consider almost "elective." (My estate lawyers actually clapped when we met in 2019 to talk about a will. I’d used the words ‘when I die.’ “Most people say ‘if’,” they said.) Our culture devotes so much effort and treasure on managing physical pain, forestalling death, then dismissing the natural waves - over years and years - of grieving someone. Grieving anyone you loved, and still love, is surely as painful as any physical experience of pain, but we don’t embrace very well, as a culture, the natural place of grief and death in our living, in the very fact of our own lives. I think it's getting better, but med-school curricula are packed without much room for simply talking about the far-reaching impacts of grief on patients, on themselves.
Americans have our reasons. We're taught in millions of messages how to buy or practice age-defying strategies, but many of us don't get much chance to sit with someone dying. Maybe we can spend an hour at a loved one's bedside in the hospital, but not spend the minutes and hours over days of close care and all its sensory realities. And the millions of caregivers who do know those realities, our systems don't support very well.
Our own grandparents, who may have been born at home in their parents' bed, likely died in a hospital ward. Probably not surrounded by many of us and our touch, so removed from our direct experience of their dying process.
On large-scale confrontations with death, like during wartime, we have our reasons, too, for keeping death abstract.
If you popped onto Earth before 1973 when President Nixon signed the Paris Peace Accords, intended to end the Vietnam conflict, you heard nightly ‘enemy body counts’ on the 6:00 pm news. Even as background noise that only your child-sized, developing brain absorbed, you were meant to take heart in the “progress” of our killing so many people.
The regular, accompanying video footage -- bombs dropping from aerial view, napalm incinerating villages from ground-vantage, sounds of heavy artillery, of shrieking ammo and humans -- unspooled around dinnertime. Rather than bring death into some reality that each of us could naturally expect (having become alive at all), the death counts had a different effect. They were delivered nightly as neutrally as stock-market indices, or sports scores. (A sports score might even have more of an impact, on any given night.)
And when Saigon "fell" after all that, and the last of the Americans fled, what had those death totals meant? The opposite of national pride - a reason to swallow all those years, even to forget, at least not to talk about it. We have a memorial in DC now, for over 58,000 Americans killed by the people we killed (1956-1975) - but there was a lag, as usual. And so many veterans from that era are among those living without a home, on the street.
It was not even a War. What we called the Cold War, the Iran-Iraq War, the War in Kosovo, the first Gulf War, the War on Terror (and all the Operations within them) are all not wars, officially. The U.S. has only declared war 5 times: World War II, World War I, the Spanish-American War, the Mexican-American War, and the War of 1812. Our dozens of others are just “conflicts.” As if we needed other ways to avert our eyes from the cost of war, or the lives ended within them ...
In any case, big-number deaths, especially delivered with video footage on the news around dinnertime, landed independently of grief. Or deflected, buried grief. Even if you knew someone who had died there, so far away, whom you grieved personally; the greater social message was washed with unspoken shame.
Later conflicts, like the Persian Gulf War, were over mere days after they began, and they played out aerially on TV, like fireworks or crude video games. (Scud missiles, our missiles, looping again and again then done, what-was-that and bloodless.) Even now, American deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are not often mentioned, and the people we kill are no longer shown fire-bombed or even counted, on prime-time news.
Americans do still arrive inside caskets in Dover, Delaware. But families who have grieved, or born witness to survivors’ post-trauma stress, they’re largely on their own. "Thank you for your service," might serve as a proxy to our confronting its full feeling and cost. (Sometimes I even hear someone say "Thank you for your service" to a veteran, so flatly, and monotone, it sounds more like Thanks for shopping with us today, or maybe Thank you for not dying in a war that's hard to understand anyway.)
On 'impactful' scales, since the Civil War at least, death has happened far away and in the harshest environments, like jungles, or desert terrain. Likewise, grievous body counts like those of persons who died from HIV infection in the ‘80s, absorbed their own shame and dismissal, and a kind of negation. Rock Hudson's death landed in our living rooms, more familiar than a neighbor's death down the street, from the same virus.
Closer to home and yet at some likely remove from home, we hear familiar words that carry a kind of shame as well. "He lost his battle with lung cancer," or "although she fought and fought, the disease took her." We barely blink at the strangeness of those frames, like dying itself is a war! Like dying itself is something that should only happen in strange lands to unfamiliar people whose school days, dinnertimes, wedding receptions and job interviews weren't quite as deserving as ours.
Comes now the COVID-19 to America. By the end of April 2020 - a matter of weeks - COVID had killed more Americans than had died in nearly 20 years in Vietnam. And in less than a year now, as we approach March 2021, death has landed in homes for almost 9 times as many Americans than during that “conflict.”
I read a recent poll that 1 in 3 Americans now know someone who has died of COVID-19. If it hadn't before, in full force of the truth that death will land in our own chairs, it may have landed this year, in an empty chair next to us.
So, Montaigne, right. A Frenchman who spoke straight to my soul from the 16th century, in college:
“To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness, let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death …
We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere. To practice death is to practice freedom.”
Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)
If you are still with me, none-the-wiser and prone to digression about things sociopolitical, I'm happy to point you elsewhere. Took me a while to get to the point. But here it is: You should know about gentle places that practice death so as to practice freedom, by and through living well ...
Like The Center for Dying and Living. Your Muffin can’t say enough about them and how important they were, both before the pandemic and are now, as we wheel through its (hopeful) denouement. They are dedicated to supporting all aspects of dying, as it nourishes living – the ‘deal’ of being born at all. The meaningful and challenging fact of our own dying, and the nature of giving care to those whom we love, as they die.
They posted a story of mine from late-summer during our pandemicoping, so I’ll share that link here, but you would do well to avail yourself of this Center’s ongoing and free webinars, stories, and resources. Even if you grew up with our cultural ‘free pass’ from death, as mostly abstract numbers, and/or, if you’re confronting the handshake of death and grief recently, I promise you, you will benefit from a Center such as this. As much as your Muffin may aspire to serve as Montaigne’s modern servant, Dr. Miller is surely as close as we have to his modern incarnation. I'm grateful to have met him before my own time of living in this time on Earth has met its end.
To read my story as a ‘welcomer’ on their site: https://www.thecenterfordyingandliving.org/night-visitors
Please don’t stop there! Register for a free webinar, such as you can. Share your own story with them. Let’s find together a clean contrary way to acknowledge death as the most certain ‘goal of life' (in Mozart's words) together.
As always, thank you for taking time to read this,