For many years now I have been both pleased and troubled by the trend of turning funerals and memorial services into “celebrations.”
Pleased because the “celebratory” theme does justice, in a profound way, to the whole of a person’s life and character and resounding impact upon those who still live.
Troubled because I fear it can easily lapse into denial and suppression of the honest, healing emotion of grief.
Case in point: the altogether remarkable tale of Betsy Davis, the 41-year-old woman with ALS/Lou Gehrig’s disease who took her own life last week, but not before she threw an extravagant two-day party for some 30 close friends and relatives to “celebrate” her life at her home in Ojai.
There was much to admire in Davis’s decision to take charge of her own fate in sovereign possession of her own body, about as fundamental a right as we can or should conjure in any world where freedom is an abiding value.
That assertion was particularly poignant given the nearly complete betrayal of her body by ALS, the surpassingly cruel disease that robs its victims of virtually every last shred of muscular control, leaving them completely helpless even to speak or shoo a fly off their nose—while keeping their minds totally intact. That Davis used her mind to reassert control of her body is a testament to both her own strong will and the decision by the California legislature last year to grant her and others that right with passage of the “End of Life Option Act.”
If I were ever to find myself in the same position as Davis, I would not long hesitate to exercise the same option.
Would Betsy Davis have suffered all the more if some of her friends at various times had buried themselves momentarily in her neck, leaving a few tears on her dress as they told her how much they loved her and how much it was going to hurt when she was gone?
But there was an unfortunate part, in my view, to Davis’s celebratory theme. She invited her beloveds from around the country to come wish her farewell in a freewheeling weekend of reminiscence, appreciation, art, and basic conviviality that had but one rule: “Do not cry in front of me.”
It’s an understandable enough sentiment. One can’t hep but sympathize with Davis’s fate and allow her great latitude in seizing whatever control of it she could.
Nevertheless, I think she was wrong in placing restrictions on her guests’ emotional expressiveness. Those emotions rightly belonged to them, not to her, and both she and they were robbed of something precious and essential by denying them the full range and expression of the emotions they were experiencing.
So: some words in praise of mourning.
Davis’s restrictive approach to emotional expression at her party was in line with a now long-running trend that frame all memorial observances as “celebrations of life.”
It is a trend I have been keeping a somewhat wary eye on over the years.
More problematic and restrictive still: death announcements in the morning paper stating that “No services will be held.” (This usually at the deceased’s request.)
Whatever self-effacing humility this decision may reflect, and however ardently it may have been expressed by the departed when they were alive, I can’t help but think there is a kind of selfishness tucked deeply into such notices.
Don’t these people realize that memorial services aren’t about them, but about consoling the living?
The deceased is gone now—it is their loved ones who have to pick up the pieces of their loss and try to forge on, their hearts an open wound that benefits from care-full tending. Memorial observances are a major element of that care-fullness.
My problem with Davis’s well-enough-intentioned request was that it required a kind of emotional dishonesty on the part of her guests. Surely we can all imagine the great surges of complex emotion attending an event where a beloved has gathered us to celebrate, remember, and revel in the glories of relationship and our regard for one another.
Of course we can respond with gladness and gratitude for her role in our lives, the rewards of having been in relationship with her.
Of course we can respond to the request in her invitation to come “speak your mind, dance, hop, sing, chant, pray.”
Of course we can do our utmost to do so with good cheer and smiles, lingering hugs and expressions of deep joyous affection.
And of course we have to be deeply sad, too, awash in grief and lamentation. It could not be otherwise, unless we are made of stone.
That Davis sought to quell these natural, healthy, and necessary expressions of emotional honesty put a terrible burden on her guests, forcing them to fend off the feelings no doubt welling up inside them at various times through the weekend, seeking the oxygen that would allow them expression rather than the airless repression required by their host.
Am I saying the weekend should have been awash in grief?
I am saying the weekend should have been awash in emotional honesty and the full range of human expression. That is the most we can ever bring to this life, and it is all the more important and fundamental when any person has reached the end of it, hopefully shorn of all compulsion to repress its full, raw, animating spirit.
What is full and raw and true when someone dear to us is dying is that we are deeply saddened, even temporarily crushed, while also being able to acknowledge and experience, in celebratory fashion, at a wake or party, the joy they brought to our lives.
All of those feelings are true and worthy of deep immersion by those who harbor them.
All of them should be allowed the light of day and healthy emotional expression.
It is perhaps a strange twist on our legacy of Puritanism in this country that we tend to refrain from demonstrative emotional expressions of mourning, for which we substitute, ironically, a “party” honoring the deceased.
Not for us to beat our breasts, wail to the heavens and throw our bodies on a passing casket, as is common in some other parts of the world.
But such operatic extravagance is, I think, truer to the deepest emotional currents flowing through us humans in response to any loved one’s passing than is either stoic acceptance or partying “celebration.”
Years ago, I was a Hospice volunteer and a patient’s family called me as the man was obviously slipping away. When I drove down and rang the doorbell, I was met by a relative who sternly informed me that she had let everyone who had gathered there know there would be no “long faces” around the bedside of the dying man.
Ushering me back to the family room that had been temporarily converted to his death chamber, I was shocked to encounter a raucous party-like atmosphere, with perhaps 25 people arranged in a semicircle of chairs around his hospital bed where he lay barely conscious.
The mood was of partying, laughing, and carrying on while the beer and wine flowed. It felt both surreal (“Where am I? Can this really be happening?) and like a violation to me, some deep affront to all that is sacred about life, and death.
Part of me felt like doing some old-time prophet thing, breaking a chair and shouting, “Out, out, all of you, just get the hell out of here and go away somewhere quiet to think about your sorry lives!”
Only to realize, of course, that they knew not what they were doing, and indeed, may have been simply and dutifully following the dictates of the relative, who may well have been simply and dutifully following the dictates of the dying man’s wife, who may herself have been channeling her upbringing in an emotionally restrained household.
And so it goes, the buttoned up inner lives of our forebears perpetuating their own legacy and requiring our compassion upon compassion upon understanding and forgiveness, forevermore…
Oh, the webs we weave and entangle ourselves in when confronting the sticky emotions of life, chief among them the loss of those we love.
In the end, we work this out as best we are able, given our emotional equipment and the climate of the surrounding culture. In my own view, laughter and celebration can and ideally should occur alongside of and interwoven with our mourning for departing or departed loved ones. But they are not a substitute for it.
Would Betsy Davis have suffered all the more if some of her friends at various times had buried themselves momentarily in her neck, leaving a few tears on her dress as they told her how much they loved her and how much it was going to hurt when she was gone? At which they could smile and make a joke, even, about Betsy needing to change her dress or sit a few moments in the sun to let it dry?
Or would she perhaps have felt even fuller, with a more gladdened heart, for the beautiful deep honesty, the profound mixture of joy (for Betsy’s life) and grief (for Betsy’s death) that would have been conveyed in those unvarnished expressions of care?
Betsy had her final party, and may God rest her courageous, and from all reports, creative and joyous soul. But I find myself wishing I were one of those friends she’d summoned to help her exit this life.
I like to think I would’ve called her beforehand, perhaps even asked to come out a day early, so I could take her unmoving hands in mine, look her in her still-feeling and expressive eyes and say:
“Let it all go, Betsy. Let all of us go, too. All the joy, all the fear, all the anticipation, all the gratitude, all the expression, all the uncertainty, all the tears, all the regret, all the hesitation and restrictions on anything and everything that would prevent the expression of our shared, and fully bared, humanity. Just let it go. Be home in it all.”
The mournful, haunting quality of this song written by Sting is made all the more so by the fate of singer Eva Cassidy, who died at age 33, the long, musically rich life ahead of her cut tragically short by cancer.
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