Random header image... Refresh for more!

The Death House

Thank you to everyone who shared their thoughts on the birth/death post last week — especially the people who shared personal stories about death.  I don’t know many people who wake up in the morning wanting to think about death beyond goth teenagers, but I do think it’s important to bring up the topic from time to time.  To remember that every single day, there are people grieving even if we’re lucky enough to not be in that group at the moment.  By which I mean, even if you’re not actively grieving, all people are holding that thread that link us to one another.  Even if we’re not actively grieving, all of us are passively grieving in the sense that we can be mindful of another person’s grief and not leave them alone in it.

The twins have returned recently to the topic of death after a fairly long hiatus from it.  With all difficult topics, the twins move close to the edge and then jump backwards and edge closer and jump back until they finally reach the information.

Prior to recently, they believed that people died for three reasons: stopped eating, ran into the street without looking and were hit by a car, or turned 100. (It’s an on-going joke with our friends who say, “and then President Lincoln instantly turned 100 at Fords Theater…”)

I let them hold onto this idea and didn’t point out the various other ways people die because they seemed to be at a point where they were moving back from the edge again.  They had all the information they wanted for the moment.

And then Harry Potter sparked that idea of parental death.  That it will happen one day — either I’ll be in my thirties or I’ll be in my nineties or somewhere in between, but it will happen.  That it won’t be by Lord Voldemort (we established that), but one day, every person will lose their parents.

And then, of course, they overheard news about the earthquake in Japan and there were suddenly more ways to die — if there were 5 ways (eating, car, 100, evil magic dictator, and earthquakes), could there be even more ways?  And then the trigger that brought all of this together was that we were watching a concert video and the singer started crying while he sang a song.  The twins asked why he was crying, sort of giggling about it, and I said, “he’s crying because his father died when he was little and this song is about that.”

I said it without really thinking.  It was late.  My mind was in two places at that moment, half working and half with them.  I realized after a moment that they weren’t really watching the screen anymore; they were watching me.

So we turned off the video and had a long talk about how unusual this was that his father had a problem that a doctor couldn’t fix.  We spoke about the fact that while he was crying during this song, they had seen that he had performed a host of other songs with a big smile on his face, and that life does indeed go on.  That the hurt wells up, but also recedes.

I think what struck them the most was the time gap between the death and the song.  They asked if it had just happened, and I said no, it had probably been almost 30 years since his father died.  And the ChickieNob said, “and he still cries about it?”  It opened this door in her mind that there exists these enormous hurts that still have the ability to affect us long down the road.  That this person has never “gotten over” it in the way that the twins are asked constantly to get over the little hurts that mark their day.  And I think this terrified them; this mixture of the crying singer and Harry Potter staring at his parents in the mirror and the earthquake in Japan.

Sometimes, when we talk about death, I picture the idea of loss as this house.   It’s that curious house that every neighbourhood has — the one that somehow draws everyone’s attention, the one you avoid on Halloween when you’re already scared, and yet you can’t help but wonder what it looks like inside.  Except, instead of being owned by one creepy old cat lady (apologies to all cat-ladies; if I weren’t allergic to cats, I would most definitely be one), we all walk past that house with the understanding that one day, we’re going to have to live there for a bit.  In this unfamiliar house.  With none of our familiar possessions.  And it’s going to suck while we’re there.  And it’s going to change who we are even after we leave it.

The only way I can shake having that figurative house have a hold on me and change the way I walk to school so I don’t have to pass it, is to simply confront it, much in the way the children in Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles go and ring the doorbell of their neighbourhood’s creepy house in order to release their fear.

What gets me to that door, what gets me over the threshold, what makes me look at the inhabitants is the fact that all of us will live in that house at some point.  That we are all forced into that space, and so it behooves us to take a deep breath and peek inside to speak to the current inhabitant while we still have the choice to be standing outside rather than living inside that house of grief.

I couldn’t see anyone choosing to live there; what they would get out of it.  But I think even places we hate — such as the fertility clinic — can become familiar enough that when we peel away the fear, the hatred of the space, the dread, what we get is this strange sensation that defies language — we simply don’t have a word that sums up the familiarity that can be found in a dreaded space.  I certainly felt it at the fertility clinic — this place I never wanted to be, yet felt so familiar that I could walk between the blood lab and the sonogram room with my eyes closed and muscle memory would tell me when to pause, when to turn.

I felt that way with the NICU too.  I asked every single day when we could leave.  I didn’t want to be there; I certainly didn’t want the twins in there.  But one day, as I was washing my hands and arms up to the elbow with the disinfecting soap prior to entering their NICU room, I was thinking about how much this had become routine.  How it no longer felt heart-pounding scary, but now was merely a sigh of fear.  A well of sadness.  One that I could navigate with pauses in the day to eat lunch or send an email or even joke with Josh.  We couldn’t do that the first few days.  I was a fucking wreck the first days; I cried like an animal.  But humans can get used to anything.

And, unfortunately, all of us will have to get used to living in that house.  We will probably have to enter there several times.  We may never have a soft entrance.  I have a feeling I will spend the first days, weeks, months, perhaps lifetime, kicking the walls and screaming while I’m in there.  But while that is happening, I don’t want the people on the outside to be racing past the house, trying not to notice it or think about their own time in there.  I want someone to be ringing the doorbell.

So that’s why I do it, and in turn, hope that by gently talking to the kids about it, I get them to a place where they can ring the doorbell too.  Not all the time; no one is perfect and we don’t always know just how much the other person needs us to visit.  And not every person can be expected to visit every inhabitant of that house.  But if everyone was willing to knock on the door, each person would have a few visitors.  And that’s important.

That is the only thing I can think to do to make that loss any easier on them; to give them the tools they’ll need in order to live in that house.  And they’re flimsy, paltry tools at best, that will have little impact on their time in that house.  But what else can I give them considering that I can’t circumvent what will happen one day?  And that thought and the flimsiness of those tools, fills me with enormous grief even if, at the very same time, I am also filled with enormous love.


1 Tigger { 03.21.11 at 11:22 am }

Tools are what we make of them. They have them, thanks to you, and they will learn how to use them to their best effectiveness when they have to. I was unprepared for death, but when it came I had a long time to get used to it. Mom was sick for the majority of 5 years, and spent 14 months in the actual “dying” phase. I had no idea how to cope with that, with grief, and so I researched and I blogged and I turned to my friends. When she finally died, I didn’t understand WHY I didn’t feel the level of grief that I should – I anticipated deep, bone- and mind-numbing depression. It was my husband who pointed out to me that I’d been moving through that place for 14 months, that I didn’t have to deal with the sudden crashing reality.

I am very glad that you are working on this reality with the twins. The more they understand it the better prepared they will be when it happens – be it in 6 days, 6 months, or 60 years, they will be more prepared than someone who hasn’t had to be confronted with it at all.

2 HereWeGoAJen { 03.21.11 at 11:33 am }

The tools I’ve gotten from the community you actively worked to form, particularly from my clicking experiences, have been incredibly valuable this weekend. Honestly, being “prepared” for this has been so helpful in making this suck just a tiny bit less because at least nothing surprised me.

3 If ByYes { 03.21.11 at 12:40 pm }

I think the hardest thing to accept about life is its capacity to hurt us so astoundingly. We get through our days by pretending to be invincible, pretending that can’t happen to US, or we’ll go mad. But it’s better to try and understand and prepare, so that when it does hit us, when we are touched by the tragedy we never thought would come, we understand that life does go on.

But that’s damn hard.

4 serenity { 03.21.11 at 1:17 pm }

I wish you had been my mother – your children are very, very lucky.

Because I was taught to pretend like that house doesn’t exist. And 35 years later, I’m dealing with the effects of ignoring it. Which are pervasive and far reaching.

5 a { 03.21.11 at 2:15 pm }

It also helps, I think, to visit that house in a normal progression. Like, say, great-grandparents, and then grandparents. Maybe some aunts or uncles (as long as they’re older). In high school or college, maybe one peer (seems like there’s always one). A shockingly tragic young person, possibly. All of those leading up to your parents – to me, maybe it’s more like learning to swim. If you get to paddle about in the more shallow waters for a while, it’s easier to return to calm when you eventually get thrown in the deep end.

6 Hope { 03.21.11 at 2:26 pm }

This analogy is wonderful. I think it is very true. And what a said above about visiting it in a “normal” progression. That is easier. But some of us do get thrown in the deep end. I don’t think anything can prepare you for visiting that house because of pregnancy loss or the death of your child. And I think that people who are in the house for “invisible” losses, like early pregnancy losses, get the least visits from the outside world. We often have to put out a sign and ask for visitors.

7 Annie { 03.21.11 at 2:33 pm }

I love that you are so willing to openly discuss hard topics with your kids. My mother is a Pollyanna and her unwillingness to deal with ugly topics has contributed to a lot of tragedy and even death in the family. I don’t want that for my own kids, but still it’s sad to see their bright innocent view of the world swept away bit by bit by life’s harsh realities.

8 Dora { 03.21.11 at 2:57 pm }

This is such a beautiful post. Your obviously very smart children are lucky to have such a smart mama!

9 Mash { 03.21.11 at 3:55 pm }

My niece aged 4 is starting to speak about the loss of her Opa (grandpa) when she was two. Through some strange set of events, the family cat got stung by a bee, was allergic to it and died two days later. She’s asked some really sweet questions, we told her Opa is in heaven (“with Smudgie?” she asks). And then sometimes she asks when he is coming back from heaven. And if it’s so good there, why don’t we all just go there?

My in laws’ friends told a story about a little girl who was travelling to Devon with her family. She was really distraught about it, and eventually they got to the bottom of the problem, I don’t want to die yet she said, I’m to young to go to Devon!

It’s so important that we give clear messages about death and dying, and it’s so difficult to do.

10 Rebecca { 03.21.11 at 4:49 pm }

Sean Lennon and John? That’s who I’m imagining as your singer.

11 Sue { 03.21.11 at 5:01 pm }

My pregnancy with the boys was so difficult with hyperemesis and dehydration and exhaustion and needles and pills; C and I were just talking about this this weekend. The *new* normal that developed over 2 years of fertility treatments and sharps containers and doctors appointments and drugs in the crisper drawer in the fridge inoculated us against the *not* normal of the pregnancy. Perhaps things might have been different had we had expectations of a regular pregnancy, had we not (unconsciously) assumed that this pregnancy would be as difficult as it was. Of course, that’s not helpful now, but it was an odd realization, that not normal *was* normal. We feared the worst all along, but somehow when it happened it was a complete shock.

I’m not sure how this relates. I guess thinking about walking in that dreaded place. And returning there after the catastrophic failure. I was lucky to have support from my family — my parents had endured infertility, my sister, too. Along with my brother, we had all been through deep grief with the loss of my mother; perhaps, somehow it helped to get through the initial crisis. We had learned to get through together.

12 Peg { 03.21.11 at 5:06 pm }

What a great post.

I so wish I could get out of the house. We live with death everyday. Everyday the boys are reminded why their cousins live with us. Everyday the girls wake up in their own beds but in a strange house. We’ve been living in the death house for over a year now and it still doesn’t get any easier.

The girls’ dog just died and it was another reminder of death. Unexpected death. Another loss, another day in the house.

But the one thing I can do for the kids is show them that while we live in the death house, we’re still getting up. Doing our things whether it be school, work or playing legos. We still laugh and giggle and play games in the death house. Maybe one day we’ll realize it’s not the death house anymore and just our home. Tinged with a bit of sadness, but still home.

Thanks for the timely post. Lovely writing.

13 Esperanza { 03.21.11 at 5:38 pm }

I’ve spent a lot of my life being down-right terrified of that house. I really have. I don’t know how people learn to live after a stint in there, and I know that many people who’ve spent significant time in there return frequently for overnights or extended stays. Like that singer crying during the song, you could blink and find yourself back there, if only for a moment.

My fear of that place used to be so overwhelming. I’m trying not to let it be so. I’m trying to accept the suffering that people feel. Suffering my own (albeit relatively minor) loss helped me to realize what it might be like, but I’m pretty sure I couldn’t handle any extended amount of time in the that place (as my one Weekly Round-Up post made clear).

I know I will have to mourn someone at some point. If I don’t it means that I’m gone before everyone else and that is it’s own tragedy. I suppose their is no easy to way to explore these things.

I remember once I ruminated on what it meant to be dead for a long, long time. Like hours. And I felt like after all that time my mind was finally able to wrap it’s head around the abstract reality of just being gone, and there being nothing. NOTHING. When that hit me, really hit me I freaked out. It was this gut wrenching feeling of terror because it was so unknown and it could never be known. Of course by the time you’re there, you won’t be able to be scared. So I guess there is no point in worrying about it.

I don’t know where I’m going with this. I guess I’ll end with a recommendation of two books that helped me through my struggles with death. Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart is wonderful for those grieving a loss. Thich Nhat Hahn’s No Death No Fear is great if you’re fearlful of death in general, either for yourself or for others. Both have helped me tremendously.

14 Lori Lavender Luz { 03.21.11 at 7:11 pm }

I really like what A said. And it seems that, as hard as dealing with death is, if you do it in the natural progression (from old to young) it’s less devastating than when it goes haywire and nonsensical.

You are so wise, my friend.

15 Queenie { 03.21.11 at 7:24 pm }

First, when I read “evil magic dictator,” my first thought was Gaddafi, but then I suppose he’s really more of an “evil, CRAZY dictator.”

Second, I’m right there with Serenity. I grew up in a family that ignored that house, and it took me years to work through that baggage. I can proudly say I’m there, but it was a lot of work. I think it’s great that you are thinking these things out re: your kids. The other thing I think is so important is the safe space you give them to talk about things. I never felt comfortable having these conversations as a kid, and I think the things that I thought up in my little kid brain that made me scared were actually scarier than the reality that an adult could have talked through with me, if that makes any sense. I think it’s really unhealthy for kids to be needlessly worrying in silence about the things that trouble them most. The challenge is to create that safe space where they are comfortable raising those issues. I just know that you have that kind of house. I hope you are still blogging when the kids are like 30, because I want to know what great good they do for the world. You’re going to need to keep us posted.

16 Ed { 03.21.11 at 7:29 pm }

I had a professor who said he started each morning by reading the obituaries. By starting with death, he was encouraged to live each day fully.

17 Barb { 03.21.11 at 9:11 pm }

I think you are doing a wonderful job. I learned to live in that house very young as we had a large family with a lot of heart disease etc, and I watched my Grandma die of a heart attack in front of me at 8. Even though I was most definitely scarred by that and had death nightmares regularly even before she died (she had a lot of heart attacks), the tools my Mom gave me are what helped set me up best for it. It’s good you are teaching them as they need it and not ignoring it. I find people deal worse when they’ve never even peeked in the windows so to speak.

18 Tara { 03.21.11 at 9:53 pm }

You make two such important points here…well, more than two but two stick out for me…1st is when you said, “…you get use to living in that house…” that is exactly how I feel about the loss of my father though have never been able to articulate it in such a clear way…I lost my Dad under sudden & tragic circumstances more than 5 years ago & the pain of that loss is always there but I’ve gotten use to it…2nd was your point about talking about it…that has been what has helped me, talking about it, making it comfortable for others to talk about my Dad with me & talking about death & grief in general. Thanks Mel, your kids are lucky you’re giving them the tools they’ll need down the road.

19 nh { 03.22.11 at 9:25 am }

I feel the need to say that I think you are an amazingly wise woman. You are right, we all need to spend time in that house; and if you can equip your children to deal with that, and the reality of that, they will be better prepared than many.

20 twangy { 03.22.11 at 11:15 am }

Lovely post. I totally agree: we must incorporate death and grieving into our daily understanding of life. The end is what defines life, after all – what makes it precious.

21 missohkay { 03.23.11 at 8:50 am }

Beautiful post. Even as adults, I think we’re guilty of feeling like death can’t happen to us and the people we care about. Kind of like we used to feel that infertility was only a thing that happened to other people. My mom suddenly came close to dying 3 years ago and it shook me out of my stupor. Now I do a much better job of appreciating both her and my dad. Great job helping the twins through these tough ideas.

22 Kir { 03.23.11 at 10:40 am }

oh Mel, I don’t even know where to start my comment, because all of this felt so real to me. Like the house in the neigborhood that everyone is scared of, I used to run past it. Once I was in it, in my late teens after the old lady had died and they were auctioning her things, I was moved to tears, to think that she chose to live like she did and how lonely she must have been (the tears spring even today when I write this)
I don’t know how to talk to the twins about death yet, they don’t ask, I don’t want to have to yet, but I know when I do, I’ll email you and take all your advice. I don’t want to do it alone.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
The contents of this website are protected by applicable copyright laws. All rights are reserved by the author