COVID, Corn Hole, and The Complexities of Death

Cornhole on the Beach
Photo credit: Chris Martino

I went down to Texas this last week to attend the funeral of one of my uncles. He had struggled for the last couple of years with T-cell lymphoma, a dreadful autoimmune cancer that caused him to itch relentlessly. Eventually, he was overcome by constant infections, kidney failure, and congestive heart failure.  I tried to work things out so I get could to Texas just before he died, but I missed it. Thankfully, I was able to talk to him on Facetime and tell him that I loved him while he could still hear me.  He died early on the morning I was planning on starting the long drive from Indiana to our family ranch.

My cousin/sister was my uncle’s full time caregiver during his battle with cancer.  During that time she and I had so many conversations about death, about what quality of life means, and when it’s time to stop fighting and just rest. We talked about all of the family dynamics that have shaped us and influenced how we feel about death, about our loved ones, and our ability to grieve well. In the few weeks before my uncle’s death, I was apprehensive about how the end would play out, and I didn’t know what I would encounter when I arrived home. But to my surprise and joy, what I came home to was better than I could have ever hoped for.  This hard, scary thing of death seemed to show what it truly can be, behind all the outer trappings of fear and suffering and unknowns…it was a calm, gentle river that carried my uncle to the other side,  and members of my family to a new place of unexpected peace and acceptance.

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During the days before my uncle’s funeral, my cousin and I discussed logistics of the services that were planned for him, as well as how we envisioned our own funerals one day. We both agreed that we want to be cremated, and our ashes spread over some place that is meaningful to us.  Neither of us judge those who want a traditional funeral, casket, and graveside burial, but we know that we want to take up as little space as possible when we leave this world.  Also, my cousin couldn’t bear the idea of her decomposing self ruining the inside of a coffin.

My cousin remarked that she wants her funeral to be a time of celebration of her life, not a time of crying and mourning. She made the absurd suggestion that we fill a hackey sack with her ashes and get after it.  Or better yet, fill a bunch of bean bags with her ashes and have a rip-roaring match of corn hole.  I nearly spit out my coffee when she threw out these suggestions,  laughing so hard, but I thought they were brilliant ideas. My cousin and I can regularly border on the edge of morbid in our conversations, but underneath our ridiculous banter is a serioius undertone. In our jokes about being entirely irreverant with our ashes, we aren’t belittling our lives or the sanctity of life. We weren’t saying that we don’t matter or that dealing with death and grief should be silly and superficial. We are saying that we know our lives have held tremendous meaning, that we have overcome so much, and that death is just a transition to the next thing. It is not the ultimate finality to us. It is a moving on that can be accepted, and even welcomed, without terror and despair.

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Now that I’ve joked about death, probably in a very inappropriate fashion to some, I’m going to switch back and say that I take death very, very seriously. In fact, I think that a huge part of life is learning how to prepare for death.

During the last six months, death has been on my mind even more than usual with the appearance of COVID.  When I have sat next to dying patients in the hospital, separated from friends and loved ones by isolation rules, death did not seem very funny at all. It was no joke to feel sobered by the hope that by me holding the hands of these people…maybe I could serve as a shoddy substitute for the ones that they really needed by their side. It was no joke that I was hoping and praying that I could hold them up to the Light in my own individual way and have that be enough to carry them over the threshhold in grace. It was no joke having to call family members to tell them that their loved one had passed.  And it was no joke to walk in on a patient in isolation, just to discover he’d died alone within the short time you stepped out to check on your other patients.

I may joke about death, but death itself is not a joke.

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In recent weeks, graphics have been ciruclating around FB that attempt to visualize the overall impact of COVID on the United States using absolute numbers.  Here’s are two examples:

Image may contain: text that says '47313,367 Tests Given USA COVID NUMBERS As of July 19, 2020 4,370,863 Cases 142,000 Deaths Numbers from edc.gov One Dot equals 100,000 citizens. Ohio Liberation'

Image may contain: text that says 'NEW POLL ASKED AMERICANS HOW MANY PEOPLE IN THE COUNTRY HAVE HAD COVID-19 OR DIED FROM IT THEIR ANSWER 20% Americans have hadit 9% Americans have diedfrom # MapVisumlization: REALITY: 1% Americans have hadi 0.04% Americans have died fromi Unbiased America'

May I just say that images like these freaking piss me off to no end.  Not because I don’t like a good graph or statistics, but entirely because these posts reduce the value of life down to numbers, monetary value, and impersonal percentages. I’m all for showing people how their misperceptions of data can lead them to overblown conclusions, but I’m not OK with it when the data is spun in such a way that it causes further minimization and marginalization of hurting people.

It’s like that line in You’ve Got Mail where Joe tells Kathleen that “It wasn’t personal” when his mega bookseller pushes her small bookstore out of business.  She responds with “What is that supposed to mean? I am so sick of that. All that means is that it wasn’t personal to you. But it was personal to me. It’s *personal* to a lot of people. And what’s so wrong with being personal, anyway?”

These kinds of graphics impersonalize COVID. They ignore the literal deaths and other deaths that coinicde with physcial deaths and can cause just as much trauma:  loss of jobs, loss of housing, loss of social networks, loss of safety, loss of anticipated gatherings/life rituals/memories, loss of long term health…and very importantly, the ambiguous loss described by Pauline Boss on the On Being podcast.  All of these deaths MATTER and they are all personal.

These graphics, and this way of thinking, allows us to cavalierly say “COVID has not yet affected me in any significant way, therefore I will minimize it’s impact in my mind, and I will continue to live the way I want with little regard for how your life has been shot to hell or very much has the potential to be shot to hell by my actions or lack of concern.”

Note: the episode included below is an amazing chat with Pauline Boss on the trauma of ambiguous loss and the myth of closure. I welcome you to take the time to listen to it.

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I’ve chatted with so many old folks who knew they were nearing the ends of their lives.  When it feels appropriate, I often ask them how they look back on their life.  Was it a good life in their opinion?  Are they satisfied with what they’ve accomplished?

The answers I tend to get don’t expound on amazing adventures or huge successes or how they knew and interacted with powerful people.  No one seems to mention the money they’ve made.  Throughout my life, when I’ve had these kinds of conversations with people, they usually describe their lives in terms of who they loved, how they treated people, and whether or not they had done things (jobs or hobbies) that gave them joy and made them happy.  The people that were able to tell me that they had loved well and been loved well seemed to be the most ready to go…the least afraid.

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Death is complicated to talk about because of the complexity that surrounds it. Some people welcome death, while others feel it snatched away loved ones before it was their time. Some deaths are peaceful and calm, others are violent and horrific. And how we deal with the deaths we face can be paradoxical.  On one hand, we need to celebrate lives well lived, and recall fond memories with laughter and joking. On the other hand, we need to hold space for ourselves and others to be able to grieve what we lost in those deaths, or the pain that those deaths represent…and we need to be able to grieve as long as necessary. As Boss said in the On Being episode, to hurry or pressure another through grief because of our own discomfort or impatience with it is nothing less than cruel. We must absolutely remember this wisdom in the time of COVID.

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Life and death are a cycle, and grieiving is a cycle, and we must learn to accept each as they come to us, and let go when it is time for them to pass. But I totally believe we need ritual and grace for ourselves and others to accomplish this.

We need to allow ourselves to integrate within ourselves all that comes with death and not feel like we have to comparmentalize what is going on within us to make ourselves more palatable for those around us.

I’ve been to a billion funerals in my life. Ok, a bit of hyperbole there…but, I’ve been to A LOT. And it always seems to me that people are allowed to be really sad during the wake, during the funeral, and maybe even the mealtimes that follow a funeral, but then it’s time to snap out of it and rejoin the current programming of our lives.  It’s like an on/off switch.  You’ve cried…ok, now it’s time to put that stiff upper lip back on and jump straight back into the tasks of everyday life.

I’ve spent some time in West Africa, and one thing that they often do there that I like is postponed funerals. This used to kind of boggle my mind…like, why would you have a funeral a year after someone died?  And, really, how could all of the people in the community come to a funeral so far after the fact and actually cry and wail and mourn the person? Well…I think it’s because, unlike many native-grown Americans, they understand that  grief doesn’t end right after the funeral.  And more importantly, they realize that grief is not only individual, it is collective.

I am very concerned about individuals in this time of COVID.  The families that weren’t able to hold funerals because of location….the ones who couldn’t attend funerals because they personally were in the hospital with COVID…the families that were able to hold services but not in the way they really needed to, the way they hoped.

At some point, when this pandemic has subsided, maybe when a vaccine is available….we will so direly need a time of national and collective mourning.  If we emerge from this pandemic and rush straight back into our mindless way of doing things, I’m afraid our country could in many ways be done for. If we can’t mourn in a meaningful way for those who have been devasated by COVID and recognize all that they have lost, then we have lost our collective soul as a nation.

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I’ve returned from Texas now, following my uncle’s funeral, and I’m so grateful to have been able to go.  Yes, there were annoyingly frustrating moments, like people wearing ill-fitting masks, or refusing to embrace my need for social distancing and forcing themselves upon me.  But I was reminded that while the months and days leading up to death can be so scary and uncertain, death itself is just a crossing over, just a walking through a door, just a slipping through a veil.  It can be a terrible event, but it can also bring about redemption and reconciliation in a family that is struggling with old wounds and hurts.

Life and death are so complicated.  I think that’s all I can say with complete certainty after this long, meandering post.

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I’m only 40, but I have lived a damned good life. I have loved others fiercely, and I have been loved fiercely.  I have failed miserably so many times, but I’ve also triumphed over things that I thought would always conquer me.  I’ve forgiven, and I’ve been forgiven to a greater extent. And while I’ve got alot of stuff left that I want to do, I’m OK when death says it’s my time.

My cousin and I talked about what we would want said at our funerals.  I told her I thought it would be great to have an open mic, not just so that people could recall all the things they like about me, but also so people could talk about how much they disliked me, or how I had hurt them, or what a moron they thought I was.  My cousin laughed, but I was serious.  I want people to process any trauma I’ve caused them, be able to have their say without anyone arguing with them about why they shouldn’t feel the way they do, maybe remember a few of the good things about me….and then go out afterwards and kick a hackey sack full of my ashes…knowing that all is well, and I am well.

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