Finding balance in the second half of life

Can You Say “Dead”?

In Survival on July 3, 2011 at 7:57 pm

My Uncle Clare died on Tuesday. So far, no one has mentioned it.

There is much talk of his “passing,” as if he’d finally been promoted to fourth grade or sped by the slow-moving vehicle ahead of him on I-96 or successfully pulled off faking his race, gender, or sexual orientation. But no one — not the hospice social worker, not the young chaplain, Bible in hand, who gently escorted my aunt to her car, not the two kind men from Dykstra Funeral Home who came to retrieve my uncle’s body — pronounced the D-Word in my hearing.

I have to think that Uncle Clare, a plain-spoken, even occasionally gruff son of a considerably gruffer, occasionally mean working-class father — a man who never relinquished the colorful vocabulary of his Army and construction worker days, even after he returned to college at the age of 42 and became a teacher who attended church and lived with his wife in a beautiful home on the Thornapple River, one of the tonier suburbs of Grand Rapids, Michigan, the city where he was born — would scoff at our reluctance to use the definitive four-letter word that describes his current condition.

Uncle Clare is dead. As in, he won’t be teasing me about wearing heels to try to be taller than my old uncle. As in, he won’t be calling “Sweetheart” from the open door of the refrigerator to ask my aunt if there’s any butter. As in, his ashes are in a cardboard box in the back of my VW Bug.

“I just can’t realize he’s gone,” my aunt tells me every time we speak. And that gets to heart of it, I think. Not that she can’t “believe” he’s “passed away,” but that she can’t comprehend the reality of his utter, absolute, irrevocable goneness.

If words can do anything to help the bereft, bereaved, thunderstruck human being whose best beloved has been snatched from her arms, it must be in the service of this realizing.

When my father died, Emily Dickinson’s words helped:

You left me – Sire – two Legacies –

A Legacy of Love

A Heavenly Father would suffice

Had He the offer of –

You left me Boundaries of Pain –

Capacious as the Sea –

Between Eternity and Time –

Your Consciousness – and me –

In two short stanzas, she sums up the whole human tragedy: we are loved; we are left. The condition of experiencing the former is experiencing the latter — those Boundaries of Pain that death lays down in black permanent marker. By acknowledging, putting words to the inviolable barrier between my father’s consciousness “- and me -” (that final, heartbreaking dash breaking off into the empty eternity of separation spread out before me), Dickinson’s poem helped me to realize the unbearable truth about what had happened to me.

The word “dead” had that kind of shocking, cold-water-in-the-face effect on me, too. My dad is dead, I told myself over and over, and the heavy downbeat of those two D-laden words hammered the realization into my resistant consciousness. The weight of the noun (the verb form to die is lighter, more ephemeral — you die in an instant; you’re dead forever) gives it finality. And dignity.

Auden knew how to use it:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,

Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,

Silence the pianos and with muffled drum

Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead

Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead . . .

Clarence Ekema at the age of two.

My dad is dead. My uncle Clare is dead. Someday you and I and all the people we love will be dead. Realize it. Call it by its name.

–Debra Wierenga


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  1. Beautifully written.
    This made me cry, Deb.

  2. I’m with you, sister! We should call it like it is. I learned to say “dead” at 12 when my mom died and it has helped bear the burden of grief from other deaths since then. “My cat is dead” is one of my most recent experiences. The first few times you say it to someone else you can’t help but choke up or cry. But I think this is all part of the healing process.

    I’m sorry that Uncle Clare is dead.

  3. ‘lost’ is the one that always makes me want to giggle even when I am heartbroken… I imagine checking for my dad down the back of the sofa cushions… I try to use dead but I think it is one of those things like love – whatever we word we use it is too small for all it needs to encompass.

  4. My father-in-law died last week. He was 85 and in my life for 25 years. We know he is gone and we are missing him like crazy. You are so right about it all, and yes, ‘die’ is gentler, especially as he did (blessedly) slip away in bed…soon we will say he is dead. We have been through this before, so we know.

    Thanks for such an honest telling, Deb. It’s good to remind others “we are loved; we are left.” And if we’re lucky (as I am) we are left with a desire to love generously, the way we were loved.

  5. What a wonderful ‘message’ you wrote. I only know you through Karen, but felt lucky to read your thoughts. I am sorry for your loss, but you make it possible to feel my own.

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