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Good Grief

angel
The death and dying industry gets mystical

By Will Harper



I WAS IN NINTH GRADE, sitting in Mr. Robinson's first-period English class gawking at Paget Smith's long legs (she always wore shorts, even in the rain), when a messenger from the vice principal's office interrupted and whispered something to the teacher. The surprised look on Mr. Robinson's face tipped me off. My mother, sick for months with colon cancer that had spread to her liver, had died. "Will," Mr. Robinson motioned for me, "I think you'd better go to the VP's office."

In some ways I was prepared for my mother's death. In her stubbornness, she refused to be hospitalized or take pain-killers. So she stayed home with me, vomiting every few hours and enduring excruciating discomfort over several months. I had watched her gradually fade, seen her cheeks grow yellow from the jaundice.

My dad's death was a different story. My father had been diagnosed with lung cancer only a few weeks before he flatlined in the intensive care unit of Glen Cove Hospital in New York. During his brief demise, friends and academic colleagues kept their distance. No one wanted to be around death or the grief that accompanied it. In my father's final hours, the nurses at the hospital at first refused to let me see him. They had a rule prohibiting anyone under 13 from entering the ICU, and I was 12 at the time. When my older sister got there, she was livid. "He's old enough to see his father," she scolded the nurse as she dragged me in to see my dad, who by this time could barely talk. His final incomprehensible words to me, I think, had something to do with money. I'll never be sure.

Given my personal experiences with death, my curiosity was piqued when my editor suggested I check out a conference in Palo Alto on "Living Well & Dying Well." Sponsored by the UC­Santa Cruz extension, the weekend conference combined professional and confessional, catering to regular folks who've had loved ones pass away and caregivers who deal with grieving or dying clients. AIDS, cancer and the aging of baby boomers and their parents have all heightened awareness of death in our culture, said Patty Flowers, director of the Humanities Department at the UCSC extension. "As more and more people are being touched by death personally," Flowers observed, "they're realizing how poverty-stricken our culture is in supporting both the individuals who are dying and the people who care about them."

On the drive over to the conference, I started to worry that this was going to be a cosmic, touchy-feely affair. The program for the day I attended hinted at a slightly "alternative" angle, with speakers including Tibetan spiritual scholar Sogyal Rinpoche, author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, and Dr. Joan Halifax, an anthropologist and Buddhist teacher who, 25 years ago, did LSD-assisted psychotherapy with people dying of cancer. I'd sworn off Eastern philosophy 10 years ago when at a solstice festival I fainted in the middle of a group mantra. When I regained consciousness, my best friend was staring back at me, laughing uncontrollably. "Where are we, Toto?" he managed between cackles.

When I arrived at the conference, people were filing into the auditorium. I settled in among the 300 or so faces in the audience, most of them belonging to middle-aged women. Sogyal Rinpoche spoke first. Sitting in a chair center stage next to a vase of irises, he talked in Eastern parables, repeating annoying truisms handed down by his masters. "Why is everything so impermanent?" the student asks. "Because it is like that," the master answers. Grrrr. But Rinpoche got me thinking: It's natural for a techno culture like ours to look to other cultures for clues and insights into death. In modern Western life, the elderly are exiled to nursing homes, and the dying are kept out of sight in hospitals. In other cultures, Dr. Sukie Miller later informed the audience, there's not much difference assigned to the dead and the living: In a Nigerian village, for example, houses are built for both the dead and the living (dead people are buried under their houses). And Rinpoche made a salient point that meditating on death isn't inherently morbid. On the contrary, death helps us recognize the more important things in life, he said.

That night I dreamed about my father. Whenever his memory penetrates my bubble of consciousness, I recall how much I enjoyed his company--watching Knicks games with him or doubling over listening to Cheech and Chong. His non-negotiable absence is what saddens me most. The following evening, after a long day at work, I thought about Santa Cruz psychotherapist Alexandra Kennedy's suggestion that survivors write their deceased loved ones a letter as a way to tackle unresolved issues. I had already rented The Cable Guy with Jim Carrey. Decisions, decisions. I fed the cats, washed the dishes and started up the video. On this night, the more important things would have to wait.

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From the May 8-14, 1997 issue of Metro

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