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Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Wound of Mortality

"Sleep and his half brother Death" - William Waterhouse
Death and taxes, as the saying goes, are the two certainties in life.

And yet, April 15th always catches many of us by surprise.

So does death, when it comes.

I have several friends who are struggling with death. One friend wrote me this morning to report the 12th death in his family and circle of friends since his own mother died on Christmas Day.

This one was his 18 year old cousin who committed suicide.

In my former congregation, I know of four deaths since the beginning of the year - one of them the tragic loss of a man who fell down the stairs and broke his neck. He had broken his neck in the same place in a car accident about five or six years ago and had never fully recovered - physically, emotionally or spiritually.

A dear friend of mine recently lost a neighbor - a young man with a young family and a son in her son's class. He apparently died of a very sudden heart attack.

Here and smiling and joking one minute. Gone the next.

A clergy colleague - now in his eighties but you'd never know it - has lost two former parishioners this week. Because older folks can't often get to church as they once did, and, in many congregations, "out of sight, out of mind" seems to be an operational dynamic, he was involved in the pastoral care of each as well as their family members. He will be presiding at both funerals.

While neither death came as much of a surprise, he says he is startled by how deeply both deaths have affected him.

In Greek mythology, Thanatos (Θάνατος, "death") is the personification of death. His twin brother, Hypnos (Ὕπνος, "sleep"), is the personification of sleep. their mother was the primordial goddess Nyx (Νύξ, "night").

The palace of Hypnos was a dark cave underneath a Greek island where the sun never shines. Through this cave flowed Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. At the entrance were a number of poppies and other hypnogogic plants. His dwelling has no door or gate so that he might not be awakened by the creaking of hinges.

Psychiatrist and novelist, Irvin Yallom, has authored a new book entitled, "Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death". In the first chapter he writes:
Self awareness is a supreme gift, a treasure as precious as life. This is what makes us human. But it comes with a costly price: the wound of mortality. Our existence is foreshadowed by the knowledge that we will grow, blossom and, inevitably, diminish and die.

Mortality has haunted us from the beginning of history. Four thousand years ago the Babylonian hero Gilgamesh reflected on the death of his friend, Enkidu...'Thou has become dark and cannot hear me. When I die, shall I not be like Enkidu? Sorrow enters my heart. I am afraid of death".

Gilgamesh speaks for us all. As he feared death so do we all - every man, woman and child. For some of us the fear of death manifests only indirectly, either as generalized unrest or masqueraded as another psychological symptom; other individuals experience an explicit and conscious stream of anxiety about death; and for some of us the fear of death erupts into terror that negates all happiness and fulfillment."
All of us are wounded by mortality. Some of us call in Hypnos to anesthetize us from our conscious awareness of the constant presence of Thanatos. And then, suddenly, one day, it hits us from seemingly out of nowhere (ex nihilo) - usually through the death of another.

During the height of the AIDS crises, I attended more funerals than I care to remember. Some of them were unbearably sad. Others were an incredible celebration of life. Some featured a chorus of gay men in top hats, white coats and gloves and tails. Others featured specially commissioned music for the mass and/or hymns.

I wept a bit at each one, but it took the funeral of a young Lutheran pastor to break me down. I had gotten to the church late and it was an SRO congregation. A very kind gentleman in the back got up to offer me his seat which I took with gratitude.

Just as I was getting settled, the casket was borne into the church. I could see the pall covering the casket from the corner of my eye. As I turned round, I glanced at the top of the casket. There was his stole, set out on top, as it would have been in the sacristy before he vested.

I. Lost. It.


I felt punched in the gut as I bet over and began sobbing uncontrollably. I was vaguely aware that I was causing a scene and was mildly annoyed with myself and embarrassed, but I simply could not help myself.

I cried for that young Lutheran pastor and all the young men and women for whom I could not deeply grieve because to do so would have been, in itself, paralyzing. So, I had unconsciously bid Hypnos to come and render me unaware to the depth of pain I was feeling for all the losses I, personally - and we, as a community - had suffered.

It was more than that, however. Seeing that stole on the top of that casket came a little too close to my own life. There was my own mortality, staring me in the face.

All of us are wounded by mortality.

All of us try to anesthetize ourselves from the pain of that wound.

Critics of Christianity note that our focus on eternal life as the gift of the Resurrection of Jesus is our own religious anesthesia. That may well be true. One of the prayers we pray in the Burial Office is "may your faith be your consolation."

Well, if faith is the consolation prize for the wound of our mortality, I'll take it. I've certainly known those who have chosen worse possibilities - everything from taking daredevil risks to abusing drugs and alcohol to being emotionally unavailable and unable to enjoy any depth of intimacy.

Thanatos and Hypnos, the twin sons of of Nyx, are two constant companions in life. The former will not be denied, but the latter can be defied.

As painful as it is to be aware of the limits of our time here on this earthly plane, self awareness, as Yallom says, is a treasured, precious gift.

So, I offer this to my friends who are grieving: Do not be afraid to feel the pain of your loss. Do not be afraid to feel your own fear of death.  It only means that you understand the precious gift of life.

Go ahead: Weep. Cry. Sob. Lament. Each one honors God. Each tear we shed falls as a drop of thanksgiving for the gift of our creation and the incarnation of the life force within.

Thanatos may torment you. Hypnos may tempt you to ignore the fullness of life.

In the face of both, may your faith be your consolation.


Anonymous said...

This is one of the most beautiful things I have read in a long while. It is clear you know whereof you speak. Sobbing? I almost knocked Ricardo's casket off the cart at a wake in Baltimore a long time ago. I can almost laugh about it now, but not quite. And now, Kirsten.


Anonymous said...

One would think, especially under the circumstances, I could spell Kirstin's name correctly.


Dom said...

Very nice!

DBW said...

Your post brings to mind a funeral I attended about five years ago, of the mother (age 60) of a friend (mid 30s). My friend's mother had been put on a traich which somehow ruptured a blood vessel causing her to bleed to death in a few moments, in a very graphic fashion. The funeral was in an old polish Catholic church where they still put the gold shovels under your mouth at communion. Anyway, my friend was apeshit crazy with grief... wouldn't let them close the coffin, had to be dragged away from it, had to be dragged up the aisle of the church screaming, tried to climb into the hearse... I had never seen such extravagant grief. My wife and I went home after the funeral and took a fistful of aspirin and went to sleep. I'm not sure if the animalistic grief is healthier than the cold funerals I remember from my own family where nobody went up to the coffin and tangible grief was expressly verbotten. But I think part of the way people respond to death is cultural.

MarkBrunson said...

As a Tolkien fan, I have always struggled with the thematic thread in which the Elven race refers to mortality as "the Gift of Men."

Yet, reflecting on what an immortal life would be like, I can see it, appreciate it. I don't think anyone would deny that mourning is necessary - to deny it would be to simply ignore reality - but a lot of our shock and anger is directed at death itself, which simply is, and is a necessity. Untimely death is a tragedy, but not the death itself, rather the events surrounding it.

JCF said...

Great post, Elizabeth.

I think cynicism, hedonism and fatalism are other forms of Hypnos.

Out there in Raging-Secular-World, the charge that people of faith are "immature", needing a "crutch" is common.

Well, yeah. In the face of Death, I AM a child, I DO limp.

I say I believe in Christ, "the Resurrection and the Life", but of course I can't really know.

So if *I* don't know, how do you Raging Secularists? You're SO blase' about a Great Nothing, the Great Ceasing-to-Exist? Really?

I mean, yeah, a Woody Allenesque death-obsession seems kinda crazy.

But the blase' 'tude doesn't seem exactly sane, either. It's rational to be afraid. And if reason is absent, I think there's some Hypnos going on, y'know?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Scott - If you are talking about the same Ricardo I am, I was there. I remember. God, it was awful. And now, Kirsten. Lord have mercy.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I did the same thing. Saw yours and thought, "Huh, I've been spelling her name wrong." I probably would have joined you in tipping over Ricardo's casket.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Dom

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Dale - Well those are two extremes. I think people grieve somewhere in between but clearly we would all be healthier if we were more self-aware.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Mark - Didn't St. Francis call it "Brother Death". I get clearer why he did that.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

JCF - Yes I do. I think part of what makes Woody Allen's humor so funny is that his cynicism, fatalism and occasional sojourns into hedonism are all so clearly part of Hypnosis.

MarkBrunson said...

Sister Death - he had a vision of Death as a tender sister, gentle, cradling and comforting and bringing us to our mutual father.

Anonymous said...

Palomares. My best friend at GTS long ago. I was a pallbearer (the day after I almost knocked the casket off at the would have clucked and rolled his eyes while finger-wagging and giggling). John Kitigawa, then of Baltimore, now of this diocese (AZ), has Ricardo's pectoral cross.


walter said...

self-Awareness, Elizabeth 143, is God gift to us and bodes very well for the self-Affirmation which is the indispensable ingredient of the powerful distinction of religious experience and public life. May we find ways to support those who speak truth to power regardless of political party or ethnicity. Love always finds a way to bring us together. May love find us and strengthen us and keep us grounded. Love, genuine Love is conceived absolutely by the Mind of God.

Walter Vitale

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Mark - I asked Ms. Conroy, AKA: the "nun" and she said "Brother Death". Then, we both googled it and discovered that you were correct. Sister Death. Thank you.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Scott. Yup. Small world. And now, Kirstin has joined the heavenly chorus.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, Walter.

Anonymous said...

Dear Elizabeth,
My husband died less that two weeks ago. Your words have touched me deeply.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I grieve for your loss, Anonymous. You are in my prayers.