Getting more comfortable with death

Armchair Mayor
By Mel Rothenburger
August 12, 2017 - 11:51am

KAMLOOPS — Death has been much on my mind this week. Not just the fact that it’s the end of life, but what it’s really all about.

You’d think we’d be more at ease with something that happens so often.

Twenty-one years ago, on the B.C. Day weekend, my mother, Nora Maye McLean Rothenburger, died in her sleep at Royal Inland Hospital.

I think about all that she gave me; I also think about the accidental blessing of being able to spend several hours with her after she died. I regret not being with her in her last moments, but the hours afterward were important in a way I didn’t recognize at the time.

Being with dead people isn’t everyone’s idea of fun. I’ve seen a fair number of bodies at funerals and fatal accidents. Our natural reaction is to hurry away from death — it reminds us in the strongest terms of our own mortality, and too often of our own loss.

Those hours with my mother after she died are the only time in my life I’ve felt comfortable in the presence of death. There was a practical reason for it — it was a long weekend and the doctor who was supposed to pronounce her death was delayed in the ER, and I didn’t want her to be alone.

The time allowed me to hold her hand and kiss her and say goodbye, and it was an intensely intimate and moving experience. I felt none of the urgency to remove myself from the room that we normally feel in death’s presence. Quite the opposite; I was reluctant to leave.

Death isn’t a cheerful topic. Talking about it at dinner parties is not going to get you invited back, but maybe we need to be more open about it, more involved.

In some cultures, spending several days with a dead loved one is normal. I read a story yesterday about a woman who put her dead mother in a van and drove her around to visit friends and relatives. We all have our own ways of doing things.

I’m not sure we’d fear death less if we knew what to expect. There are different views on that. There’s the white-light theory, for example. Many believe in life after death, that our spirit survives. Some who don’t believe in God do believe in ghosts or are certain that dead people can talk to us.

Are our loved ones “up there watching”? My atheist/agnostic head is sometimes at odds with my heart. I’ve had dreams that are so vivid that at the moment of waking up I’m certain I’ve just been visited by someone I love, that it’s their way of coming back to me, of telling me, “It’s OK, I’m still with you.”

People live on in our memories, and maybe that’s the same as living on in us, or with us. The alternative is unappealing, that death is just going to sleep without dreaming.

Even the word troubles us. “Died” feels so harsh, so we say “passed away” (or simply “passed”) instead. But maybe being more direct about it is a place to begin our reconciliation with death.

There’s a general opinion, I think, that we do too much rewriting of history when we eulogize. In obituaries, the biggest scoundrel can become a great humanitarian. Someone who could barely boil water becomes a wonderful cook. A politician with a questionable legacy becomes a revered leader.

Mostly, though, it’s a question of what to put in and what to leave out. I don’t see anything wrong with some selective memory in such circumstances because there are times when we can be too candid.

We can meet death full on and still be respectful about it. As for me, I intend to write my own obituary. I hope to make the deadline but I’m not in a big hurry.