What is Death?

March 9, 2016

Teenagers don’t usually spend very much time contemplating death. We are dealing with the trials and stresses of growing up and becoming adults, so much so that our own mortalities are too far off in the distance for us to be concerned about. But paradoxically, it’s around this same age that we often begin to understand death in a more visceral way. We reach a point in time when we start experiencing the mortality of others who are close to us: a father, a grandparent or sometimes even a friend. And we begin forming more intricate, concrete perceptions of grief and death.

The Talon explores several different facets of how youth and adults perceive loss and grief. From the perspective of our students, to those who deal with death within the workplace, we learn how death impacts each of us as individuals and unites us as humans.

Seeing Death

The binary quality of death, like the binary quality of a light switch, isn’t too difficult to understand. The implication of the dark, though, is more layered, as is the absence of the only-recently-alive. Attitudes toward death are complex and massively varied, shifting across individual philosophies. In fact, the only commonality is the physicality, which, while observable, could hardly be called simple.

“[My grandfather] went from sitting at the table one night and laughing and eating dinner with us to being in an induced coma two weeks later and passing away,” senior Keana Khodadad said. “My mom, my aunt and my grandma decided to take him off the breathing machine and life support. We all gathered in the room… and it took a while for him to [die]. [It] was a very difficult thing to watch because [I was seeing] somebody [I’ve] looked up to appear so vulnerable. [And] watching somebody die, physically, the life leaving them, is very, very, very difficult, not because it’s scary — it was actually very peaceful because everybody was just sitting there — but it was like, this is the end.”

Death isn’t a subject often on most teenagers’ minds, but for these three adolescents, it has had a severe impact on their lives.
MVHS senior Anthony Chau was in third grade when his dad died of skin cancer.

“I’m not sure if this was typical of young people who deal with death, but at first I thought that the grieving counseling [and] all that was kind of unnecessary,” Anthony said. “It was strange for me to be put into a situation where I felt like I was forced to feel sad or expose myself to this adult who was like, ‘Here’s what you are going to do to grieve and get better after this.’”

The reason for Anthony’s slight emotional detachment was deliberate — after his father was diagnosed, he decided to distance himself from his son.

“I found out pretty recently when I was talking to [my mom] that she and my dad were deliberately making it so that his death would have as little impact on my life as possible,” Anthony said. “I think that was like one of the reasons why I didn’t feel as much. And I… don’t think I actually felt sad about it until much later, until even now. Sometimes, I’ll be thinking about it, and then suddenly I’ll be like, ‘Oh, that happened.’ I actually feel much sadder about this than I did 12 years ago.”

At 18 years old, Anthony remembers his frustration caused by the toll that cancer took on his father. He remembers taking a break outside his father’s hospital room when his mother came to see him a few minutes later to deliver the news of his dad’s death.

Anthony recalls walking into the room and feeling for his dad’s nonexistent pulse. The experience has, in some way, shaped part of his feelings towards his own mortality.

“In terms of thinking about my own death, there are some times where I have really weird off periods — it was like every other year,” Anthony said. “There were instances [when] I would get existential crises and start thinking about death and becoming really depressed about it. For like two or three weeks, I’ll just be like, ‘Oh wow, this is actually going to happen to me sometime in the future.’”

Senior Aditya knew that his father was going to die – in theory, a 16-month battle with terminal cancer gave him time to anticipate and plan for the loss. But the reality was different; he wasn’t ever really prepared for the first, concrete moment of realization, of loss.

“My initial reaction was just sort of denial,” Aditya said. “I don’t think I really understood the reality of it… I saw him there, and I still didn’t believe he had passed away because he looked so normal — he looked like he was sleeping. And I came over to him, and it wasn’t until I shook him, just a little bit, just to make sure, that I think it hit me really hard, and I just lost it.”

Aditya felt a disconnect. Any funeral goer is likely plied with the familiar idioms: he was brimming with life, as if life could be measured and a body filled with it. And now he’s lifeless, drained; these expressions are lent credence when a loved one seems the same, but not furnished with vitality.

“I’d never seen a dead person before,” Aditya said. “When you see a human being who had so much life in them, like my dad was such an enthusiastic, energetic, compassionate person, and when you see a human body and it’s just a shell and their entire personality is gone, it’s scary and it’s an image that I’m not going to have out of my head for a long time. My dad was someone who I knew for 17 years and I saw every day. I thought about how horrible it would feel to be close to the end and know it and just be like, ‘Wow, the next time I close my eyes, everything, every memory I had, will be completely forgotten.’”

Following the diagnosis, Aditya redoubled efforts to spend time with his father and know him, to live gratefully for what time was left.

“I guess I idolized my dad more because I knew he was dying, and I think the reason for that is when… he was given sort of a time limit, when I interacted with him, I tried to focus on picking my battles, because every teenager fights with his parents, and I tried to just think like, ‘How important is this argument really?’” Aditya said. “What’s really important is just being on the same team in this situation and just making it easy and comfortable and not problematic. I think I idolized him more because I tried to focus on everything good, which is good. But it’s obviously also very biased. It was hard, and it makes you have to be a grown-up. I’m not trying to say that I’m very mature… but it makes you a lot more aware in the moment, and I think that is really what being an adult is, just trying to be absolutely aware of whatever’s going on around you and aware of your situation and aware of your priorities… I have to do things that I didn’t have to do before. I had to organize the funeral, and I had to speak at it.”

Losing the parent who financially supported the family was especially distressing, and pushed Aditya to become proactive about taking care of his imminent future, despite his natural tendencies toward grief.

“Money’s never really been a concern for my family; we’re in one of the richest zip codes in the world, but now all of a sudden, we don’t have an income anymore, and I have to think about college and getting a job,” Aditya said. “It gives you a lot more responsibilities, and I think I’ve definitely changed as a person. Whether or not it’s for the better, I’ve yet to find out because it’s also made me a little bit more of a kid too because when it happened, there were times that I reacted in ways I really shouldn’t have — I acted out, like I’d just get like plastered, or I’d like just cry, and fight with my parents just because I was like, I don’t know.”

But the response is different for everybody, and often changes for each individual over time. And yet, moving on can be nearly impossible. Keana witnessed the sudden death of her grandfather, who was in the ER due to chest pains and organ failure, on the weekend of a family wedding back at the beginning of her freshman year.

“Even today, I don’t fully accept it,” Keana said. “I don’t think that I moved on in the sense of emotional closure and being able to see it in a less sad way, I think that I’ve just been able to… like these two things, my life and this event have been able to coexist. And I think they’re going to have to coexist for the rest of my life because there was never any closure.”

But everybody experiences death differently. For Aditya, there was closure – of course, he’s not comfortable with death, or accepting of it, but he understands the value of looking back on shared time and embracing its conclusion.

“I’d tell [people] to expect a lot of hopelessness, but everyone sort of reacts differently, so just be ready and just be as strong and as brave and as compassionate as you can,” Aditya said. “And just savor, savor and look back on the time you did have with them because no matter what you do, you’re never going to be ready for it, you’re never going to be ready for death and you’re never really going to be okay with it. [It] sucks and you’re not always going to [feel like you can] do it but just try and hang in there.”

Keana takes it a little differently. She believes, she may never move on from deaths, but there are many ways we can continue our lives through the pain and hurt of loss.

“So maybe if you decide you want to make this into a more positive thing, not the death, but what you do after, you can honor the person,” Keana said. “Figure out what would have made them proud, what would they have wanted to see you do. My grandpa always wanted to see his grandchildren succeed.”

Not many of us think about dying or about how to prepare ourselves for when that day comes. However, it’s something that patients under hospice care face every day, having decided to meet their end naturally without the discomfort of modern medical practices. Hospice workers, who take care of these patients, ease a dying person’s last few weeks, days, even hours, whether it be reading to them or making sure their affairs are set in order. Their work has profound effects, not just on the patients, but also on the caretakers themselves who develop insightful views on the matter of mortality.

This is the case for Libby Boatwright, a chaplain who works in Stanford Hospital’s Spiritual Care department. Her duties include end-of-life rituals at patients’ requests. Boatwright believes that with the right mindset, death can be a beautiful experience.

“We start out life with a lot of celebration as a baby, a lot of fuss and such,” Boatwright said. “I want people to know that there is someone there at the end of life as well. So I’m drawn to that.”

Boatwright helps manage the volunteer program, No One Dies Alone. The program offers comfort and support to hospital patients who are expected to pass away without anyone at their side.

“This is something I’m very close to because I truly believe that there should always be someone with them,” Boatwright said. “That they don’t die assuming they were completely isolated… that we attempt to be that touch, that personal experience… that someone was with them when they died.

And so that’s why it draws me. It’s a very passionate piece for me.”

Since most of her experience deals with terminally ill, elderly patients, Boatwright sees hospice care as the natural transition from life to death.

“The idea is to allow the body relax,” she said. “The person’s been working for a whole lifetime, and now, rather than having this extra medication or anything else to work with, it’s just allowing the body to die naturally.”

For Boatwright, death is not a horrifying end, but rather an inevitable facet of life that can be peaceful.

“Much of our work is to try to bring peace to a person, bring them to a place where they feel like they can die on their own,” Boatwright said. “They’re slowly going to a place of perfect peace.”

Like Boatwright, NODA volunteer nurse Heidi Earnest feels compelled to help those who are dying. Earnest’s sense of duty comes from the time a vigilant hospice worker connected her to her ailing father for a last minute conversation.

“That was the last conversation I had with him,” Earnest said. “He passed when I was talking with him on that phone call. And I will always be grateful for that person who enabled that to happen to me. So I felt like this was my opportunity to pay it forward.”

Since then, she has helped nearly a dozen patients who are close to passing away, and it’s molded her view on the subject of dying.

“It’s given me a lot of time to think about really nice ways of dying and not such great ways of dying,” Earnest said. “For me personally at this point, the least amount of intervention is how I would like to go.”

In Earnest’s seven years of volunteering, only one patient has died by her side. It was the first patient she ever sat with and she remembers the event as deeply moving. The experience has motivated her to continue volunteering with NODA.

“I read [Psalm] 73,” Earnest said. “In it, it talks about ‘When my heart is failing and it beats no more, there you are God waiting for me,’ and after I read those words to her, she passed. It was lovely. It was a privilege.”

Each sputtering end of a human is different. In larger words, circumstance informs mindset. A nurse’s modes of acceptance will differ from a priest’s, a firefighter’s, a teacher’s, a writer’s. It’s no surprise that a significant share of death-directed attitudes are fearful and angry and overgrown with denial. That anybody with the ability to self-actualize could die, is painful. There’s no right way to think about death. There could be such a thing as coming to terms with death, but there’s certainly no overcoming it. It overcomes you: stumbling together, towards all our own ends of days, fully knowing where we are going and where we have come from, which really, is the operating direction.

Personal Column: War Face

I remember learning about it when I was a kid. I remember when the existence of death was bad news. I think it was in Sunday School that I was told Moses had bitten the fertile dust of the Promised Land, all those nutrients from milk and honey notwithstanding. I kept to my room for the next few days and drew pictures of all the people I knew. Even holy men who held conversation with combustible shrubs could die. I kept cool, though. My steely-eyed playground poise: “Death? I’ve heard of it.”

Anyway, I found this tin in my garage labelled “Down-to-earth ways to begin your opinions piece on death”. To read a few: “Let me level with you”, or, the always engaging “We’re all going to die someday”. I’ve never been one to discourse on all the towering, crucial cans of worms, death among them. I’ve felt that any way you write these things, it comes across reductionist or pandering. I mean, I know the footnotes, I don’t need some hack’s editorial. In fact, the crowd of voices on death is so thick and erratic, that perhaps “I’ve heard of it” is still my most informed response to the concept. So, more morbidly than Foreigner might have phrased it, I want to know what death is.

I am not a doctor, nor am I an anthropologist, nor a psychologist. All that anyone can do, is break loose a chunk of the idea and then write it to tears. I like movies and television. Call it vapid, but a study of death by way of various cultural touchstones is not the worst idea, I don’t think. Throw the most engaging, death-oriented movies of a century into the crucible of aspirant journalism, and the lump of salt and steam you’re left with might say something.

Two weeks ago, I saw a matinee of “Barry Lyndon” at the Castro Theatre. The movie charts the feats of Redmond Barry in 18th-century Ireland and England, in and out of fortune. The movie is adapted from a novel called, The Luck of Barry Lyndon, and by its two chapters, is shuffled into a pathetic dichotomy: “By What Means Redmond Barry Acquired the Style and Title of Barry Lyndon” and “Containing an Account of the Misfortunes and Disasters Which Befell Barry Lyndon.”

The curtain closed for intermission. What I was thinking about, as the lights refocused, was the polite barbarity of 18th-century Europe. Barry Lyndon has an uncouth encounter with his cousin and falls in love. Not one to romance her own penniless flesh and blood, Lyndon’s cousin elects a dashing British officer to woo her instead. Lyndon is up in arms about the whole thing. Really. Leave it to the 18th-century to actualize your idioms. Barry takes up his pistol and duels the officer, riding away from his life in town later, alive and with a killer’s notch down his belt. Jesus. Everyday in pre-industrial Ireland, you were playing with your life. What does it mean to live as we all do now? It’s still high stakes, it always will be with life and its loss. But here and now, equipped with penicillin, access to higher education, and more modern modes of conflict resolution, the dealer always has bad cards.

The movie reminded me of “Full Metal Jacket,” another underrepresented Kubrick gem. It’s hard to beat a young Matthew Modine aping John Wayne in basic training. Modine’s character is one of my favorites, Private Joker, he’s monikered by his drill sergeant. Asked why he joined the service, Modine’s character replies, “Sir, to kill, sir.” The sergeant instructs Modine to show his ‘war face’. Modine screams. Kubrick’s representation of morality in Vietnam bleeds gray into more gray. In a haunting closing sequence, Joker’s company marches back to the base, through burning Vietnamese buildings, chanting a Mickey Mouse march song. 1967 seems foreign now. There was the draft—that miserable sandwich line which scooted the just-grown into jungles, pockets full of Valhalla wet dreams. There was more of a dialogue with death.

The curtain re-opens. We’ve become unaccustomed to death, which is part of why we’ve sensationalized it, which is maybe okay. As it turns out, “knowing what death is” is as fruitless and coy as its mushy, power ballad sibling. I know this. We live in a time when death is a big deal, because it’s infrequent, or at least predictable. Love in the time of natural causes doesn’t quite have the same ring as love in the time of cholera. Perhaps we should be envious of the 18th century’s more accessible relationship with death, although the loophole in this logic is big enough to swallow a civilization. As the projection fades to black, a message appears: “It was in the reign of George II that the above-named personages lived and quarrelled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.” If this pill is too bitter to swallow, if you’re looking for a consolation, don’t buy flowers, fertilize them: “From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.”

Personal Column: Curtains

My aunt was shot by her husband when I was 9 years old. He shot her twice, once in the chest and once in the head, and then once in his own hand; he told the police he was shielding himself and my aunt from the intruders when they were shot.

Without, being aware of the truth, my grandma called to tell us what had happened. And through all the tears, wailing and the confusion of my brother who had just walked out of the shower, I was told that it was four robbers who had shot my aunt.

I cried that day, mainly because of the pain it brought to my mom. After the murder, my mom wore only black and white for an entire year to mourn the death of her only sister. This was the first time I experienced grief associated with death, but it was indirect grief from seeing my mom suffer.

Every few weeks, my grandma calls us to ask how my siblings and I are doing. After passing the phone around, it stops at my mother for quite a while. They talk about the case; she tells my mom one of my aunt’s coworkers saw her ghost all over the office; they discuss selling the family farm; usually the call is mostly about the lack of progression toward finding my aunt’s husband.

I watch my mom’s face during the calls. She always looks so solemn and I imagine I can see the wheels turning in her brain as she’s thinking everything over. She’s definitely listening and she asks a lot of questions, but she never talks about how she feels, like my grandma does.

Sometimes I ask myself why I haven’t talked to my parents more about my aunt’s death. And I think it’s because, watching my mom on the phone, I’ve come to a conclusion that the conversations with my grandma are enough for her to handle.

My mom seems to have accepted it but but it’s harder for me to do the same. The night it happened I turned off the lights and went to bed, and right before I closed my eyes, I saw that the curtains were pushed to one side and the silhouette of a tree was visible through the gap. I immediately wondered what dangers lay outside the window. Since that moment, not a day goes by without me readjusting those awful curtains. I know they’re only curtains and they can’t keep me from dying, but I still find myself fixing them every night.

My fear of the darkness began that day, and it has never gone away, though it’s better now. I fix the curtains so they cover up every inch of the window and shield me from the unknown, but I can’t handle the sight of shadows flashing by without thinking, “This is the end.”

And that’s where I am right now. I’m not really sad, not completely scared anymore, but it’s made me think about things a little differently. Every now and then I reflect back on her death, but only for a second.

Personal Column: The Morgue

During the summers, I intern in a necropsy lab performing autopsies. Death is so often viewed with intense sadness and pessimism, however, dealing with death on a daily basis has taught me to do the opposite. Each day I face a new circumstance and a different range of difficulties, from the physical challenge of removing a heart to the emotional strain of seeing someone who passed before their time. I consistently focus on being as sympathetic as possible to pay my respects to the deceased, each time ensuring their eyes are closed and thanking them for their service in my head.

Then a month after starting the internship, I saw something that made me begin to dread the next time one of those large white bags would come rolling in on a gurney. It rolled up on a gurney like every other body and, identical to every other time, I went through my mental checklist of identifying the body. First verifying the full name was identical on every document and matching on the identification bracelets around his wrist and ankle. Then double checking the family’s consent for the autopsy, but after going through the drawn out process, something seemed off: He was in his late 20s and that was far too young to be in front of me. I was in shock for days and found myself constantly thinking about my own mortality. If someone in the prime of their life could so tragically pass without warning, how was I supposed to maintain a peace of mind knowing that the same could very well happen to me?

About a week later on a Saturday afternoon I babysat my seven year old cousin. She was the polar opposite of my entire demeanor at that time, bright and bubbling at the simple sight of goldfish crackers.

I asked her how she could be so happy, and she replied, “Well if I’m not happy, then you have a bad day, and then other people have a bad day too.” I turned her comment over for a while and came to the conclusion that being sad over death forever would not lead to any good. No one would want the people around them to be sad for long. They would want them to remember their happy and fruitful lives, and all the good that occurred in them. I hold onto that to this day. Yes, everyone grieves a loss, but in the end it’s those smiling moments that you remember. Truly honoring those who have passed means holding onto the memories and setting aside the fear.

With help from David Lisbonne, Staff Writer.

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