The Long Good-bye

My dad in the last year of his life

The etiquette of dying and death


 If given the choice, would I prefer that the end of my life be instantaneous? Lengthy? Or drawn out over a few months?

These are some of the things I think about as I watch someone else go through the experience of dying or death.

What is better for me, for my family?


Not that I have a choice in the matter, so basically I am wasting time worrying over the inevitable happenings of mortality.

We all gonna die. 
It is the manner of death that may create the most fear.

Dealing with the etiquette of death is something I have witnessed firsthand. Immediately, a crowd forms.

At the time, you are not considering their motivation for attending, but later you might wonder, why was so-and-so here I barely know that person?

So is the dilemma, some folks just want to be a part of the drama, instead of an ambulance chaser, I call them the hearse chasers.

When tragedy strikes, they are on the scene, addicted to the breaking news of life. Thankfully, they do blend in with the crowd of actual do-gooders who are there to comfort, to minister, and to help the situation. Rarely do they cause trouble.

The community responds to the death of a loved one, sometimes the shock of the moment prevents loved ones to function normally, food is prepared, a broom is activated, dishes are washed and someone shepherds the stunned family into the reality of death.

It is the shock and awe of change.

I associate the smell of fried chicken with death. Someone always brings a bucket or a box of it. It's Southern comfort food.

Looking back at my personal experience when I lost my husband of nearly 17 years in a tragic car accident, I remember a collage of concerned faces standing and sitting in my home and a dirty floor that kept getting dirtier. It was the mud from a parade of folks mixed with a rainy and dark series of days.

All I wanted to do was sweep.

Gathering crowds and food are the etiquette of tending to a family in crisis mode, but if you are not truly associated with the family, then you probably should not show up.

Communication was limited in 1998, no Facebook, tweeting, or online email to pass along vital information, so the other thing I remember is the phone continuously ringing…for days.

Most people are sensitive to this fact and refrain from well wishful calling immediately after a tragedy, but as always, there are those who do not know the rules.

In every life situation, there are those who don’t know the rules or either choose to ignore them.

I am not discouraging calls, but if you barely know the person, it might be a good idea to send a card instead.

I had one strange individual, whom I only had met a couple of times in passing during my life, once when I was a teenager and another time in the grocery store, who continued to call right after the event of my husband’s death. I had phone screeners most of the time, but eventually his persistence earned him my ear. I like to think of myself as a warm and patient person, but eventually I had to just hand the phone off and allow a family member to end the call.

Yes, weirdos have been known to come out of the closet during a dramatic event.

As hard as losing one unexpectedly is, the equal trial of losing one to disease or injury that may take a period of time to complete, giving you notice of the impending doom has its own etiquette. The period of awkward interaction with well meaning friends and family really is tested during the process of dying.

We should always evaluate our motives when dealing with the long goodbye.

It seems the same issues come up with terminal etiquette: Who needs to visit and for how long? The same hearse chasers tend to show up, but now on a regular basis.

 What can you do?
How can you meet the needs of a situation that is ever evolving?

Every family dealing with this should first designate a spokesperson, a friend or family member who can keep the public notified of needs, visitation requests, and the mechanics of living. This person can act as liaison and coordinate responses, stress when its good and when it’s not good to call or visit.

In our age of technology, the representative can create a Facebook or Caring Bridge page or an email group that can update the public and relay valuable information quickly and in great number.

It is appropriate to create signs for the home or hospital that state in a nice manner the ‘do not disturb’ visitation, the keep it short visitation, or come on in and tell your life story visitation.

It is great if you could hire a bouncer for some guests, but that might be rude.

They are the ‘can’t take a hint’ folks who haven’t seen you in years, heard you were dying and thought they might drop by and catch you up on their life before you go!

Yes, bouncers are a good thought!

Families whether in the short or long of it, always have to put up with three annoying reoccurring subjects: although well meaning, the first one is the platitudes of trivializing the illness, second is the dismissing the reality of the disease and last is the making suggestions that a miracle cure is just around the corner.

 Well meaning logic, however, it may only aggravate the dying patient.

It is okay to tell someone healthy to live like you are dying which motivates us all to enjoy each day to the fullest, but the reality is dying mostly is filled with pain, medication, vomiting, dementia, and emotional turmoil. It isn’t always a pretty scene. That's only in Hollywood.

The other subject that gets on the nerves of grieving families is the death story. The first ten may not bother them, but after awhile of everyone telling you a similar tale of death, or how they have experienced the death of a loved one can begin to drill a hole in your patience. We all need to bond, and knowing others have gone through similar events can help, but keep it short and try not to have the grieving person consoling your past loss.

Can’t we talk about happy stuff?
My last time to see Dad.


I am guilty of both trivializing the situation and death stories. Confessing this is to help you think before you too recreate the same scenario.

The third taboo is don't take with you a sad spirit in visiting the dying or the loved ones of death. Respectful, reverent, but despair and depression should be held in check.

Remember, that if you feel compelled to go see someone in these situations, please go, don’t isolate the family, but try to use proper etiquette in the situations. The best rule is to be as normal as possible, if you are joker, and I am the silliest of them all, then tone it down, but by all means visit with a smile and know that humor in these situations can be helpful, --tasteful humor.

I deal with tense moments by using humor and I laugh when I am nervous. If you can make someone smile, no matter what they are going through then I think you have done a good deed.

Everyone likes a good story about the person who is in the process of leaving or has left, these are the words of comfort that heal. If you don’t know the person well enough to tell one, then you might be one of those who should send a card.

I have known folks dying that keep it a secret because they don’t want their last days to turn into a circus. Sometimes just having a normal routine, quietly fading away from people’s attention makes for a peaceful way to die. Plus, you don’t have to put up with a house full of fried chicken.

Although, I like fried chicken.

Will I document my long goodbye like Farah Fawcett? Only if I look as good, otherwise, I might document my end with an actress to play the role of me.

I will go out with humor and sour pusses will be banned. Life is too short and too precious to waste the last scraps on folks I don’t like or don’t know.

Please don’t hesitate to minister to a grief-stricken family, but just make sure you do it knowing what the right etiquette is for their situation.

In the words of unknown, whoever he is, “It's not that life is too short, it's just that you're dead for so long.”

If you don’t survive the week, see you in the afterlife!

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