How do I deal with death?
December 10, 2007 9:36 PM   Subscribe

I've reached my late 20s without ever facing death. How do I deal with death when I know I will face it sooner or later?

I've never even had a dead pet--my childhood cat is still chugging along at 15, although he's getting sick now and I'm terrified at the thought of his death. If the idea of a pet passing away scares me that much, I'm very worried at how I will react to a family member or friend dying. I sometimes have very real-seeming dreams about getting "the call"--that my sisters are dead, that my fiance is dead, that my parents or grandparents are dead. In the most recent one, I had to roll over and wake my fiance to make sure he was still breathing.

I'm currently on anti-depressants for SAD and physical symptoms of depression (I'm generally a happy person); I'm not a big believer in therapy doing anything for me that I can't work through myself. I don't even know if this is a problem or if this is a normal fear that people have. I know, though, that I've never had to face the death of anyone I know or care about. Everyone I know has been through at least the death of a grandparent, if not more.

How can I learn to deal with this, and what can I expect when someone dies? I really, honestly do not know what happens or what I am supposed to do or what etiquette requires. I need this explained to me in the way a child is explained when his first pet or grandparent dies. How does a funeral go, what's a wake, am I supposed to go home and for how long, that kind of thing. What do you wish you would have known when you first faced death? I think the mystery is the main thing making me worry.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (25 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Previously. Related.
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posted by disillusioned at 10:00 PM on December 10, 2007

Fear of death is not an uncommon anxiety. My suggestion is less practical, but I would say that it might be helpful to get a conceptual grasp of death by reading what others have had to say about it. Good places to start:

Plato's Apology

Montaigne's essay Of Practice (Donald Frame translation if possible)

More general collections:

The Oxford Book of Death (edited by DJ Enright)

The Art of Growing Older: Writers on Living and Aging (edited by Wayne C. Booth)

Western Attitudes Toward Death (by Philippe Aries)
posted by slow, man at 10:08 PM on December 10, 2007

I don't mean this to sound flippant, but you'll get over it when you get over it. All those little disappoints in your life related to feelings of loss are nature's way of preparing you for this. As painful as it may be at the time, losing little Fluffy to pancreatic cat cancer will likely pale in comparison to the death of a friend or a parent. Or, god forbid, much worse.

It's something all of us go through at one time or another. And, if it makes you feel any better, I haven't found that experiencing "more" death makes it any easier.
posted by dhammond at 10:12 PM on December 10, 2007

Forgot to mention: you could always spend time with seniors at a nursing home or similar environment. You may feel attached to some of these people over time, and it might be useful if only for (ultimately selfish) reasons of experiencing death.
posted by dhammond at 10:14 PM on December 10, 2007

Death is like any other milestone in life, it's no different from a 1st birthday, graduation party, wedding, or retirement. Sure, it can be sad, and you can expect plenty of consolations being passed around, but keep in mind that a funeral is gathering of those whose lives were touched in some way by the departed and everyone there has fond memories of them. Think of it like the end of a great movie when everyone you saw it with gets a chance to talk about their favorite scenes, only that was the only showing and no one else will ever be able to take part in the magic that you witnessed. It's bittersweet.

I watched "Waking Life" last night and this passage regarding acceptance of death struck a chord with me. Also, this song helped me through a sad time not too long ago. Hope this helps a bit (hiccup).
posted by waxboy at 10:23 PM on December 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Finally, this may give you a taste.
posted by waxboy at 10:35 PM on December 10, 2007

It's actually ironic you ask this question today--my aunt passed exactly two years ago. Anyway, about your question...

How can I learn to deal with this, and what can I expect when someone dies?

You learn to deal with it like anything: through experience. I wish I was kidding, but I'm not. Death is, unfortunately, not something you can really prepare for. You learn the ropes, such as what to do to close that chapter in your life, so to speak, but it's never something you can be fully prepared for or get fully used to.

When someone dies, you can expect some sort of feeling to wash over you. Some people get angry, some sad, some go numb, some combine them; I tend to go numb, and go into full reaction-mode: What do we need to do? What can I do to make things go smoothly? So on and so forth. When my aunt passed, I spent a lot of time making Christmas cookies and doing various other household things, which really helped my mom out. I really connected with the frosting. By "connected" I mean "I ate a lot of it."

You can expect a lot of people crying around you. How you deal with that is up to you.

You can expect a real rollercoaster of emotion as people remember the deceased. Happy times will be brought up, but will quickly degenerate into tears as the realization washes over you that they're gone and they're not coming back. The more time that passes from the time of death, the more those memories become less of a jolt, and more of a passing interest; maybe a tear or a laugh here or there--I just now recalled when my aunt sent 17-year-old me to a party with wine coolers--but mostly, you'll acknowledge it, and move on.

I really, honestly do not know what happens or what I am supposed to do or what etiquette requires.

Honestly, there's no real etiquette. You're not expected to adhere to a strict code if your [insert human familiar to you here] drops dead. Someone you knew died. They're the ones who're the asshats if they give you shit about etiquette.

Receiving guests at a wake/funeral: Thank them for coming, tell them it means a lot. Hugs. Tears and tissues. Food afterward for those close to the family (and alcohol--we're Irish and Italian).

How does a wake go/what is it?

A wake is for people to pay their respects. It's more public than a funeral, which is usually only for family and close friends. People come by, maybe say a prayer or take a moment in front of the casket/box of ashes/urn, and then a lot of talking happens, mostly like "oh my god, this sucks, I really need a gin and tonic and half a chocolate cake" or various reminiscing by family and friends. Then comes the actual funeral.

How does a funeral go? Well, I can only speak for the Roman Catholic ones, since those are the only ones I've experienced.

Basically, the casket is brought in by the pallbearers up to in front of the altar. The officiant performs a mass, some people may read from the Bible or favorite poetry, or short writings they made themselves, and the casket is carried to the hearse, where the funeral party makes a long train of vehicles to the cemetery. If the person who passed is a uniformed person (police officer, etc), there will be various living uniformed people being flamboyant alongside the funeral train.

At the cemetery, words are said, then the deceased is laid to rest in its grave. This part is nice. It provides closure, at least for me.

As for things I wish I'd known: even if you're the rock that everyone leans on for emotional support, it's really OK to ask to be listened to. It's hard to be consumed with grief. It really is. You may not really consider how other people around you feel about things, you may not really consider what you're doing, and others may not either.

Another thing I wish I'd known: Don't put up with people's bullshit, especially if the death in question is well-publicized. You don't have to accept help, or condolences, or anything from anyone. If you want to be left alone, make that known.

I apologize for the length of this, but I hope I helped shed some light for you. It's not really something that can be looked up in a textbook, and is a very individual thing, but there you go.
posted by Verdandi at 10:35 PM on December 10, 2007 [2 favorites]

You'll deal with it when and how you deal with it. Not all deaths you face will effect you the same way, so there is little point in worrying about the 'way' in which you will deal with it when it comes.

When I was 18, my grandmother died and my family dog died in the same month. My grandmother's death passed unnoticed; my dog's death devastated me. This last month, two clients died in unexpected and tragic circumstances. Again, one effected me deeply and the other barely at all.

It's tempting to try and predict how you will cope with certain deaths based on how you value the person when they are alive. Again, I'd suggest there isn't much point to it. Much in the same vein as the phrase 'a tree's best measured when it's down', a person's real significance to you may only become clear post mortem.
posted by tim_in_oz at 11:09 PM on December 10, 2007

Have you ever had a friend move away? Maybe you meant to stay in contact but you both forgot and never spoke again? Death's like that. The person just isn't around anymore. And if you believe in an afterlife, it's even less significant.
posted by hjo3 at 11:35 PM on December 10, 2007

I'm kind of in the same boat. Grandparents are dead, but I was out of the country and theyw ere quite old- it was a blessing in some ways.
I'd say relax. This kind of thing self-corrects. Just hope it doesn't balance the scales all in one weekend.
posted by flowerofhighrank at 12:02 AM on December 11, 2007

What do you wish you would have known when you first faced death?

The same thing I wish I'd known when I first faced life - time heals all wounds. At least partially. At least the wounds I've had.

You aren't always going to be able to rationalize this ahead of time, unfortunately. I recently lost my grandmother, and she was rather old, lived a great life, I'd known that she would pass relatively soon (people can only live to be so old) etc. etc... But now that it's actually happened, it has really broken my heart. I know, though, that as time goes on, it will be easier and easier for me to think of her and feel warm fuzzies instead of sadness.

Try to channel this fear of what will happen when people are gone into a real appreciation of them while they're here. One of the worst feelings is to lose someone and think, "I should have spent more time with them, I should have told them how much they meant to me", etc. Having things set right in this area will give you incredible peace of mind when you do lose the person.
posted by FortyT-wo at 2:34 AM on December 11, 2007

One thing I, and others, do is mentally act out these situations and experience whatever emotions may come in a lighter form to "immunize" ourselves against tragic events. You might try to watch films heavily laced with death and tragic circumstances to experience some of the emotions so you can meter them better when things actually occur. There's nothing like exposure to prepare the mind.
posted by wackybrit at 2:59 AM on December 11, 2007

volunteer at a hospice. they'd be delighted to have you. or read joan didion's "year of magical thinking," which is a lovely book about the year after her husband's sudden death and her daughter's impending death.

there are some things you won't know how to deal with until they happen--the birth of your first child, for example. nature is amazing. you'll be in shock at first. it won't seem real. then you'll start crying a lot, often for no reason, because you dropped a pen or can't find your keys, but also because you find that person's favorite sweater in the dryer when you finally get home or have to cancel their credit cards. this is normal. after a week or so, it starts to get better.

everybody copes differently, of course, but you will be surprised by what you can handle. your whole life has been silently preparing you for this sort of thing.
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:33 AM on December 11, 2007

You cry a lot and your heart aches. And then your heart keeps aching, but you only cry every now and then. And then your heart aches but you don't cry. And then your heart aches a bit less. And then one day you realise your heart doesn't ache anymore, and maybe you cry about that for a while, and feel guilty. And then you don't feel guilty anymore. But you never stop missing them.
posted by The Monkey at 4:42 AM on December 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

Enroll in night classes at EMT school, then volunteer one or two shifts a week with an ambulance crew once you graduate. Not only will you be exposed to every imaginable flavor of death, you'll have the opportunity to directly influence it and, when you're lucky, keep it at bay for another day.

I'm not kidding, EMT school isn't terribly difficult, expensive (usually sub-$1000) or time consuming (if I remember right, it was 8 weeks of 3 day a week night classes, plus 100 hours of ride time and 40 hours of ER time), and the rewards are tremendous.
posted by saladin at 4:57 AM on December 11, 2007

The book The Undertalking, by Thomas Lynch is a pretty good set of essays on death,
posted by 4ster at 5:30 AM on December 11, 2007

Seconding The Year of Magical Thinking, which I've recommended a few times here for people who are grieving or trying to understand what it means to live and to die. No self-help. No cliches. No sentimentality and fake happy endings. But not a relentless funeral march either. It just tells it like it was and is.

When you have these thoughts and pre-occupations, are they centered around anything or anyone specific? Is there someone specific you are afraid of losing who is the focus of these anxieties? For many people, it's driven by the knowledge and terror of losing their parents. Depending on what kind of relationship you have with them, it might be possible to have a conversation about this. It doesn't have to involve indecorously bringing up their plans for dividing the estate- it could begin with an honest confession- "I love you and need you and I'm afraid of how I will cope without you." It may not go further than a hug after that, but even a single acknowledgment might help (and might help address the fear that the big things will be left unsaid). If a conversation or a statement like this is impossible, consider talking about it with a friend you trust- any thinking person beyond the age of 18 has certainly thought about the possibility and inevitability of death, their own and that of loved ones.

I don't think your worries are pathological, but if you feel like they are becoming overwhelming, intrusive, or impeding your ability to function, it's worth bringing them up with your therapist, particularly if it seems like they are tied to the terror of the future which is often characteristic of depression.

There's no easy consolation or glib assurance that everything will be easy. Contrary to the old saw, life does indeed throw things at you that you can't handle. But there are ways of helping yourself reckon with difficult things and make the reckoning- when it comes- a little bit less devastating.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 6:20 AM on December 11, 2007

In my case, it has varied by person / animal that has died. In some cases, it's been a relief; in other cases a shock. What's more interesting to me is this line:

I'm not a big believer in therapy doing anything for me that I can't work through myself.

By (my) definition, a good therapist should be a guide to help you work through things yourself. As an individual attempting objective self-analysis, you're likely going to have "blind spots" that it's very hard to analyze around. I say that as someone who is also introspective, but found having outside assistance very beneficial.
posted by lowlife at 6:29 AM on December 11, 2007

I think the mystery is the main thing making me worry.

The deaths of people and pets close to me have been the most unmooring, disorienting events of my life. I don't think there's anything I could have done to prepare for them.

I've found that the events of the funeral will sweep you along for several days. Don't worry about how you will react, whether you worry about over or under-reacting. When the time comes, you will just go through it. Family and friends will be going through it along with you. Together everyone moves the events along.

The worst part for me has been the gaping silence/absence of the person afterwards and is unlike anything else. It gets easier over time (months, years), but I haven't found that it goes away entirely. This may sound awful, but it's not, really. You get through it. It is unique though.

Joan Didion's book "The Year Of Magical Thinking" is the only thing I've read on death that captured anything of what it felt like for me. You might give it a try.
posted by DarkForest at 6:39 AM on December 11, 2007

There's lots and lots of good advice in this discussion. I especially agree with the idea that it will happen when it happens, and you'll have the right to feel and act then as you need to.

On your specific questions about "what happens" I think that wackybrit's comment makes a lot of sense. If you really don't know what all these things are, there are so many wonderful movies that will illustrate things for you.
posted by Robert Angelo at 6:49 AM on December 11, 2007

I would suggest Mitch Albom's "Tuesdays with Morrie". I had already faced the death of several people when I read it, but it still hit me rather hard, in a good way. It goes through both the feelings of the person who is dying and those of the narrator, which may be helpful to you in learning how these two people dealt with death.
posted by nursegracer at 7:51 AM on December 11, 2007

Play a Rogue-like game, for instance ADOM. Spend 100 hours building up your character, venturing ever deeper into the dungeons. Make one little mistake with a paralyzing slime, and then watch as the character you cared about is torn away from you, knowing that he is gone forever, and nothing will ever bring him back.
posted by Balna Watya at 8:05 AM on December 11, 2007

I am 29. My grandmother died a few months ago. Her funeral was my first. Even though I had "dealt with death" as a child, I still didn't know anything...

what to do
what to say
where to stand
where we were going next
why the preacher made me feel worse rather than better
how a house packed with people felt so empty
how my uncle could be so hateful to my mother

For some of those things, very kind people at the funeral home just put me where I needed to be and told me what I needed to do. For others, there are no good answers.

Also, grief is wily and persistent and it will not be denied. It does whatever it damn well pleases, and it does not follow a gameplan or a schedule. No matter how many times you "deal with death," when the rituals are through, you just have to settle in for the long dark, and cope with the pain in whatever way you can.

Lastly, the comments in this thread mirror people's behavior at funerals and wakes -- some are helpful and supportive, some make inappropriate jokes, and some are just asshats. Funeral Survival Skill #1: Ignore asshats.
posted by somanyamys at 11:45 AM on December 11, 2007

I have lost a lot of people close to me (and pets) through death. Like you, I was really scared of it. One thing I have learned - there is no way at all to prepare for it. You just can't do it. Another thing - time will heal you, it may take a long time, but it will. What is at the beginning an intense and unbearable pain will become less so as time goes by. It may never leave you. Thinking of my father and my grandparents and my friends and my dogs still makes my chest ache, I still miss them so much. But I can carry on with my life. And it has softened me. I care for people more and I'm grateful for things in my life. And I am happy that I can be there for others to help them through the pain and fear that they may not have yet experienced. One thing I noticed, that surprised me, is what C S Lewis says so nicely in A Grief Observed - No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. It does, it's scary and it's horrible. But it does get better. Knowing that this is the case (for myself at least) has helped to alleviate my extreme fear of death. It is going to happen and it is going to be heartbreaking. But no one is alone in this. We will all experience this and for the time being, I try to be strong for people who need me to be strong for them in their grief. Because I know that the time will come again someday when I will need people to be strong for me and I sincerely hope that I won't be alone. I know now that I won't.

So don't worry too much about it, there's nothing you can do anyway and when the time comes for you to have to deal with someone else's grief or your own, like others have said, you just do what you do. I don't know if there is a right or wrong way to deal with these things and often other people are stumbling along just as you are. Stick near to someone for support and let them guide you and you'll soon figure out whatever you need to know.
posted by triggerfinger at 1:48 PM on December 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

> How do I deal with death when I know I will face it sooner or later?

Why don't you volunteer at a hospice or go look at web sites of people who are grieving, or read books about grieving? That should assist in developing some insight.

As for dealing with it, probably no matter how much you prepare, you will be surprised what happens. It's just life and you have to feel it out as you go, whether you are apprehensive or not. Death is fairly taboo, and we are not wise about it. Use your fear to fuel some investigation, and learn from it. Then be prepared to be surprised anyway when it happens.

It's very different if someone dies at a reasonable age, young or "tragically" so how you feel will be extremely affected by that but also by how other people respond to it. I could give a lot of details about that, but I won't do it here publicly.
posted by Listener at 9:46 PM on December 17, 2007

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