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Posts Tagged ‘dying’

Well. It’s the end of April, and as always at this time of year, my thoughts are with my mom. But instead of talking more about her, I’d like to talk about how our society deals with the issues of dying, death, and grief.

I was in college when my mom was diagnosed with an aggressive strain of breast cancer and later given a terminal diagnosis (meaning this cancer was going to kill her). I was struggling with what was going on, and most of my peers couldn’t really relate to my problems, so I decided I wanted to join a support group. I was on a college campus, so how hard could it be to find one?

There was no support group on campus. There was no support group in the Santa Cruz area. I found a grief support group at a local hospital, but I was only allowed to begin attending once my mom had died. No support was deemed necessary for dealing with the traumas associated with watching someone die slowly, apparently.

Eventually I gave up. I didn’t have a counselor on campus to talk to. I didn’t receive any support. About five months after my mom died, my voice teacher, who was as close to a mentor as I had in college, was berating me for not having it together as much as a fellow student whose mom had also died. As you might imagine, this didn’t exactly do wonders for my morale. Grieving, I learned then, was not acceptable, even though I was functional and doing all the basic things I needed to be doing (going to class, completing my assignments, feeding myself, etc.).

don't speak

This is all bullshit. When people have loved ones diagnosed with terminal illnesses, they need support during the time before death. That time is just incredibly wretched. Bad news streamed into my life in a steady torrent, and watching my mom suffer while I was completely helpless to do anything about it squeezed my heart in an unforgiving grip. The uncertainty of when hung over everything else, a promise of future misery.

Grief doesn’t have a timeline. Grief doesn’t disappear overnight, or in a month, or in five months, or in years. And grief affects people differently. When someone is dealing with something like this, processes to get support should be made simple, not complex and unclear and obviously involving much jumping through hoops. Instead people have unrealistic expectations and they simply don’t want to talk about it.

Grief takes the time it takes. Sometimes it crashes into your life and all you can do is try to hold on. Other times it creeps in stealthily, quietly, and you wonder what’s wrong with you and why you don’t feel more than you do. Years may pass and suddenly it jumps out at you when you least expect it. And it gets mixed in with all sorts of emotional experiences: fear, anger, relief, shock, numbness, hysteria, throwing yourself into your work, the ache of emptiness, recklessness, hopelessness, a gnawing sensation of searching for something.

There is no way to sugarcoat the truth. Having a loved one diagnosed with a terminal illness really sucks. Losing someone you love really sucks. Being reminded of your own mortality really sucks. And dealing with our society’s stupidity about these things makes it suck even more. After all, everyone dies at some point–why does it have to be a subject shrouded in silence?

And this doesn’t even get into the way our society treats those who are seriously ill and/or dying. Luckily we have people like Jay Lake documenting both the ways our society gets it wrong, and his experiences dealing with cancer.

We can do better.

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Last week I read John Green’s new novel, The Fault in our Stars.

This is not a review.

After I had read the first twenty-one pages, I told my husband this was going to be the best book I’d read all year.

A little while later I went to the bookstore and bought the hard copy because if Amazon ever disappears and I no longer have access to my e-books, not having this novel would be a particular tragedy. Also, I wanted to hold the tangible printed version in my hands.

When I was twelve, I started writing a novel from the point of view a girl about my age who had been diagnosed as HIV positive. I didn’t get very far with it, but it has lived on in my mind ever since. So when I heard the premise of The Fault in our Stars, I knew I had to read it. It is a novel from the point of view of a girl of sixteen who has terminal cancer. It is a heart sister to the novel I never wrote, that I couldn’t write, and the fact that it exists makes me breathe more freely.

This novel is not a sappy issue book that makes you want to yell at it as if it is conscious before you hurl it across the room and mope.

This novel is not an easy book to read. I can only imagine what it must have been like to write.

This novel is not perfect. Our protagonist says at one point that the movie V for Vendetta is a boy movie. I completely disagree. Of course, one could argue that this slight blemish makes the book even more perfect.

If you talk like either of the two main characters and/or think about the things they think about, I want to be your friend. We can go to a coffee shop every week and have deep existential conversations in between making ironic statements that have us internally rolling on the floor even though on the outside we only cue our mirth with a certain type of smile. If you don’t live nearby, you should move here. It will be worth it.

Also, when you worry about what your life means or may mean or may not mean, I will hold your hand, if you will hold mine.

In the meantime, enjoy this novel. Its construction is a miracle to behold. It has layers upon layers, a story within a story (and then some). It plays with language. It is a brave book. It talks about things that matter that maybe most people don’t want to talk about, like death and dying and illness and meaning and love that lasts through it all. It does not flinch away.

This book punched my heart even while it fed it. Or it filled it up till brimming even while it broke it.

Thank you, John Green.

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