Posted in Death & Mortality Series

Caitlin Doughty on death positivity, grief, and deaths that are not beautiful.

Caitlin Doughty is one of the most obvious faces of death positivity and the Order of the Good Death.  And she wrote a really good blog post that I only just found out about:

Death Positivity in the Face of Grief

Any bolding in the following quote is mine, for emphasis:

I met my partner when I was 34. He was different. I was different. Instead of looking at each other with that half-cautious raised eyebrow, slightly uncomfortable thing people give you when you’re just being your normal strange self, we relaxed around each other. We spoke the same language. Our early courtship days were full of discussions on religion, fears of death, the cultural intersections of personal loss and addiction. We talked about death a lot. The first time I saw him naked, I told him he had a great body. He said, without missing a beat, “thanks. It’s a rental.”

Eight years ago, I watched him die. He drowned on a beautiful, ordinary, fine summer day.

My understanding of death as a natural process did not help me. My familiarity with death rituals and funerary art and the darker, harder aspects of life did not make his death – or my grief – any easier. Accepting that death happens can’t make death okay. Not Matt’s death, and not deaths that many in this world see.

I don’t think it’s intentional, but I think a lot of what we have in mind when we think of death positivity is death that happens at the end of a normal, natural, expected western lifespan. In those kinds of deaths, you get to be sad, yes. But it makes more sense, in addition to that sadness, to lean on our ideas about the cycles of life, of the beauty in a life lived well. Death positivity feels really congruent in the face of those kinds of deaths.

But that’s not the only way we die.

Sometimes death is not beautiful. Sometimes death is not normal. Sometimes death is wrong.

Caitlyn Doughty, “Death Positivity in the Face of Grief”‘, Order of the Good Death

I am really glad she is writing about things like this.

The topic reminds me in some ways of my recent post, Everyone’s Death Belongs to Them Alone: What Octopuses and Hospice Can Have in Common.

Except that I was mostly dealing with the ethical and power-related issues involved in working in the hospice or other parts of the death industry.  And she is dealing with the topic on a more personal level.  But both of us are trying to get at something about the way that standard death positivity alone can fail people. 

The common theme I noticed 

Another quote from her article:

There’s a weird, clanging disconnect when we try to apply what we know as death positive people into the gaping open wound of death itself, especially the “out of order” kinds. Accidents and natural disasters can’t be treated as a “natural process.” Hate crimes, gender-based violence, deaths hastened by lack of access to health care, death created by acts of war or targeted genocide – we can’t claim those deaths as beautiful. We can’t use our standard language here. Talking about these kinds of death – and the grief that comes with them – is one of the last real taboos.

What I hear from people grieving losses from these kinds of death is that being friendly with death – even being deeply interested in it as a cultural exploration – feels wholly irrelevant to their grief. A mother whose 14 year old son was killed by a drunk driver told me recently that the death positive movement felt “too hip to be of use.” That the art, the cafes, the memes about day of the dead, and roman crypts, and bat tattoos felt flippant in the face of what they were living.
I hate that. And, I get it. Without meaning to, we can alienate or injure people going through some of the hardest times of their lives.

Caitlin Doughty, “Death Positivity in the Face of Grief”, Order of the Good Death

Again, I am glad she is writing all this.  As a funeral home director, I’m sure she sees more than her fair share of these situations.  And I have always admired her ability and willingness to go deeper than a shallow understanding of death positivity would allow.  She may have helped define death positivity as a movement, but she thinks for herself.  I may not always agree with her, but I always learn something from her.

And while people may like to caricature her, and the movement she is associated with, as a goth kid who doesn’t understand Real Death?  In reality, despite all the images associated with her in people’s heads, when it comes to dealing with death and grief she is extraordinarily sensitive to the experiences of other people.  She doesn’t shy away from difficult topics and difficult situations.  She doesn’t go in for easy answers.  If you are walking in the dark, she is someone you want by your side.  And she will

Anyway, in the wake of the antisemitic massacre at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, I find her blog post to be more relevant than ever.  I don’t quite understand how I never saw it until now, but I am glad to have found it.  Like many good posts, it makes you think, and gives you more questions than answers.

Also I had no idea that she lost a partner to drowning.  I know this must have happened a long time ago, but my heart goes out to her.  I can’t imagine.

Another blog post by the same author, worth reading:

What Death Positive is NOT

For the first few years I was an advocate for reform in the death industry, I used phrases like “death awareness” and “death acceptance” to describe the movement I was a part of. After all, these were the terms used since the 1970s by scholars and practitioners.

I became “death positive” almost by accident. It started with a tweet, asking why we had movements like body positivity and sex positivity, but we couldn’t use that same umbrella to be forward thinking about our own deaths. People began to respond to the tweet, and the term took off. As an advocate, you go where the enthusiasm and momentum take you, and the term death positivity was challenging and necessary.

I would never tell you to self-identify as death positive. Even if you share all of our principles (laid out here), and support our advocacy, that may not mean you want to align with the movement. That’s fair! But I’ve noticed some misconceptions about the movement’s purpose and values lately, and I want to make sure our stance is clear.

Caitlin Doughty, “What Death Positive Is Not”, Order of the Good Death

This post is part of my Death & Mortality Series.  Please read my introduction to my Death & Mortality series if you can, to understand the context I write this in.  Thank you.

Posted in Being human, death, family, joy

My cat has scattered my dad’s memorial shrine again.

There’s very little he’ll leave alone, if given the chance.

My father's memorial shrine, with the picture knocked off-kilter, only one rock out of dozens, and a few of his childhood belongings including a small denim treasure bag and a couple wooden toy swords. The slide rule is not visible, and the other slide rule is missing. Lots of things are missing or moved from where they should be.
My father’s memorial shrine, with the picture knocked off-kilter, only one rock out of dozens, and a few of his childhood belongings including a small denim treasure bag and a couple wooden toy swords. The slide rule is not visible, and the other slide rule is missing. Lots of things are missing or moved from where they should be.

But the more I think about it… I like having a memorial shrine, I will put it back together again, but the cat will knock it over again unless I buy some museum putty or something, which I’m not sure I’m willing to do.

And the more I think about it, the more fitting it is that my dad’s things are sometimes all over the house, reminding me of him in everyday life.

I sleep with his rocks in my bed.

I wear his clothing.

I find things he owned everywhere.

I use his tools.

I’ve said before that objects are my best form of communication.  With my father, this is true.  All of his things don’t just each remind me of him. Each one had a specific relation to him.

Taken together, they point back to who he was with the precision of a laser beam.

And they will do that whether they are properly arranged on the shrine or scattered everywhere by the cat.

And I love remembering my father.  I love finding him in my current life, in who I have become.  I love relating to him in an ongoing way even though he is dead.  Because who he was can’t be erased and his influence on the world still exists and will always exist.

I don’t idealize him the way some people do when someone dies, though.  I remember the worst parts about him.  But I don’t feel like I’d be remembering him if I did otherwise.  It would feel like an insult to his memory to turn him into an image of something he never was.

But I also don’t feel the horrible feelings most people expect with grief, for the most part.  I feel like he is still in my life, just not present.  His things remind me of who he was, and his influences and actions ensure he’s still around in everything I do.  I still have an ongoing relationship with him.  Most of the time I remember him with joy.

Bottom line is, I love my father.  And maybe sometimes overzealous kittens make you put things in perspective.  Remembering my father is not confined to one part of the house, it is integrated into my life.  Memorial shrines are a good thing, don’t get me wrong, but having them disrupted can make you think.

 

Posted in culture, family

It’s not a cowboy hat or an adventurer hat or a costume.

People react a lot to my hats.

dadhatanother
Mel wearing a brown brimmed hat I wear all the time.

Maybe it’s because I’m in Vermont.  I don’t know.  People come up with a lot of weird meanings for my hat.  They think it’s a cowboy hat.  Or an adventurer hat.  Or some kind of costume.  It’s not any of the above.  It’s my father’s hat.

Maybe it’s an Okie thing.  People wear hats.  Wearing hats has specific meanings I can’t put into words easily.  I can look back in generations of family photographs and find people wearing similar hats, similar clothes.

ancestors with hats
Some of my Okie ancestors, with hats.

My father always wore a hat.  But he wore them for different reasons.

One of my favorite memories of my father and his hats was the way he’d wear it when he was headed out to do something important.  He might still be wearing his usual jeans and shirt, but the hat meant things were important and he was dressing up.  You could tell by how deliberately he put it on.

And he wore these hats as if the hats grew out of his head.

I saw hats in family photos, hats on family members, I saw the way people treated their hats, the way they touched their hats, the way they wore their hats.  Hats are important in my family and culture.

Ron holding baby Mel.
My dad in one of his hats holding me as a baby.

Dad squatting in woods
My dad squatting in the woods in one of his hats.

When my father died, he sent me a lot of his hats, and a lot of his shirts and suspenders.  I began wearing his clothes, or his style of clothes, every day, including his hats.

People told me for the first time in my life I looked comfortable in my own skin.

Me in my dad's clothes
Me wearing my dad’s clothes and hat, feeling utterly natural.

It wasn’t a conscious thing.

But the clothes started looking like they grew on me, the same way they looked like they grew on him, the same way similar clothes look like they grew on many of our relatives who dress similarly.

I started feeling more connected to him.

It sounds like a cliché, but maybe some things are clichés for a reason:  Wearing his clothes made me able to feel connected to him, I found the parts of me that he left deep inside of me when I wasn’t looking.  It wasn’t about how I looked in the clothes, it was about how I felt in them.  I felt connected to him, connected to my family, connected to my culture.  I felt things that have no words, no names, more depth than you’d imagine from a set of clothing.

But then I always connected to the world well through objects and the connections between them.

And, it turns out, so did my father.

I continue to discover him inside of me in ways I could’ve never imagined.

I continue to discover the things he has passed down to me without word or instruction.

And those things, that love, are the most valuable things of all.  They form connections and bonds between people.  They’re important.

Photo on 3-2-18 at 2.58 PM #3
Mel slouched over in bed wearing my dad’s clothes and hat, with my cat Igor looking on.

orangeshirtdadhat
Mel wearing one of my dad’s orange shirts and hats.

So when you see me in any of my dad’s hats.  It’s not a costume.  It’s not a cowboy hat.  It’s not an adventurer hat.  It’s a connection to things I didn’t even know were inside me, between me and my dad, between me and my family, between me and my culture.  It’s remembrance and love but it’s so much more.

People are often taught to view clothing as superficial and vain.  To view objects as just meaningless dead things.  But clothing can tell you a lot about where you come from.  It can connect you to your roots, however loving, uncomfortable, and complicated those roots might be.  It can be a reminder of who you really are.

I’m glad I wear my father’s hats.