My call echoed in the room where my friend lay, unable to answer. He had cinched a belt around his neck and lowered himself to cut off the flow of oxygen to his brain. It may have been to see if it would intensify the sexual pleasure as he aroused himself, or perhaps he chose to go out of the world as he came in, naked and vulnerable. The phone rang and rang, an unanswered call. Another voice in our circle had been silenced.
His mother said that one of the often repeated questions throughout his teens and twenties had been, “What are we going to do about Steven?” That fateful night in December made the question even more salient, as loved ones struggled to navigate his unthinkable “shameful exit.” No one had a clear answer.
The deaths in our circle over the last twenty or so years have been the result of a dizzying array of circumstances—a broken back from a fall into an empty pool, a heart attack, pneumonia, a plane crash, an avalanche while extreme skiing, an overdose of OxyContin, and miscarriages. I had a recluse great aunt who was found in her bathtub three months after she died, surrounded by the bodies of her 15 cats who had been living off her flesh but had run out of food. It was a chilling scene. Strangely, most of the deaths have been immediate and unexpected. The youngest was four weeks in utero, the oldest, ninety-three. Each one carries its unique emotional baggage.
Steven’s death was particularly difficult and his family felt a need to protect him. “A choking accident” was the first story, which morphed quickly into people saying that he had purposefully hung himself. This explanation is still widely circulated and the stunning part of it is that suicide seemed one rung above auto-erotic asphyxiation on the ladder of acceptability, so some left it at that. Of course, no one really knows. Perhaps he did enter willingly into the space of death. The question is, why does it matter so much to us?
In this death-denying, grief-illiterate culture it is difficult to talk about any kind of loss, but isn’t it curious that some deaths are considered “worse” than others? We have an idea of a “good death” which includes being ninety something and drifting off peacefully and painlessly in your sleep after a long and meaningful life. And a “bad” death? Really, anything else– which sadly, ends up being almost everybody else.
What a strange narrative.
The pain of loss is the pain of loss, and complicating it with layers of judgment makes it so much harder for those who are left. Steven’s parents couldn’t talk about the death for fear of shame—their own and his. His siblings lost their ability to speak as well. The death was deemed “unacceptable.” He had unwittingly mingled two of our most taboo subjects, sex and suicide.
As humans, we naturally sort and rank many of our experiences. Consider how “acceptable” or “unacceptable” each of these deaths are to you: An elderly Eskimo man “exposes” himself, or walks out onto the tundra to die of hypothermia, because he no longer feels of use to his community; A celebrity dies from an overdose of prescription pain medication; A 28-year-old soldier is accidentally killed by someone in his own platoon in Afghanistan; An extreme athlete dies in a base-jumping accident; A 24-year-old man is ejected from a car on impact. He isn’t wearing a seatbelt; A 33-year-old woman who very much wants a family experiences her fourth miscarriage; A woman in India commits Sati, the ancient tradition of joining her husband in the funeral pyre as it is being burned. She believes it is her duty and obligation to join her husband; A tree falls on a 30 -year -old bicyclist while she is riding in the park; An 82-year-old man is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and wants to spare his family the emotional and financial burden. He jumps off of the Golden Gate Bridge; A 10-year-old boy is killed by a police officer who mistakes his plastic, toy gun for a real one; After suffering from depression for nearly a decade, a husband and father of two hangs himself; A 42-year-old man dies of HIV/AIDs; A woman undergoes all the possible treatments for cancer, including repeated and invasive surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation, and dies at 54.
In each of these cases, we call upon our own unconscious metrics to decide how to situate the loss. We often begin with the core value that life is good and death is bad. For some, the decision stays quite black and white—anyone who fights to live is good (cancer patient) and anyone who chooses death is bad (husband/father hanging himself). Most agree that a younger death is worse than and older one (10-year-old boy versus 98-year-old in her sleep). For others, the ranking is more nuanced. We assess constructs: intentionality–did they mean to do it or was it an accident (jumping off a bridge, miscarriages, bicyclist); perceptions of stupidity, negligence, or preventability (Afghanistan soldier, seatbelt use, kid with plastic gun, overdose, extreme athlete); we consider how the death is supported culturally (exposure, Sati, HIV); and the level of self-absorption versus acting out of generosity for another (husband/father hanging himself, man with Alzheimer’s, Eskimo). Some of us make judgments about the deceased’s character. Did the celebrity “deserve” his fate because he lived a life of excess? Are we only allowed to be truly sad when “good” people die? Does anyone actually feel “good” when a “bad” person dies? It is a complicated ethical dilemma.
So why does our manner of exiting matter so much? Perhaps it serves the perception of control. For instance, I would not jump off a 750’ cliff, or travel in a car without a seatbelt, or have unprotected sex with an HIV-positive person, or mix prescription drugs, and therefore these fates will not befall me. We can carry on with the illusion that we are safe because we would not take these risks. Or maybe it is an attempt to make sense of the mystery– good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. If I am “good” maybe I am immune. Or, maybe life and death are so overwhelming that we must decide, on a moment by moment basis how much we will feel, and for what and whom, because we don’t want to drown in the quicksand of overwhelming emotions. Perhaps there are other reasons.
It is evident, though, when we rank deaths this way that Steven’s death filters to the very bottom on the list of acceptability and his family’s grief becomes one that receives little expression or sympathy. His death may have been intentional, preventable, and it was certainly not culturally supported. It is hard to see his actions as a gesture of love, though maybe he thought they were. There have been judgments about his character. And yet it still hurts, for all those who love him.
It. Still. Hurts.
And instead of being offered a safe place for the expression of those feelings and a warm reception of the emotions, we receive awkward looks from well-meaning people who don’t know what to say.
Sensing the discomfort, we feel protective of our loved ones and withdraw further.
I believe that Steven waits, in the corners of our imagination, for us to re-write his story. He deserves more. And his loved ones deserve more. Steven was intensely bright and a little shy. He had discovered the band “YES” well before they became mainstream and went to as many shows as he could. He loved conspiracy theories and believed that we never landed on the moon and that 9-11 was an internal job. He played the electronic keyboard and had a voice like Bob Dylan. He believed in angels. His favorite Sundays were spent talking with his grandmother and he knew how to make amazing meatballs. Steven was hesitant about letting you in his circle, but once you earned his trust, he was generous of heart and spirit. He was a loyal friend and a good person.
The question remains, “What are we going to do about Steven?” And further, what are we going to do about all those other dead who populate our imaginations—those who are gone but still so present psychologically– who have been disenfranchised and judged? Those we miss but feel unable to talk about–the woman who overdosed on heroin, the teenager who got in the car with the wrong person, the uncle who drank himself slowly to death? Everyone who did not experience a socially sanctioned, “honorable” death. What to do?
We could just love them.
And we could just love each other.
We could tell their stories. And our own in relation to them.
We could consciously let go of judgment and forgive one another.
And we could allow mourning to be an opportunity to be more human to each other.
We could do that.
Kim Bateman, Ph.D. is the author of Crossing the Owl’s Bridge: A Guide For Grieving People Who Still Love (Chiron, 2016) and “Symbolmaking and Bereavement: The Temples at Burning Man” in And Death Shall Have Dominion (Interdisciplinary, 2015). She presented a TEDx talk called Singing Over Bones (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P3hibkFcld0) and serves as the Executive Dean of the Tahoe-Truckee Campus of Sierra College. Visit her website:http://www.kim-bateman.com for information on speaking/workshops, blog, and client services.