The Word We Hide

No one dies anymore. And no one is dead. Last week, when I wrote about my parents’ deaths, the emails started up. It seems, according to the emails, that “death” and “dead” are no longer politically correct. If you only knew.

No one is born to stay. It’s not a dirty word.  You might prefer “pass,” “pass on,” “go home,” “go to their eternal reward,” or “shuffle off the mortal coil,” but all those things happen after the body dies.

What death is, however, is taboo. We hide it from our children. We pretend it doesn’t exist in our house. We die in hospitals. Death is more taboo than sex in our society, and because death is not as much fun as sex, most people buy into the “let’s not look at it and it will go away,” school of thought.

Several generations ago, children attended their grandparents at their death. Wakes were held in the living room, and family sat around a body, laid out in their best clothes, and held watch all night by praying or sitting in silence. If a child was old enough, he or she was generally pressed into service to wash a body after death and clothe it. This was a sacred ritual, done in silence or while singing hymns, and it allowed children and adults to see death, know it was coming and discuss the events around death. You don’t see a lot of that anymore. Too scary. Too gruesome. Better send the kids to play video games where they blow up “the enemy” or zombies.

Dan Somers (center) and band members, in Phoenix. From the Lisa Savidge website.

Dan Somers (center) and band members, in Phoenix. From the Lisa Savidge website.

We don’t talk about death and the young men we send to war. We send those men to kill people. Not on our land, of course. Far away. It’s not a video game. Our husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, daughters, sons–we send them to go kill people. And when they come back changed, we don’t want to talk about it. We expect them to find that most difficult of all emotional passageways–closure– and join life where they left off. “Get on with your life. You are home now,” is a fast answer. But not a good one.

For soldiers, there are two jarring realities. One day, each stranger could kill them or be an innocent bystander, and our loved ones make that decision and live with the consequences. The next day, they are back home settling squabbles over Barbies, sleepovers, whether a child should have a toy gun to play with, and school visits.

There are precious few resources to prepare families for the return of a soldier who has killed people and now is expected to be concerned with daily life. Most returning soldiers just struggle. Many of them, having survived killing people, cannot survive living with that knowledge. Our country is losing more veterans to suicide than to war. And suicide means choosing death over life.

The most-often question when we hear of suicide is “how?” when it should be “why?” We want the gory details we can do nothing about instead of the harder uncertainties we can’t deal with.

Daniel Somers told us. Daniel did two tours in Iraq, and could not fit back into life here in Phoenix. Daniel’s father, Howard, wants others to know about Daniels’ death, so I am talking about the death. There are vets in your life, too, and most likely, you just want them to get closure and get on with their lives. And they can’t.

Dan fronted his Phoenix band, Lisa Savidge. He had a wife. He had friends. But on June 10, this 30-year old vet killed himself. He was one of 22 vets who kill themselves every day. More than the number of children who died at Sandy Hook. But we look away. The Veterans Administration is supposed to handle that. They can’t. There are too many. The problems can’t be solved by a pat on the back and a pill.

Here’s what Dan wrote in his suicide note:

I really have been trying to hang on, for more than a decade now… In truth, I was nothing more than a prop, filling space so that my absence would not be noted. In truth, I have already been absent for a long, long time. . . . I am left with basically nothing. Too trapped in a war to be at peace, too damaged to be at war… This is what brought me to my actual final mission. Not suicide, but a mercy killing.

Dan did not pass on. He killed himself. He is dead. There is no neat wrap up for this story. And not for his family. But when I use the word “dead” I don’t use it lightly. And I’m not using some euphemism instead.

—Quinn McDonald knows about death. A long time ago, in another war, she knew a soldier who came home, but never came all the way home.