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.

36 thoughts on “The Word We Hide

  1. One of my granddaughters is particularly enchanted by life and death, it is, of course, a miracle to her. What makes living things work and what is left when life leaves and the dead body is all that is left. A dead flower, the skull of a baby bird or a fish skeleton is handled with the utmost respect. Although she knew it to be dead she asked if part of the bird was alive somewhere. I talked about the sound waves that were created by it’s call (Dad is a sound recordist so at 5 she knows about these things) and we talked about how it ripples on. Everything we do ripples on . . . everything, but the bird itself is dead.

    Your last statement, wise, so wise. And some wars don’t involve guns and sometimes the soldiers are standing with their heartache right in front of us.

  2. Now I lay me down to sleep
    I pray the Lord my soul to keep
    If I should die before I wake
    I pray the Lord my soul to take

    To truly live a full life it should be served strong and bold, not watered down like weak tea.

  3. Oh, Quinn, again you make us face the “uncomfortable”. Death is the ultimate taboo today. Having served for 23 yrs as a Pastoral assistant, I’ve seen many I love deeply finish their journey, whether two hours old, or 95 years, we always suffer at the ultimate loss of their presence in our lives. When my Mother died two years ago, one of my daughters, who were with me, said ‘it was the most scary and the .t mostholy experience of my life.”

  4. I should have written last week to say thank you for your post about your parents and their deaths. Both of my parents died last year and there were minimal deathbed reconcilations. I realized that, as an adult, I have been with my grandmother, father, and mother when they died; everyone in my family that has died except my grandfather. My then 2yo daughter was also with my grandmother and I wish all of my children could have been with my mom and dad when they died. I truly feel like these were holy moments, full of a variety of emotions. Thank you for sharing your story with us.

  5. Every child should be taught about death. An easy way is genealogy: every life that begins also has an ending. Finding that ending can be part of the puzzle of solving a person’s life. Anyone who has a pet has an obligation to also attend death when they help to ease the lifelong friend to his or her end.
    What people don’t seem to realize is that loss is cumulative: every person’s death diminishes us a little bit and every time you attend a death, you lose a bit of your own self even while you gain a better understanding of the circle of life.
    The very sad thing about death in the military is that, even today, seeking psychiatric help to deal with death (killing someone, witnessing the death of a friend) is taboo: it shows up in their records, medication to ease the counseling can cause them to be removed from combat/flying/active status, which is a financial burden as well as a badge of shame. The other thing is that the medical community is finding that many of our combat vets who are being told they have PTSD actually are suffering from the long term effects of concussion! So in addition to being shamed for having a psychological condition, their physical ailment is being ignored or dismissed!
    When our parents and grandparents were in a war zone (WWI, WWII, the Korean War, Vietnam), the transition time from war zone to peace zone was longer; they were encouraged to join or form veteran’s groups so they’d have a place to go talk to others who understood their problems, but, in addition, most simply didn’t survive the kinds of injuries our veterans have to face daily. A series of concussions would interfere with their ability to function in war and they’d be killed. Now, they rotate in and out of war zones and we’re creating a generation of semi-functional people who are simply NOT being treated. Funding for the VA is abysmal: my husband is a 21 year vet but he’ll never be able to use the VA because there is an income exclusion! Only the poor can use the VA, and most of the treatment is 20 years plus behind current medical awareness. We don’t value our military except for photo ops for politicians. Suicide has always been a problem in the military and it’s simply ignored.

    • Much of what you said is said and true. I don’t think that the Vietnam war soldiers had transition time from war zone to peace zone. Not longer than the airplane flght home, where they were not cheered. The Vietnam war brought war into our living room, and people reacted to it. Too bad we got tired and just avoid thinking about our young men who come home damaged and forgotten, past, as you said, the photo opp.

  6. My father and my mother in law died in hospice or a nursing home. As family we were offered the opportunity to wash their bodies. I washed my father’s body. My husband’s family could not think of washing their mother so I offered to do it despite having a poor relationship with their mother in life. About half way through my husband’s sister joined me and we cried together as we worked.
    My grandchildren don’t like to talk about when I am dead. But we do anyway. I tell them that death is a part of living and that unfortunately everything dies. We talk about the things they will inherit, where those things came from and why they are important. We talk about why it’s important to make memories and represent our family in a way that will make us proud. We do all that because they are our legacy. They need to know that what will be left of us will depend on what they remember about us when we are dead. I’m confident they will tell our stories to another generation. I am going to live forever.

  7. This post brought tears to my eyes. You are right, we don’t talk about death, or very rarely. We don’t like to use the words and we don’t like to discuss what is an actual reality for everyone. Thanks for writing such poignant words.

  8. As a sometimes end-of-life doula, nothing makes me madder and deeply sadder than avoiding words like “dead” and “death”, than trying to dress up a perfectly natural act by calling it something deemed prettier. That’s one thing I love about Environmental Art pieces (think: Andy Goldsworthy, for example, or Christo and Jeanne-Claude or Ana Mandeita) – they remind us that life is transitory and ephemeral, that death is an inherent part of life, that everything comes to an end and dies. You know, in the Victorian era, it was customary to take photos of the dead – postmortems, they called them. Sometimes I think we’ve gotten too damn prissy for our own good.

    I am sorry about your soldier. That pain you speak of – that grief – that’s one thing that never dies. Recedes, maybe, but never totally dies. xo

  9. Wise words, true words, honest words Quinn… and words can be so important. I do read your words. I do think about your words. I do wish I knew more of the English language to give a proper comment or even write you a long email. But people who love words, like you and me, read between the lines. I’m sure you do. Big hug from Holland.

    • Your English is a lot better than my Dutch! Even my German is rusted, and I have to check the spelling for many words. But reading between the lines takes no book, just a lot of heart. Thank you, Marit.

  10. Your recounting of Dan Somers suicide affected me this morning. I listened to some songs from his band, I thought of his wife. If you know them please tell them someone sat for many minutes today with sadness for what has happened. After facing death thru cancer I find so much joy in the sun on my face, the birds’ songs, the vast blueness of the sky, I am so sorry that Dan and all the others have already walked into such darkness that death is wanted.

    • It’s a sad thought to know that Dan couldn’t get up some mornings because he didn’t know who he was supposed to be to each member of his family. It was a high price to pay for his family.

  11. Death isn’t entirely banished; there’s hospice care even at home now. In the past two years I’ve seen it work more times than I wish I had.

    Every suicide is the end of somebody’s war, whether or not they were ever in uniform.

  12. I think war is horrible and men should not be confronted with it in anyway! But I know that is an utopia and since there is a world there is war. Hopefully there will be a time when men will be wiser and there will be no more suffering!
    Talking about death, dead, dying should not be a taboo in anyway. Like Jo said it is as much a natural part of life as birth and breathing. Death on itself is not horrible but things like suffering, cruelty, diseases, abuse of power, lack of respect for another life….those are horrible things around death and dying.
    I am not my body,
    I am not my thoughts
    I am not my feelings
    I am not my words,
    but I am far beyond all that………
    sending out warm thoughts to all of them who are suffering in this world

  13. Oh Quinn, I read this and it touched my heart immensely. I live in Northern Ireland were it is still thought of as normal to bring a loved one’s body home as soon as it is prepared for the funeral. Here we bury the body within 3 days so once the person dies, the funeral parlour takes them away to prepare for the funeral and they are brought back to the house to ‘wake’ that night or the next day depending on the time of death,until they leave the house for the funeral. Friends, family, work colleagues and neighbours all call to the house to pay their respects to the person and their family. It is not such a sombre occasion as we talk about how the person was, get to catch up with people whom we don’t see that often and the younger family members all pitch in keeping everyone provided with tea/coffee, snacks, lunch etc. so everybody is involved. My children (17 & 9) have been taught about death from a very early age and understand that it is what happens to us all, no-one lives forever (yet!) it’s is a sad occasion as we love the people so much but unfortunately is it inevitable and will eventually happen to us all. I Personally cannot understand how someone can go through life without preparing for death financially as this causes so much distress to all who are left to pick up the pieces, the debts and extortionate funeral costs. So if you really love your family you should prepare yourself (financially) for these costs so that it makes the loss so much more about love rather than worry and stress about how things are going to be paid for. Love & Blessings, Sharon xx

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