The Ghost That Taught Us How to Talk Openly About Death
In a society that shuns openly speaking about death and dying, it’s hard to find words to grapple with the terror of the unknown and the threat of imminent grief. It can be even harder to find a space in which to utter them.
When my mom, Holly, was flown to the ICU on a medevac during an acute exacerbation of her idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, I was terrified that she would die there.
I wanted to work through that fear, but it felt like a curse to even utter the question, “What if my mom dies?” I asked it aloud only once, albeit quietly, as I was nestled safely in my husband’s arms. “She’s not going to die,” he assured me.
While his response was intended to comfort me, strangely, it felt like a door was shutting in my face.
Of course, I didn’t really want to entertain the thought that my mom might die. So, a closed door made it easier to turn around and walk away. It was much easier to think, “Of course she’ll be fine. Don’t even go there. Say no to fear, to vulnerability, and definitely to death.”
Having a “no dying allowed” attitude seemed like the brave thing to do at the time. Suppressing my fear allowed me to function as a caregiver. It also might have helped rally my mom and dad in the midst of their own fears, but I don’t know.
My survival response was necessary to keep the world from falling apart during my mom’s months-long hospitalization and double-lung transplant. But nearly three years later, I now realize it was the easy way out. I’m still finding the courage to work my way back to that tender place of asking, even in a whisper, “What if?”
After my beloved cousin Charlie passed away nearly four years ago, I’ve had many conversations about grief. I can talk about death objectively, but because I didn’t lose my mom, I’m still blissfully ignorant about the death of a parent.
So, when my best friend, a nurse in a county with high COVID-19 case rates, admitted to me that she had been consumed with fear of losing loved ones, the door that had once been slammed shut for me started to open. She explained that she had been in a funk for weeks. But with the gentle encouragement of her partner, she began to open up to him about it.
What he did next — quoting Moaning Myrtle from the “Harry Potter” series — was brilliant: “So, you’ve just been sitting in the U-bend, thinking about death?”
It diffused the tension and normalized the experience of contemplating and talking about death. Myrtle, for all her hurt and sadness, never seemed too upset about dying or being dead. In fact, she seemed at peace while describing her death. She was happy to be asked about that defining moment of her story, whereas talking about her life was gut-wrenching.
It’s funny how a few words from a fictional ghost gave my best friend and me a way to discuss death. Over the years, we both have had periods of mental paralysis caused by unspoken fears. Moaning Myrtle gave us a code to unlock the vault and bring those fears out into the open. Now, whenever either of us dwells on the uncertainties of that unsolicited certainty, we can text each other that we are “sitting in the U-bend …”
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