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Death, The New Normal

In a few weeks, I’ll be 76. I’m at an age where getting news about the death of someone I’ve known — and, in some cases, dearly loved — is what they call “the new normal.” But that notion fails to honor the deep and complex mix of emotions that come with the death of a colleague, friend, or loved one.

Sometimes those emotions happen sequentially, as in the well-known “stages of grief” named by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Sometimes they happen all at once, which is where I find myself right now in response to recent news.

I know that embracing the reality of death is an important part of living a good life. Still, there’s something in me that says, “Yes, but…” or “Not so fast!” I reserve the right to despise death with everything I’ve got, not trying to soothe myself with nostrums.

If emotional honesty is part of living well — which surely it is — then shaking my fist at death is just as important as accepting it. If that’s unenlightened, so be it! At least I have the good company of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.

I discovered her “Dirge Without Music” when my father died nearly twenty years ago. I found a curious peace in the poet’s refusal to accept the inevitable, and I find it again today.

Dirge Without Music
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts
in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time
out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

(Excerpted from Collected PoemsRead the full poem here.)

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