Death, The New Normal

Wednesday, February 18, 2015 - 5:34 am

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.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter,
the love,—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do
not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses
of the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind.
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. His book On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old will be published in June.

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