Confessions of a She-Geek

March 19, 2016

The Tree (Memento Mori in the USA)

Filed under: Daily life — Teresa @ 6:58 pm

A few months ago I was jolted out of almost being asleep by a horrendous BANG. Heart pounding, I lay in my darkened room, trying to pinpoint the source of the sound. After a few seconds of lying in the darkness, not hearing any further sounds, I slipped into sleep.

The next morning as I was getting ready for work, I wondered briefly what happened the previous night, but it soon slipped my mind. Later that day as I glanced through the headlines of the local news, my eye was caught by the image of a mangled car sitting next to a tree that I recognized. That BANG was the sound of a car-on-car collision which ended the life of a local woman.

At first I felt guilty for not having gotten up to see what had happened – as if seeing with my own eyes the first responders in action would have in any way changed the tragic outcome. Then I felt grateful that I hadn’t borne witness to what was undoubtedly the grisly aftermath. Then my thoughts turned to the victim’s family, and how sad the situation was. As I pulled into my driveway that evening, I noted the deep gouges in the yard across the street, and marveled that the tree itself appeared unscathed.

Over the next few days, that tree became the focal point for various impromptu memorials: stuffed animals, photographs, flowers, and so on placed around the base of the tree. A memorial gathering took place by that tree. And day after day at some point the same car would be parked near that tree for a while, then drive off. My heart went out to the driver.

Since then, someone has continued to make that tree a focal point for his (or her) mourning process: a bouquet of flowers tucked into a black ribbon and a yellow ribbon, both of which are tied around the trunk. And every so often, a car will appear for a while. The driver will spend several minutes standing quietly next to that tree, head bowed, then get back in the car and drive off.

A couple days ago, a small gathering took place by that tree. I realized after the fact that it has been about six months since that sad event took place. And those ribbons and a fresh bouquet still decorate that tree. And part of me wonders: at what point will those items be removed from that trunk for good?

Not too long ago I saw a YouTube video from the PBS Idea Channel which posited the question: Is it okay to mourn celebrity death online? (Spoiler alert: it totally is; there’s no one “right” way to mourn). Ostensibly an opinion piece about the increasing role social media plays in the grieving process, the video also touches on how Western cultures deal (or don’t deal, as the case may be) with death, grief, and mortality. Simply put, Western cultures in general, and the U.S. in particular, do not know how to handle death. We treat it as an enemy to be conquered; outwitted, somehow, through modern medicine and self-care and cosmetic surgery, collectively pretending that we’re not all, ultimately, going to die despite all these things.

This, combined with The Tree, has put me in a reflective state of mind. See, The Tree makes me uncomfortable. I’d just as soon not see the tangible signs of mourning every time I look out one of the windows on that side of my house. I’m sympathetic, but uneasy witnessing someone else’s grief. And I wonder: is it because I want to help these people, but don’t know how? And I wonder: how am I defining help, anyway? Putting an end to the emotional pain they are trying to process, laid bare to my eyes? And I wonder: is this helping them, or just making it easier for me to retreat into this cultural programming?

Sure, one could argue it’s about quality of life, and making sure that our time in this world is as enjoyable (read: unpainful) as possible, for as long as possible. And yes, that is a good goal, and one worth pursuing. But sooner or later we all die. And culturally-speaking, we tend to avoid that simple truth and treat death as something unusual and to be surprised by when we are once more facing it. Is it fear of the unknown? At least partly, I’d say yes. Now, depending on your belief system, you may feel pretty confident in knowing what happens to us after we die. And that there’s no reason to fear what comes next. But this is not something reflected in American culture.

After mulling it over for a while, here’s what I’ve come up with. This isn’t about fear; it’s about avoidance of pain. Grief hurts. Mourning hurts. The sudden appearance of a person-sized hole in your life (whether or not you believe that one day you will be reunited with that person) is incredibly painful, and collectively we do everything we can to avoid it. We want that pain to END as soon as possible, and don’t appreciate being reminded that it’s always there, lurking in the shadows, as the inevitable happens to people we care about.

But here’s the thing about mourning: avoidance as a coping mechanism? Sucks. And a culture that focuses on NOT dealing with death leaves us ill-equipped to deal with the inevitable. Religious rites help fill this gap, giving us a framework in which we can work through our pain. And certainly there is a lot of WORK involved in the lengthy list of to-do’s necessary to tie up various loose ends when someone dies. But the bottom line is that mourning is difficult, and messy, and while you can be sympathetic when someone else is in mourning, you cannot take on their pain and do the mourning FOR them, however much you might want to.

In the case where you and your loved ones have the same person-sized hole appear in your lives, you have to watch your loved ones handle their own pain, while trying to help you handle yours, while also trying to let you help them handle THEIRS. There’s some comfort in knowing you share the same pain, but it doesn’t really lessen it.

The Tree is a case in point: someone is clearly struggling to work their way through a broken heart, attempting to patch up the person-sized hole left in his (or her) life. And really, I think that’s what mourning really is. It’s the appearance of the person-sized hole, acknowledging that the hole exists, and eventually patching the hole. The hole is still there, but it’s covered over. And if you live long enough and love enough people, eventually there will be a lot of patches over a lot of person-sized holes. There’s a beauty in that; in knowing we’ll all be part of someone else’s patchwork. Maybe keeping that in mind is a first step toward a culture shift.

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