Death is Both an Event and a Process
The Intricacy of Grief in Uncertain Times
Death is not a thing, but things: a process of emotions, states of being, suddenly shifting relationships, the buzz of needful activity, an empty chair, a dialed number that doesn’t connect. In the clutches of grief, death may seem like a single event, the running down of a curtain beyond which none of us can see — but it is also a path, a journey, a process.
Knowing this more deeply can help us to grieve.
In my book Death’s Summer Coat, I talk a lot about the human need to categorize and differentiate. We want to say: surely death is the event and dying the process. But then again, every day that we live, we also die. The skin on our hands, the lining of our internal organs, our blood and other tissues all shed themselves daily, and we carry some of this small death about with us.
Our houses are filled with the remnants of who we were, swirling in dust that twinkles in a sunlit window. You are, in fact, a vector of change, a vortex of atoms with an ever renewing and decaying pulse. In the first piece of this series, I talked about how Covid-19 has changed our expectations about death, dying, and grief. Now, I want to get at death’s inherent contradiction — we are always living and always dying, events that are also a process.
Sociologist Allan Kellehear explains it this way: “dying [is] a self-conscious anticipation of impending death.” At what point does dying become death? That depends on our proximity. Perhaps when we’ve been diagnosed with a disease that has no cure, when we are grievously injured, when our own systems begin to go off line. Or, perhaps even more painfully, when these things happen to someone else, someone we love.
When my grandfather passed away, it was from protracted illness. The cancer ate him up, but only by increments. We had time to prepare, to make ourselves ready. The “event” and the “process” overlapped. There were days when I awoke half-forgetting he was yet living. There were days after his funeral when I forgot entirely that he had died.
It’s terrible to watch the “process” of death. It hurts and it aches. It haunts your thoughts and your last days with…