April 2012

Life trumps death

Death is a powerful thing, no doubt about it. Its persistent existence is unavoidable and it shapes our lives and decisions. Despite our best efforts, it continues to be the eventual destination for all of us and for all things that live. Death is a mysterious thing, often defying explanations of meaning and scientifically ambiguous in its border with life. It breaks our hearts, leads us to question our beliefs and can sap our will to live. It scares us to...well, you know. In fairness, death is sometimes also a comfort and relief, a place of rest and a source of peace. But most often, death is a source of fear and pain.

One of the ways that death demonstrates its power is how it dominates our thoughts when someone dies. The fact of the person's death, and many times the manner of the person's death, consumes us and it is difficult to think of anything else. Everywhere we look, we see it. When we try to put our minds elsewhere, sights, sounds, smells, big and little reminders all bring back the harsh reality of the death and the person's absence. In this way death seems alive, refusing to stay buried or stay put as it is our ever-present companion. While we can think of death as stillness, our experience of death can have great vitality and flexibility. Death demands our attention and refuses to be ignored.

Death's domination of our thoughts can especially be a challenge when a death has been unexpected and even more so if the death was violent. We relive our memories or imaginings of the death trying to understand what has occurred and convince ourselves that it was and is real. A car accident, a sudden heart attack, a suicide, a murder. When these occur, it is difficult to think of the person without at the same time thinking of their dying. Of course, this dynamic can be found in any type of death even when we have had opportunities to prepare ourselves for its coming.

Living, as we all do, in death's wake, we learn that death has its limitations. No matter the death-who the person was, how it came about, whether or not we saw it coming-a person's death is exceeded in importance by the person's life. The most important thing about those who have died is not that they have died. The most important thing is that they lived. Life trumps death. This is a truth that is more comprehensible with distance from death. The more time goes by, the more we can remember times of living without having them overwhelmed by memories and thoughts of the death. Years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes or even seconds of living are ultimately more important and valuable than death. Even for babies who never breathe a breath of their own, love, hope and connectedness were present and these are part of life, and thus they, too, trump death.

Death is not small and is far from trivial. Death can stop one from living, but it cannot erase the life lived. That life continues and has life of its own. This truth was illustrated recently in a local elementary classroom. A much-loved teacher had died suddenly with an apparent heart attack. Shocking and unexpected, it was difficult for all who knew her, including her students, to take it in. In the week following the funeral, we had a discussion about the teacher and her death. As I had not known the teacher, after talking about what she was like, I asked the students to each draw me a picture of her. All the pictures expressed something special, but one particularly stood out. In this picture there is a casket, a sun, and some windows, but they are toward the edge of the paper as the figure of a smiling teacher dominates the page. Coming out on both sides of her drawn figure is a "super hero cape" (labeled accordingly) and the artist's picture of himself, much smaller than the teacher, smiling with his hands above his head holding on to the end of the cape. On the shoulders and arms of the teacher are small, smiling, stick-figure children. The impact of the teacher's death and absence is obviously huge, but is it bigger than the positive impact that she made on her students in life? Absolutely not. As sad as her death is, her life is what counted and counts the most. Life, not death, gets to carry children on her shoulders and wear a super hero cape.

Greg Adams
Director
Center for Good Mourning
goodmourning@archildrens.org

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Limited seating, a great speaker and no registration fee at Arkansas State University on May 24. In central Arkansas, it's the Alliance for Grief and Loss and Camp Healing Hearts. Nationally, the Association of Death Education and Counseling and the Hospice Foundation of America (HFA) have excellent spring program offerings-and the HFA program will be available during an Alliance for Grief and Loss meeting. Summer grief-related national conferences are also available.

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Lessons from Lions is a creative resource for helping children understand ways to cope with a death in their lives. It has not been available for almost three years, but now it's back and more affordable than ever!

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Two very different books from the United Kingdom. A suspenseful, wild and powerful juvenile novel with the story of a boy whose mother has cancer and a gentle children's book dealing sensitively (and even lightly) with the challenge of what to do with the ashes after a grandfather's cremation.

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How common is suicide?

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In Donna Schuurman's book, Never the Same: Coming to Terms with the Death of a Parent, she lists and describes ten needs of grieving children. The first need is "good modeling."

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Many great essays were contributed to the project, This I Believe, as heard in recent years on National Public Radio (NPR). In her essay, Deirdre Sullivan shares a lesson from her father-always go to the funeral.

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There is wisdom from The Wizard of Oz that applies to communication in palliative care situations. The Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion are all role models for what is needed.

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Arkansas Children's Hospital - Center for Good Mourning
1 Children's Way, Slot 690 - Little Rock, AR 72202
501.364.7000 - adamsjg@archildrens.org

The Center for Good Mourning is supported by the generous support of the Arkansas Children's Hospital Auxiliary.