Daisies growing in a field

Daisy Image by Rachel Kramer

Last Thursday I did another free STORY TIME FOR GROWN UPS teleconference, this time in celebration of The Day of the Dead, a holiday in many other countries when people invite their dead ancestors and family members and other beloved dead to join them in feasting and celebration. A time when the veil between the living and the dead grows thinner and people recognize that the dead are not gone; their fingerprints are on our hearts and in the palms of our hands. As I was preparing for this teleconference, looking through my books for stories about death that I had written down and remembering stories about death I have not yet written down, I came across a quote from Woody Allen: “In America, death is seen as optional.” Really funny but perhaps also really true.

Death is just not part of the American Way of Life. In our culture that so values youth and mastery and control, death is kept out of sight and under the table. I once asked a patient how she felt about dying and she responded “Embarrassed.” Over the years other patients have told me that they were worried that they would not be able to die “right” or die “well” with the same anxiety one might worry about a social event like a dinner party going astray. Yet every death has its own deep integrity and meaning. In the past few weeks I have become acutely aware of how rarely we even hear the word “dead” as in THE DAY OF THE DEAD and how many other ways we have found or created so as not to have to say this word out loud. So here is a list of the many ways we in America might avoid saying THE DAY OF The DEAD.

THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE bought the farm.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE cashed in their chips.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE expired.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE entered eternal rest.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE given up the ghost.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE gone to a better place.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE kicked the bucket.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE left the building.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE met their maker.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE passed.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE passed on.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE passed away.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE perished.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE croaked.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE gone toes up.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE been snuffed out.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE bought it.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE checked out.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE gone belly up.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE gone south.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE gone to their reward.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE shuffled off the mortal coil.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE been wasted.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE gone to a better place.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE left us.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE gone off line.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE been offed.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE checked out.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE been cancelled.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO ARE done for.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO ARE no longer with us.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO ARE no more.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO ARE sleeping the Big Sleep.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO ARE deceased.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO ARE pushing up the daisies.

Somehow all these seem too small and too ordinary for such a profoundly significant event. If we really need to use a euphemism, how about THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE become part of the Mystery at the Heart of Life.

The line between the living and the dead may be thinner than we think. In putting death behind us as rapidly as possible, separating ourselves from it with our words and in many other ways, we may make life not only smaller but colder. My beloved grandfather died when I was about seven and my parents were anxious to help me get over the blow of this great loss. Following the advice of a child psychiatrist they had waited for me to speak of it but when I did not my mother began to worry. Eventually she just asked me what it was like for me now that Grandpa was gone. I do not remember saying this but apparently I had told her that things were different now. Now I could take him to school with me. I do remember having a sense of his closeness that faded only after many years. Certainly I talked with him for a long time in much the way we had both talked to God together. As Mitch Albom wrote in his exquisite book Tuesdays with Morrie: “Death is the end of a lifetime, not the end of a relationship.”