Tag Archives: death

On death and dying

Would it be in bad taste to talk about death in bullet points? Should I cut to the heart of the matter? I’ve been a little choked up in my thoughts and emotions. Hang in there with my gallows humor. Colonel Mustard in the Dining Room with a Candlestick.

Now I’ll get serious. Deadly serious. These are some of the thoughts I thunk during the wake, funeral and burial of my mother-in-law.

  • Receiving lines can be excruciating for germophobes.
  • People acclimate amazingly quickly. My children Freaked Out when they approached the casket for a private moment before the wake began. Within five minutes they were back to normal. Grieving, still, but able to incorporate Grandma Marshmallow’s altered presence into the occasion.
  • Death grants a person something of a beatification. What were annoyances when a person was alive are viewed as quaint personality quirks after death. I feel guilty even admitting that I harbored any feelings of annoyance.
  • Kids keep me present. Children are so much better equipped than adults are to be in the moment. They are not yet as adept at being wistful about the past or worrying about the future. The are able to be. here. now. and they remind me to do so, as well.
  • Observing the dying process has been, in hindsight, like watching a trainwreck in slow motion. You know the ending and you just have to wait for it.
  • My memories of Lisa are split in two: before the cancer, when she’s vibrant and beautiful and active and seemingly eternal; and after the cancer, when the insidious malignancy has robbed her of her hair, many of her abilities, her life force. I have a hard time reconciling the two.
  • People want to DO something.
  • People who are mourning their own losses are comforted by comforting.
  • Even if you say, “In lieu of flowers…” people will send flowers. Lots of flowers.
  • Friends and family hold us up when grief becomes unbearable. We can always come back to it. Just a conversation or a touch tends to break up the grief.
  • Mercifully, grief tends to come in bite-sized morsels. I am amazed at how moments of normalcy took over whenever the grief became to much:

Despair — load the dishwasher — sadness — toilet paper roll needs replacing — grief — oooh, here’s a text message — sob — help Reed find his non-existent socks.

  • The burial is the most difficult part for me. I hate hate hate that returning to the earth.
  • There’s a yearning to get to a New Normal. We left town two days after the burial, and I dreaded leaving my father-in-law and sister-in-law to their newly quiet lives. But when the time came I sensed that my in-laws and my husband were curious about finding their New Normal. As it turned out, the leaving wasn’t so hard for we leavers or the leavees.
  • I view, “She’s in Heaven” and “She’s an angel now” as platitudes to calm and placate. My theory is more along these lines. But I must admit that in the dark days of the wake and funeral, my own beliefs seem platitudinous, too. It wasn’t until our flight home lifted into the air that I was able to start believing again in something eternal and connected and bigger than life in this dimension. Sort of. So who knows what the purpose and meaning of life is?
  • Where IS the soul when the body no longer houses it?
  • When a person is alive, she is available in your mind as a motion picture. When that person has died, she is accessible to you only as snapshots — the movie no longer plays, not even in re-runs.
Aunt Jen, Tessa, Reed

I went 40+ years without having to experience the death of a parent/parent-in-law, and Lisa’s was the first death in our parent’s generation. I am fearful that now the bubble is popped, the other three will follow soon. And by “soon” I mean within the next 40 years.

One final note. I am expected to live to age 96. How about you?

Sliced

We didn’t know it, that first day of Tessa’s swim team practice in the spring of 2010, but our lives were about to be sliced in two.

Before: we were consumed with the end of the school year. There were report cards, field days, deciding on next year’s school, assemblies. We’d had a wind storm the night before that blew our shed off its foundation. Roger was dealing with some serious problems at work that were weighing him down. I was preparing for a big conference and was feeling similarly weighed down.

Little did we know how heavy things would get.

Minutes after Roger told me “I don’t know if I can take anymore. It’s just too much,” his cell phone rang. It was the slash that would govern our lives for the coming year and beyond.

His dad reported that his mom had had a CAT scan for some pain in her side. It revealed masses on her lung and liver.

Over the next days and weeks the full diagnosis emerged: Stage 4 lung cancer, metastasized to her liver, lymph and bones.

How could this be? Grandma Marshmallow had just visited us for Christmas. She spent Easter with us, and we’d gotten up at 4 in the morning and enjoyed a glorious sunrise at Red Rocks amphitheater together. Surely this diagnosis must be a mistake. Not Lisa, a non-smoker who ate healthfully and was physically active, a loving and well-loved person. Surely she would beat the odds with treatments.

We visited her last summer during her early rounds of chemo. We visited in the winter when the doctors said there was nothing more that could be done. Roger and I met his parents in Florida in February while we were on a business trip. We spent Spring Break with her just weeks ago. Those were her waning days when Grandma Marshmallow was all but bedridden, her energy depleted, her spirit straddling two worlds. We teared up at our goodbyes, knowing we’d likely not see or hear her again.

Grandma Lisa died on April 12 at 8:38 in the morning. Roger had gotten to her side hours before. She was surrounded by her loving husband, son and daughter.

This will take some processing, so bear with me.

“Let’s see what you’re made of.”

The exhibit starts in a bright red antechamber. In the background is a faint throbbing noise, an incessant heartbeat. I see two dozen large red barrels bathed in red light, which represent the amount of blood my heart is going to pump today — 1800 gallons at a pace of about 3 ounces per beat. It takes me a moment to comprehend this.

I do not marvel at my body nearly as much as I should.

It is the aim of Dr Angelina Whalley that we all do so more.

Dr Whalley, a licensed physician, is both the technical director and creative visionary behind Body Worlds: The Story of the Heart. She has been the Director of the Institute for Plastination in Heidelberg, Germany since 1997, and married to its founder, Dr Gunther von Hagens, since 1992. She reports that 29 million people around the world have seen a Body Worlds Exhibit, which is open now through July 18 at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. (Click for dates in Philadelphia and Calgary.)

For the first time, a this incarnation (haha) of Body Worlds centers on a theme, in this case the heart. Throughout, you can see how the heart both functionally and symbolically interacts with other organs and systems. In addition, the room that housed a sub-exhibit of pregnant and fetal specimens in past tours ( agonizing for me back in 2006) has only embryos and fetal specimens this time. It is in a separate area so that visitors can be prepared and enter only on purpose.

I had the chance to interview Dr Whalley, who spoke to a small group of journalists the day before the exhibit opened. “This exhibit changes people. Everyone has a body, but this way we can really experience the sacredness of it.”

The exhibit contains whole-body plastinates arranged in real-life poses (well, real-life if you are an ice skater, gymnast, javelin thrower), as well as organ plastinates (heart, liver, lungs, etc) and body slices.

Some visitors are squeamish, some find it fascinating. Many are squeamishly fascinated.

What is plastination? It’s a process pioneered by anatomist Dr von Hagens whereby a body is steeped in acetone for several weeks, dissolving fat and eliminating fluids. That stage is followed by immersion in a liquid polymer applied by constant vacuum. Finally the specimen is posed and cured with gas and epoxy to set. Each full-body specimen requires 1500-3000 man-hours to prepare.


More than 11,000 people worldwide have donated their bodies to the Institute for Plastination — 42 of them from Colorado, and 9 from Denver. The thought of donating my own body makes me squirm, but no more so than considering the other options. Why not sit in a yoga pose forever, especially one I don’t have the flexibility to do while alive?

One thing I noticed while moving through the exhibit: all the whole-body plastinates seemed uniform. Each was about my height. Each was muscular and with amazingly flexible joints. Each was posed spectacularly — bearing a large load or bending in an extreme way. Other than gender (which is often conspicuous but never gratuitous), I couldn’t tell any of the specimens apart, save for the poses. The hockey players locked in a fight for the puck looked just like the hurdler and the torch-bearer. The features I would normally use to discern one person from another — body shape, skin tone, facial features — were missing.

I asked Dr Whalley if those, uh, people were selected for their physiques, and she agreed that the most aesthetically beautiful were chosen for the full body poses.

And she added that we are all this beautiful under our skin. “We are trained to look at skin,” Dr Whalley said, “but beneath those differences that you can see, we are each a magnificent work of art.”

Here are some marvel-inducing facts:

  • Your heart will beat about 2.5 billion times by the time you’re 75 years old.
  • You will breathe about 20,000 times. Today.
  • Your shoulder joint is built to have the widest range of motion of all the joints.
  • Your hip joint sacrifices a little range of motion for the sake of stability in bearing the weight of the torso.
  • Your knee joint is built to bear the greatest load of all the joints.

Dr Bridget Coughlin, the Museum’s Curator of Human Health, explains why the Museum offers the Body Worlds exhibit. “This look inside has the power to transform health in our community.”

If my reaction of wonderment to Body Worlds is any indication, Dr Coughlin’s words may very well be true.

Note to Denver-area readers: Hours and prices can be found at the Museum’s website. Large crowds are anticipated and all tickets are timed. If you hope to see this exhibit, don’t delay in making your plans.

Photography by Mary Elizabeth Graff

Cross-posted on MileHighMamas.