Think of how you feel when you lose your car keys: frustrated, inattentive, careless. How do you feel when you lose your wallet? Inadequate, miserably incompetent, and capable of considerable self-hatred about it all, especially given the exquisite mayhem of trying to cancel and replace everything in it. That is how we feel about losing our wallets. Yet without hesitation, without wonder or challenge or any question at all, without feelings of inadequacy, carelessness, or self-hatred, we lose our dead.
That is what we say: I lost my father last year, or, I lost my husband to cancer. It isn’t just a word, friends. It is not in any way a synonym for “died.” Losing is not something that happens to you or your dead father or husband. Think for a moment about the language. When you say, “I lost my wallet,” you are not describing what your wallet did to you. You are describing what you did to your wallet, and then how you feel about yourself for having done so. Losing your dead loved ones is the same. Losing is something you do to them. When someone says that to me, that they lost their wife or their child, I ask them, “Why did you do that?” When I tell that story people usually laugh, because on the surface of it the question makes no sense. But it makes huge, unalterable sense when you realize that “dying” and “losing” are not synonyms. One is what the dying person does, the other is what we do to them. Why do we do that to our dead? Why do we say over and over that we have lost them, as if it were as inevitable as taxes and weather? And then why do we proceed to lose them over and over and over again?
The answer to that question is in our history as a culture. The answer is in our ancestral homelessness and in the homelessness of our ancestors. Listen to how people speak about them around you, or how you speak about them. Almost universally we call them “the ancestors,” not “my ancestors.” Ancestors are not family, and in North America there are for the most part no ancestors in the cemeteries we might be able to visit. Family are those whose voices we heard, whose faces we knew, whose names come easily and sometimes painfully to us after their deaths. They are the ones in the cemeteries.
Ancestors, no less our people, no less our kin, are the faceless, nameless, voiceless multitudes—yes, multitudes—we never knew, never suspected, and it is to them that we owe what it is about ourselves we cherish and claim and betray and deny. We are heirs to the flight from homeless misery that brought our ancestors to the Americas, and we are heirs to the homelessness they brought with them and to what was done to the peoples already here in the name of that homelessness. When we make no place among us for our ancestors and their homelessness, we have compound homelessness for an ancestry. It visits us every time we begin speaking of the dead only in the past tense. This is the epic isolation of dominant-culture life in North America. Our fear of dying came into the world before we did. It was conjured every time those we descend from ran, every time they left their capacity for being at home behind, every time they were unable to visit the old bones, every time they forgot where those bones were. It is not universal, but it is a constant in every culture built by waves of calamity-fleeing immigrants who have lost the bones of their dead.
It is one thing to try and keep the memory of your beloved spouse or parent or child alive as you live through your days. It is another thing entirely to try to keep close an ancestor you have no living memory of, no information about, no felt connection to. While many of us in our dying time can draw some solace from believing that we will be remembered, hopefully for a good while, by a few people who thought well of us, all of us are fairly certain that we are destined to disappear, and in short order, that all we have known will be forgotten, because we perpetrate the disappearance of those who are no less so our people. The bluff and the bravado I have heard among The Dying about “Whadd’ya gonna do?” does not hide that fear of disappearing very well. That is the root dread of dying people, as I have come to know it. It is an inherited dread, and it comes from an inherited poverty that is rooted in certain historical experiences of those who were once our people.
The death phobia that I have been teaching about for many years now is not a product of our humanity. It doesn’t come from being born. It doesn’t come from knowing that you are dying, or from not being positive enough, or from too much attachment or from not enough. It comes from certain kinds of experiences, and from how those who were once our people tried to live with the aftershocks of those experiences. Our fear of dying is an inherited trauma. It comes from not knowing how to be at home in the world. It comes from having no root in the world and no indebtedness to what has gone before us.
It desperately needs to be healed. We need to be healed. They—our Dead—need to be healed. The Living and The Dying are the ones who can and must start that healing. How we are with our dying is how we are with our dead. Caring for The Dying is carrying the dead, when it is done well.
Adapted from Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul by Stephen Jenkinson. on sale from North Atlantic Books on March 17, 2015. Learn more about Stephen Jenkinson and Die Wise at www.orphanwisdom.com.