A LETTER ABOUT DEATH AND DYING
BY THOMAS G. LEDERER, M.A.
SEMINARY OF THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION
DYING, DEATH, AND BEREAVEMENT
C. FANSLOW-BRUNJES, INSTRUCTOR
BY THOMAS G. LEDERER
My Dearest Lorelei and Kristin:
I guess you two know me as well as anyone and you realize
that I am often better able to communicate in writing than I am
with the spoken word. Since the subject which I wish to discuss
to start out with a letter, a letter to you my beloved daughters,
Lorelei and Kristin.
Since you know I have been taking a graduate course in death,
dying, and bereavement, it probably won't surprise you when I
tell you that the topic I wish to broach is death.
Not a pleasant subject you say? Not one that people like
discussing you say? In fact, a subject that many people will
avoid discussing at all costs, you might say? If you do indeed
share those feelings about death, you most certainly would not be
alone. Most people feel that way; but, in the framework of that
denial, they are also avoiding an unavoidable phase of their
lives. We all must and will experience death, some of us sooner,
some of us later. The irony is that death is a very real fact of
THE DENIAL OF DEATH
Over the years, I have mentioned in many of our conversations a
man named Scott Peck, the author of the book The Road Less
Traveled as well as the sequel work entitled Further Along the Road
Less Traveled. He is looked upon with great reverence by people of my
generation who get stuck trying to make some sense out of a difficult
world. In his latter work, Dr. Peck devotes an entire chapter to death
and his prelude is a poem written by Carl Sandburg:
"I am riding on a limited express, one of the crack trains
of the nation.
Hurtling across the prairie into blue haze and dark air go
fifteen all-steel coaches holding a thousand people.
(All the coaches shall be scrap and rust and all the men and
women laughing in the diners and sleepers shall pass to
I ask a man in the smoker where he is going and he answers:
Scott Peck believes that Sandburg's poem is a very "succinct in
addition, incisive summary of our attitude toward this largely
ignored subject: death." (Peck page 47)
He sees our Western Civilization as living in denial when it
comes to dealing with death and this approach to one of life's most
undeniable components leaves us unprepared and quite vulnerable
when we are faced with the prospects of emotionally dealing with
our own death or with the death of another.
I can say without hesitation that one of the more delightful
sounds ever to have reached my ears is your laughter, Lorelei,
your hearty unconstrained reaction to something that strikes you
as being funny. I can recall that when you were a teenager you
used to enjoy some of the dark-sided humor of the "Monty Python
Flying Circus." One of my personal favorites of their many
routines was the one in which a pet shop owner is trying to
convince a dissatisfied customer that the parrot he had bought is
The pet shop owner contended that the bird was "merely
resting," while the customer strongly disagreed, stating that,
"...It's not resting, it's passed on. This parrot is no more. It
has ceased to be. It has expired and gone to meet its maker. This
is a dead parrot. It is a stiff, bereft of life, it rests in
peace. If you hadn't nailed it to its perch, it would be pushing
up daisies. It's run down the curtain and joined the choir
invisible. This is an ex-parrot." (Chapman, et.al page 105)
Many people don't realize that what Python made into comedy
is the subconscious debate that goes on within ourselves as we
euphemistically play with the concept of death. We try not to
dwell on the subject long enough to even psychologically own up
to whether or not someone we know or love is merely resting or is
indeed quite dead.
DEALING WITH DEATH
In Further Along the Road Less Traveled, Scott Peck
discusses his life-long romance with death.
"More than anything else, my romance with death has given me
some sense of the meaningfulness of this life. Death is the
magnificent lover. Like any great love, death is full of mystery
and that's where much of the excitement comes from, because, as
you struggle with the mystery of your death, you will discover
the meaning of your life." (Peck page 49)
In 1976, a gentleman named R.J. Koestenbaum actually came up
with some very specific reasons about how death affects our
perceptions of life in many beneficial ways:
-It helps us savor life.
-It provides an opposite by which to judge being alive.
-It gives us a sense of real, individual existence.
-It gives meaning to courage and integrity, allowing us to
effectively express our convictions.
-It provides us with the strength to make major decisions.
-It reveals the importance of intimacy in our lives.
- It helps us ascribe meaning to our lives retroactively,
which is especially useful for older people.
-It shows us importance of ego-transcending achievements.
-It allows us to see our achievements as having
significance. (Rando page 1)
So says Mr. Koestenbaum...Try telling some of his ideas to
someone facing open-heart surgery, chemotherapy, or a bone marrow
transplant. It also may be difficult for many people to really
step back from the frightening finality of life to look at death
with such detached objectivity.
Another man named Lifton, also with the initials R.J. came
up with five modes via which we might better struggle with our
own delicate mortality:
The biological mode--we extend ourselves into the future
through our children. Our very gene and memories will be carried
on in the projection of ourselves through our heirs.
The social mode--our lives have direction and meaning if we
can leave something worthwhile behind us. This usually comes
about through our work or creative endeavors.
The religious mode--religion provides a clear future in an
The natural mode--we are part of nature. The decomposition
of our bodies will nourish further growth in nature; we will not
forever be destroyed because our spot in the cycle of the chain
The experiential transcendence mode--there are psychological
states that are so intense that there is a feeling of being
beyond the confines of ordinary life. Time and death disappear.
They can occur in religious or mysticism, in song, dance, battle,
sexual love, or in the contemplation of artistic or intellectual
creations; there is an extraordinary psychic unity and perceptual
intensity in which there is no longer a restriction of the
senses, including the awareness of mortality. (Rando page 8.)
Playing Devil's Advocate with Mr. Lifton's modes, his
biological approach to life after death does not comfort those
adults who have chosen not to have their own biological children.
In reference to the social modality, Scott Peck contends that
within a few generations, our names and our works will soon be
Playing Devil's Advocate with religious concepts is a more
difficult proposition. In our lifetimes, no one had ever come
back from the hereafter to prove or disprove this belief in life
after death. Faith in the messianic mission of Jesus of Nazareth
two thousand years ago is the foundation of reassurance for a
life after this one.
From the so-called natural perspective, some may not find
too much comfort in knowing that they will spend all eternity as
celestial compost. In a television interview with Bill Moyers,
the famed author Joseph Campbell stated his belief that such
experiential feelings as stated by Mr. Lifton are merely
electronic impulses, hormonal responses, physiological
aberrations echoing within one's own physical body.
As you may have guessed, I am inclined to find the
transcendent of Lifton's modes appealing in its path toward
understanding the human psyche, our concept of the human soul,
and that of God in each us and the role it plays in our journey
through life and death and eternity. However, it is more common
for people throughout most civilizations in our world today to
reach out for comfort found in the more tangible mode of
DEATH AND RELIGION
While the Hebrew Scriptures (also known as the Old
Testament, which is a name with a judgment somewhat built into
it, i.e. things that are old may not be as good as something "New")
are very complex and diverse Scripture, there is a pervading
message that God protects His people from pointless suffering.
Judaism interprets those writings as a message to a "chosen
people" about their insulation from God's wrath against the rest
of the world.
While there is considerable dispute among various Jewish
factions, the thirteen principles of Jewish faith as selected by
Moses Maimonides in the 12th century concluded that a Messiah
other than Jesus would indeed come and resurrect the dead. Not
all branches of Judaism interpret life as a temporary stop in an
eternal voyage. Other Jewish prayers suggest that we live on in
the minds and memories of others.
One of the most dramatic differences between Christianity
and the Jewish religion from which it sprang forth is their
varying concept of life after death. Early Christians parted
company with the Jewish faith when they saw Jesus Christ as the
Messiah who brought his followers a message of eternal life, a
judgment day, and impending resurrection of the dead. This is
the predominant message throughout the New Testament, the
Scriptural successor to the Hebrew writings.
I believe that this Christian message of hope, of a very
specific theological promise of eternal life is so powerful that
it accounts for the enduring strength that Christianity has
exhibited down through 2000 years; that it accounts for the faith
that men would kill or die for; that it accounts for the blind,
prejudiced, tunnel-visioned perspective that some Christians have
toward any other belief systems; that it accounts for a religious
view of life that can prompt many to dramatically alter their
life styles. It was not until recent years that Christian
theology even entertained the idea that it was possible for
non-Christians to find heavenly respite in God's eternal plan.
The Old and New Testaments provide numerous comforting
passages that are read to assuage the fear of death:
"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of
death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and
your staff, they comfort me."
"I tell you the truth that whoever believes in me has
"He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no
more death or mourning or crying or pain for the old order of
things has passed away.
"But your dead will live; their bodies will rise.
You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy
Your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give
birth to her dead.
Isaiah 26:19 (The
Those followers of Islamic beliefs do not bend in their
contention that God watches over each and every human being and
makes judgments on their behavior. To the followers of
Mohammed's teachings, there will indeed be a day of judgment and
the righteous will be rewarded and the wicked will suffer eternal
damnation in hell.
The Hindu religion, the beliefs shared by almost a half a
billion of the world's population, is also about 2000 years old.
It sees the human being as having a soul, which is God or is like
God and does not die. It is born into physical, earthly life
repeatedly (perhaps in different life forms)until it properly
reflects Divine characteristics. At that point, it becomes part
of God and no longer is re-born into the physical world, a theory
of reincarnation shared with Buddhism.
With no disrespect intended toward this sacred Hindu or
Buddhist belief structure, this perspective on life was utilized
in the movie "Defending Your Life" with Albert Brooks and Meryl
Streep. It is also quite similar to the theories of one of my
favorite Christian theologians Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the
Jesuit anthropologist who speculated earlier in this century that
humans are part of an evolutionary process in which we are slowly
gravitating toward the "Omega Point," the "Christosphere" where we
emulate the perfection of Christ. Along the way, the rocky road
for humanity will be filled with pain, death, and suffering all
of which can be viewed as an essential part of human refinement.
It is difficult to nail down a specific belief system for
some of the so-called New Age religions. That answer there lies
somewhere between UFO's, crystals, and wheat germ.
We can speculate and philosophize all we want about death
but one thing is certain: regardless of how centered or stable
or aware one may be in one's very own existence, death causes
In 1969, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote a book entitled On
Death and Dying. In that pioneering work, she dealt head-on with
the implications of death and the phases that she believed people
went through when they were faced with the imminent prospect of
their own death.
Not everyone has embraced Kubler-Ross' dissection of these
deep human emotions, as suggested by this scene from Bob Fosse's
1979 film, "All That Jazz:
"There's this chick from Chicago, man, named
Kubler-Ross with a dash," pontificates a stand-up comedian in
1960's hip dialect. "And she, without actually having died
herself, has been able to sum up the process of dying into five
levels: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance."
The buzz words she utilized to delineate her process are
The person who is harboring a terminal illness will deny the
symptoms, the implications, even the diagnosis to protect the
psyche from having to deal with the painful truth. And despite
what you may hear, denial is not always such a terrible thing. It
often allows a person to cope with a monumental problem until
better able to deal with it more forthrightly.
Upon accepting one's fate, anger sets in. Why me? Why now?
Why not someone else? Those close to the dying person become an
easy target for blame and responsibility for what lies ahead.
God can often become unrelentingly vilified.
In the film "The End," Burt Reynolds plays a terminally ill
man who decided to kill himself by swimming out to sea. After he
begins to tire, he suddenly changes his mind. The dialogue
cleverly depicts the kind of bargaining with God that goes through the
mind of someone much closer to the end of their life
than the beginning. The script had the character willing to give
up his many women and the profits from his shady real estate
dealings if he were allowed to live. The percentage of the
profits going to charity kept getting smaller as he got closer to
Humans facing death will bargain similarly with themselves,
with their doctors, their family, with caregivers, and with God
as a source of comfort and in an attempt to grab control over
something over which there is none.
Depression very often sets in with the realization that we
are not in control of our own destinies. Almost like after a
ferocious fist fight or a violent argument, when participants
have reached the point of exhaustion, there is often a moment of
resignation to the fact that there is nothing more to be gained
from the battle and that acceptance is the only recourse. Such
is the situation with someone who has denied, seethed, bargained,
sulked over their impending death. They have no other choice but
to accept their fate, that is, unless they are of the breed that
will die the way they have lived, go out kicking and scratching,
and struggle to the very end.
Further examination of the theories of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross
demonstrate that her five-step process can be applied to losses
other just impending death. The same process might apply to
someone surviving the loss of a loved one to illness and death;
or the loss of a mate through divorce; or even something as
mundane as the loss of one's job, or a child growing up and
THE GRIEF PROCESS
When an appropriate amount of time and attention are not
devoted to the grief process, grief can become "unresolved." In
her book Grief, Dying, and Death, Therese A. Rando discusses the
various forms of unresolved grief.
"Given the multitude of factors that combine to determine
people's unique grief responses, it is not surprising that there
are a number of variants on the typical process of grief," said
Dr. Rando, a
are termed unresolved because there has been some disturbance of
the normal progress towards resolution." (Rando page 59)
In her book, she spans the realm of unresolved grief,
touching upon absent grief, in which there simply is no grief;
inhibited grief in which grieving is internalized and may lead to
somatic illnesses; delayed grief in which denial takes the place
of real grief; conflicted grief in which two diverse forms of
grieving (e.g. anger and guilt) prevent the bereaved person from
resolving the loss; chronic grief where the mourner doesn't seem
to make progress in working out the loss; unanticipated grief in
which the loss is so sudden a person can't even begin the grief
process in what may be deemed as a normal time span; and
abbreviated grief can actually be a short but fulfilled grieving
process because either the bereaved was well prepared for the
loss or moved into another life situation where the loss was
minimized. (Rando pages 60-62)
When various losses pile up in one's life and the grief
piles up without it being resolved, a cumulative grief response
may result. Just as everyone grieving process must be looked
upon as "normal and unique" (i.e., there are no hard and fast rules
about how people will react to a loss,) we all may go through
periods where the losses seem to keep accumulating.
This is especially true for adults as they age and, more and
more, one by one, they see people that they know, sometimes
people very close to them, pass on. But it must be remembered
that young people also have their own very special cumulative
grief response that can vary dramatically with age and their
ability to understand what is going on. A best friend moving
away, the death of a grandparent, or an emotional divorce between
their parents can leave a child scarred and unable to understand
or communicate their grief.
Therefore, at any age, when losses pile up and perhaps
overlap, we may be mourning more than one loss at a time or we
may be mourning one loss when we think we're mourning another.
Hence, the oft heard phrase in the study of the bereavement
process, "Not just this death."
DIVORCE AND DEATH
As I mentioned in reference to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross'
process being applicable to losses other than death, it is very
often-used in association with another of society's more painful
losses, that of divorce. In fact, some counselor's, when they
are dealing with clients going through divorce, may actually
equate divorce with a death. But is that really a fair and
There is no question that people having gone through a
divorce will experience many of the same emotions as with a
death. There is an unalterable, undeniable change in a household,
a family, the closest of all relationships. There are voids,
gaps, pain, and loss as in death. And, most importantly, the
people going through a divorce can often reinforce the death
analogy themselves as layers of depression build upon each other.
In a way, divorce can be more tortuous than death. The
people involved are still alive, often still communicating with
each other, often still see each other, whether that be on good
terms or not. As in death, people can go through intense denial,
especially in divorces in our American civilization in which
people really seem to have great difficulty saying good-bye.
Your Mother and I went months after our separation calling
each other first thing in the morning, last thing at night, going
out for dinner on our anniversary or other special occasions
because neither of us wanted to deal directly with the intense
pain of separation. We knew that our splitting apart was the
result of some very unusual circumstances and there was a desire
on both of our parts for the other former mate not to suffer
any more pain than already experienced. But we did get to the
point where we realized that such an approach was highly
unrealistic and was just prolonging the inevitable.
In her book Necessary Losses, Judith Viorst discusses
"The breakup of a marriage is a loss like the death of a
spouse, and will often be mourned in closely parallel ways, " she
said. "Divorce evokes more anger than death, and it is, of
course, considerably more optional. But the pining and the
sorrow and the yearning can be as intense. The denial and
despair can be as intense. The guilt and the self-reproach can
be as intense. And the feeling of abandonment can be even more
intense." (Viorst page 290)
In her work, The Anatomy of Bereavement, Beverly Raphael
states that the physical and emotional costs can be higher than
those imposed by a spouses death, because, "the bereaved must
mourn someone who has not died." (Viorst page 290)
Judith Viorst says in her book that she has heard clients
state that they would rather have been widowed than divorced
because death "would not have tangled them in continuing fights
over property and children, in feelings of jealousy, in feelings
of failure." (Viorst page 290)
As you look back at some of thing different facets of the
mystery that we call death, I think it is fair to say that
divorce is not a death, that everyone is alive, although a bit
emotionally worst for wear; but everyone is still capable of
getting back on their feet and starting anew, perhaps with new
hopes, new dreams, perhaps in ways that they never dreamed of the
first time around.
In fact, that perspective may also apply to the way it will
be after we leave our present existence and ascend the next
ladder rung in our journey through the cosmos.
With eternal love,
Aurthur, Robert Alan and Fosse, Bob. "All That Jazz,"
Chapman, Graham, et.al. The Complete Monte Python Flying Circus
MacGregor, Geddes. Dictionary of Religion and Philosophy, New
Peck, M. Scott. Further Along the Road Less Traveled,
Random House, 1993.
Rando, Therese A. Grief, Dying, and Death,
Viorst, Judith. Necessary Losses,