CN: Death and dying.
“This may hurt a bit.” I prefer it when health professionals—dentists, doctors, nurses—tell me up front. And that’s what they’ve been telling us for weeks.
I think saying these words is the kind thing to do. It’s one human being letting another know that we are all familiar with pain, that we are together in this even if we are having separate subjective experiences. It’s sympathy in advance. (Is there a word for this? Because there should be.)
The only way I know of to prepare for what is coming is to breathe, and enjoy every breath, knowing that pain is coming, and is already here. To breathe with the full knowledge that some of us will not be able to breathe when we are on a ventilator, and many will die for lack of breath. The only way I know of to prepare is to find joy where I can, and gallows humor where I cannot, because even dark humor is a form of resistance against the powers and principalities who consider some of us expendable.
When I read that Madrid designated an Olympic ice skating rink as a morgue, somehow it makes the amorphous dread concrete. I know what a skating rink is. I know, when this crisis passes, there will be medical professionals who will avoid skating because they will not be able to disassociate the two. But somehow it helps me to have a visual image of what is coming, to give it specific measurements and boundaries. It allows the horror to be contained, even as it expresses it.
The only way I know of to prepare for mass death is to frame it in the context that this isn’t the end, but a beginning. I mean this both in a hopeful and a scary way. Scary in that this is only the first pandemic of the modern age, but not the last, and only one kind of mass death among many in the shadow of climate change. Hopefully in that It isn’t the end but the beginning of humanity learning a new set of skills, of us reframing our own mortality and how we will live together.
Buddhism teaches us to meditate on our mortality. I am from a tradition that preaches and practices resurrection. I read it as God embracing our mortality, but I fear too many Christians do so as a form of death denialism.
I hope we can look at it squarely, not just as individuals, but as a society and a species. Death denialism is what has allowed our economists to act as if eternal growth is a law of nature, to build temples to wealth. By contrast, when confronted with the plague, people in the middle ages built whole churches into ossuaries, decorated with human bones. That was their version of an ice skating rink as morgue.
I don’t know what our response to this first of many mass deaths will be as a culture or as a species. (Especially because so many are walking around in denial still.) My hope is that we build something more hopeful and humane in a post-capitalist society that recognizes we are all in this together, that my neighbor’s health and well-being is tied to my own, that our separate-ness is an illusion. But my fear is that the disaster capitalists who are always working on a 20-50 year plan to increase their power and place more burdens on the rest of us are already organizing to make the most of this crisis, while the rest of us are reacting instead of responding.
But that’s looking years down the road. And most of us aren’t even looking at the next few months.
So I don’t know how to prepare except to breathe, and believe, as Jesus said, that tomorrow’s troubles are enough for tomorrow, that I am more than my body or my thoughts and feelings or my fears, that I am something breathed by God and that I am not somehow separate from the rest of the universe and my neighbor, but part of the same event. I trust that the grassroots power of the Holy Spirit keeps leading from below. And I hope what’s coming leaves us all wiser, kinder, and more determined to live fully.
Peace be with you. Those of you in the medical field, including my sister and many friends, please know that I’m praying for you many times a day.