On Death, Cavities and Excavation

7 A.M. and Nancy begins her nursing shift, gets her patient assignment, medications lined out, halts, looks up to nowhere, to last night when she went over to Jerry’s house with her daughter, saw every card and letter she ever gave him on the kitchen table. She told her daughter to stay put and walked down the stairs to the basement where he was hanging. She didn’t know what to do. She didn’t know what to do after they took his body away, so she shows up to work.

Navajos, morbidly afraid of the dead, have burial  quickly and seldom speak of the person lost. Those of the Jewish faith sit Shiva, a practice of speaking of and honoring the deceased for seven days after burial..

Five years before Matthew Shepherd is strung on a barbed wire fence outside of Laramie, Steve Heyman, a University of Wyoming Psychology professor (and Jewish) is picked up outside a gay bar in Denver. He is scraped off an interstate highway on the morning of Nov. 1, 1993 and identified by dental records. Within two days, his effects are removed from the UW Psychology Department. No one sits Shiva for Steve, I hear for political reasons.

We train people to fear mourning and they become proficient in avoidance and panic disorders. They want to fill a cavity, when the work of excavation hasn’t begun. We have this idea that we need to medicate the so-called negative emotions – fear, sadness, anger and so we run from them, which is akin to running from a dog – the more you run, the more they are going to follow you. Who have you known who has actually started crying and “never been able to stop?” We dole out promises, platitudes and pills to the bereaved trying to make ourselves feel better. I have been working with a young man for awhile who has experienced a horrific death in his family. He is so proficient at running that he is terrified all the time, terrible panic attacks. The odd thing is, he has never had a single panic attack in my office when we talk about what he is afraid of, which, of course, is death. Funny thing, isn’t it?


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