Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Death and Not Having a Script: Part 1

When I was younger, like in my 20s, I had been to more weddings than funerals; and the funerals I had been to were mostly for “old people.” That’s pretty much the way it should be. Grandparents and old extended relatives die, and there’s sort of a “script” for that. You don’t really know it yourself, but you follow the script that all the older family members around you seem to know and be following. You also follow the script that your particular culture or religion provides for dealing with death.

But what happens when someone your own [young] age dies, and you don’t know the script because no one has taught it to you?

My first experience with the death of someone my own age was when I was around 12 or 13, and found out that a friend of mine from choir, who had moved away, had died in a boating accident. When the rector (the Episcopalian word for “priest”) told us that as we were getting ready for the service on Sunday morning, I was shocked and saddened, and didn’t know what else to do with my feelings. So I just didn’t mention it to anyone. Ever. When we got home, however, my younger sister shattered my silent dealing with it by announcing to our parents, in the way that only a 10 or 11-year-old can, “Guess who died!”

There was no script to deal with this because his death had occurred in another state, and there was no funeral to go to. In fact, this is the first time I’ve mentioned it to anyone since then.

My next experience came some eight years later, when someone I was working with in a summer program at the university was killed in a bike riding accident. I came back from a weekend home, and was greeted with, “Have you heard about Jon?” Mercifully, there was sort of a script for this. The university and the grownups around us provided us with one, but the rest of the summer was a bit somber.

Just barely a year later, I had to deal with it again, when another friend from another choir was killed in a car accident. Once again, the university and the grownups around us provided a script of sorts for us, but this time it was a little messy for me. You see, he had lent me a bunch of his Beach Boys records, and I had no idea what to do with them. I didn’t know who to contact. I didn’t know if I should contact anyone. Did they want to talk about him? Did they want to deal with getting his records back? There was absolutely no script for this. I ended up holding onto those records for a few years before trading them in at the used record store.

Mercifully, that was the last death of someone my age that I had to deal with for a long time. After that, it was all grandparents and other older relatives…people there was some sort of cultural script for. It was a good 17 years later, and I was in my late 30s, when someone from choir at church died unexpectedly (I know…you’re wondering what is it with me and people from choirs). Of course, there was a script for this, because it was someone from church. And because there was a script, I knew what to do.

But a very important thing remains…most of us never get taught the script. We fumble through learning it piecemeal, and don’t know how we should handle deaths of people our own, relatively young, age when they’re thrust upon us. And so we handle them awkwardly…if at all.

Because I had no script for the situation I found myself in with my friend’s Beach Boy’s records, I sort of just avoided the whole issue. Of course now, some 40 years later, I know that there were people I could’ve asked about it. But at 21, as mature as you think you are, you’re still overwhelmed by a lot of learning of new social skills that you never had to deal with before, and you misstep…a lot.

More on this next week.

1 comment:

  1. As unpleasant as it sounds, I conjecture that this process may be easier if the first "non-standard" death you have to deal with is of someone you don't like. As I have mentioned elsewhere, when I was in high school, a classmate whom I disliked intensely (and the feeling was most definitely mutual) was killed in a motorcycle accident almost directly in front of our house. I will not say that I took any pleasure from this, but there was definitely a sense that it was going to happen sooner or later; he was one of those people that used to be described as "born to hang." And another classmate was widowed while still IN high school; her husband was killed in the appalling sausage machine called the Vietnam war. We were certainly not close friends, but there was a "ooh, gross, that shouldn't have happened" sense to it. But then we moved on -- all of us but the widow, anyway.

    Two points. First, that sausage machine may have de-sensitized some of us to the problem of premature death (I'm a bit older than you are and had reasons to fear getting drafted and fed to it). Second, I never had problems with premature deaths after that, even though some of them occurred under particularly horrifying circumstances. A cause/effect relationship? I don't know, but it seems possible.