Because life is a series of edits

On Death and Dying in a Digital Age

In Church, Family, Friends, Health, Humanity, Internet, Places & Spaces, Technology, Thought on March 1, 2014 at 9:32 am

Moleta

“While the dead don’t care, the dead matter.
The dead matter to the living.”

Thomas Lynch

My mother-in-law, Moleta King of Owasso, OK, passed away earlier this week after battling ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) for the past two years. Hers was the first passing I’d ever been completely present for, from roughly 15 hours before the time of death early Tuesday morning through her burial Friday afternoon. For reasons good and otherwise, it’s been the longest week I can remember – good, in that this kind of loss forces us to slow down and mourn by way of our memorial traditions; otherwise, in that we (or some of us) push back against grief’s delays in ways our modern world has trained us – by way of technology.

Don’t get me wrong: there is comfort in hearing from hundreds of friends who, for various reasons, cannot be present with the living as they mourn their dead. A product of our overly-mobile culture, this distance disconnect can be overcome instantly via phone, email, and text messaging (along with our more traditional – but time-requiring – means of letter writing, card sending, and flower delivering). But what left me wanting this past week was the public display of affection made possible by social media. At the risk of offending those who employed it (all with the best of intentions, I’m sure), let me explain.

I became tired of people proclaiming they were praying for me/us on Facebook, mostly because I doubted they really were. It felt like there was a “crisis reminder” right next to the “birthday reminder” on the screen, so of course folks needed to click it and leave a trite message. “Praying for you!” “You’re in our thoughts and prayers!” And my personal favorite: “Prayers coming your way!” (Let’s be honest: if prayers are coming my way, we’re screwed; we pray to God, not to each other.) Of course, I know some – perhaps many – people did pray when they said they would (I’m not completely jaded), but I confess Facebook often felt too quick and too convenient to take the message to heart.

The other thing that bothered me (and I write this with no condemnation of my family, but as a completely hypocritical member of it) was how we gravitated to our own digital worlds in the midst of our grief. Both my family (wife and four girls, ages 10-15) and Megan’s sister’s family (husband and wife with five kids, ages 9-22) are fairly “wired,” and I counted at least eight smart phones, six laptops, and a desktop among us that received more than their fair share of attention this past week. Granted, some use was to make plans or to communicate them, but I would venture that just as much or more was in pursuit of comfort and general distraction. I kept wondering (again, without judgment of a crime – if it was one – to which I was certainly an accomplice), how much did we miss from each other because of the separation of our screens?

Years ago, I read a fascinating book titled Bodies in Motion and at Rest: On Metaphor and Mortality by Thomas Lynch. A writer, poet, and undertaker, Lynch writes from a unique first-person perspective of the generalities and nuances of life, death, and the often-uneasy tension that exists in their co-existence in our world. He has published several books along the theme of death and dying, including The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, and more recently, The Good Funeral: The Good Funeral: Death, Grief, and the Community of Care. (PBS’ Frontline actually turned The Undertaking into this documentary by the same name, which I watched with my four daughters a few hours before leaving for the visitation on Thursday as a way of explaining what all had happened since their grandmother’s death.) He writes:

“Grief is the tax we pay on our attachments…the price we pay for being close to one another. If we want to avoid our grief, we simply avoid each other.”

Was our family’s tendency toward technology in some way self-protective against the idea of losing each other as we had already lost Moleta? I’m not sure any of us would have verbalized it as such (nor probably would any of us still), but I do wonder. Was our handling of death and dying in our digital age normal? Was it healthy? Could it have been better without the phones and laptops? Would it have been? I don’t know.

A couple other observations from a tough week:

  • Everyone suddenly becomes a theologian at visitations, memorial services, and funerals. I heard plenty of bad theology from people – some who didn’t know any better, plenty of others who should – that it took all I could muster to keep from putting on sackcloth and ashes and weeping and gnashing my teeth. “Heaven got a new angel today!” “She finally got her wings!” And my personal favorite, spoken without a trace of irony: “I’m sure she’s having a great time, but Heaven sounds boring to me.” And then there came the platitudes: “Nothing can hurt her now.” “We’ll get to see her again one day.” “She’s in a better place.” While this last set may be true, I hate them, and I judgmentally hold in contempt those who use them. I’m not saying I’m right in doing this; I’m just saying I do this.
  • I can’t remember the last time I cried and don’t really care that I rarely do – it fits well with the Spock stereotype people often enjoy at my expense. (Interestingly, when I was not trying to get some work done across the week, I watched the first five Star Trek movies on Netflix just to touch base with my Vulcan counterpart. The more I learn about Spock’s back story, the more I happily embrace the aforementioned comparison. It’s not that Spock didn’t have emotions; on the contrary, as a Vulcan he was fiercely emotional, but was trained and learned to master his feelings to the point where he was confused for and known as being emotion-less.) All that said, I finally cried (“leaked” is probably a better word) at the end of the memorial service, so I really am human in case anyone was wondering.

As always with me, there are plenty more observations, but most are either too personal or too meaningless (or both) to write here. I’ve said before that death is life’s great perspective-bringer, but after experiencing death’s bringing of perspective this week, I’ve had enough, at least for now.

Which brings me back to Lynch and the comfort with which he writes and thinks about death. His is a wonderful analysis neither morbid in tone nor myopic in perspective; rather, he writes in a way that is warm, helpful, and full of insight into the meaning of life as viewed through death’s reality, which is not something to be feared, but to be embraced as another part of the whole of life:

“It was there, in the parlors of the funeral home – my daily stations with the local lately dead – that the darkness would often give way to light. A fellow citizen outstretched in his casket, surrounded by floral tributes, waiting for the homages and obsequies, would speak to me in the silent code of the dead: ‘So, you think you’re having a bad day?’ The gloom would lift inexplicably. Here was one to whom the worst had happened, often in a variety of ways, and yet no word of complaint was heard from out the corpse. Nor did the world end, nor the sky fall, nor his or her people become blighted entirely. Life, it turns out, goes on with or without us. There is at least as much to be thankful for as wary of.”

Indeed, but only because Jesus says so (and not because someone tells me on Facebook).

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  1. Huh. I completely understand this and have had similar thoughts about the “praying for you” comments on social media. Which makes me feel like a jerk. Because people mean well.
    Also, we actually DID pray for you. But we never said so on FB.
    But now I’m saying so here, so is that just as bad? I’m not sure.

    It’s been a rough year for the Dunhams. Take care of yourselves. There are many of us who care an awful lot about all of you. Here’s to better days ahead.

  2. Indeed, Rita, we’ve been well-cared for by many. Thank you for praying for us.

  3. I really appreciate your thoughts about our zombie-like (my words, not yours) existence we seem to have in the digital age. We walk around absorbed in our phones. I remember a time when we could have a pause in activity or conversation and we didn’t feel the need to fill pause with….something. I lament that technology is taking us more and more inward instead of truly connecting us in the present moment. At what point do we stop consuming technology and honestly asking ourselves, “is this a benefit to me?” I feel like I have a constant distraction in my pocket, something that takes my attention off others and off being present in the world around me. In fact, I wonder if it steals my worship as well. My question is….what do we do about it? How do we put boundaries on it in our families, in our own lives?

    And, like the experience on facebook of going through grief, it is a similar experience with birthdays on facebook. I used to get birthday phone calls from family members or cards (and some family members still do that), but now with facebook it seems….like you were saying….far too easy to say Happy Birthday to someone. It only takes about 5 seconds on facebook, but….what have we lost in the process? The effort of a card, phone call etc was actually the meaningful thing, not just the actual words “Happy Birthday.” It’s like facebook has somewhat cheapened it.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Craig, even through this difficult time for your family. I appreciate your blog, when I get a chance to read it.

  4. honestly *ask ourselves

  5. Appreciate your thoughts, Molly. With regard to communicating with others who are grieving: whatever you do, forgo the public forums and postings and just do it privately and personally. Write a letter or note and mail it right away; go ahead and call (particularly 24-36 hours after the death, as most of the arrangements are made by then); send an email or even a text, but keep it heartfelt and focused on how much you love the family (rather than full of platitudes and cliches about what’s just happened to them); finally, if you’re local, drop by the house (yes, even uninvited) for a few minutes, and definitely go to be (not to counsel) with the family at the visitation or service (or both).

    While I suppose there’s a place to tell someone you’re praying for them (if indeed you are), I just don’t think it should be Facebook or someplace where folks see you do it. Matthew 6:5-15 is instructive here (or should be) with regard to praying to be seen by others (including the person you’re praying for), as well as heaping up empty phrases (which become so very meaningless when repeated in an online forum). Keep it private and don’t worry about whether or not you’re seen caring.

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