“I saw the guy’s eyes get really huge, right before his motorcycle smacked into my truck. He flew 45 feet. He was dead, right there in the left lane.”

Oh my God,” I say to the long-distance trucker, “that must have been so traumatic for you.”

“No,” he says, “I saw a lot of that in the military. No biggie.” He squeezes more ketchup onto his hash browns.

No biggie?

I had this conversation over breakfast yesterday with a trucker at the Village Diner in Pennsylvania. He drives what’s appropriately dubbed a “crash truck” – the one that cruises along behind wide loads with fluttering flags and such.

Even if he had seen “a lot of that” in the military, which it turns out he hadn’t (his major service consisted of building a golf course, a football field, and beer garden at a base in Texas), this would rate as a biggie. Yet he pooh-poohs this other guy’s bloody death.

Which brings me to my point.

Why are people so averse to talking about death?

What scythe? I don’t see no scythe.

I know this is a dumb question, on one level. Death is, from our current vantage point, a highly unpleasant certainty. But most people who have experienced the deathbed vigil with a friend or family member know how profound the moment of death is. I have heard many use the seemingly incongruous word, “beautiful.”

We will all “join the great majority . . . join the choir invisible . . . go the way of all flesh.” This final passing is the one thing we all have in common. And aren’t writers urged to write about the universals, to try to find the themes and experiences that everyone can relate to? What’s more universal? Still, if I had started this post with the inviting words, “Let’s talk about death and dying,” you might well not have clicked.

There’s been a lot of death and dying going on in my circles lately. The universe has been teaching me to be more comfortable with death since my mother’s passing four years ago, during which she saw and said things that made me want to go with her — “Oh what are those beautiful winged creatures . . . why can’t they be here all the time?”

I’d like to read and write and hear about death and grieving, but it’s not a popular topic. Even the Christian Science Monitor **, a church-owned newspaper with a public-service mission, tells writers:

“We accept essays on a wide variety of subjects, and encourage timely, newsy topics.

However, we don’t deal with the topics of death, aging and disease.

Some examples:

It’s raining acorns!

In the basement, we putter and flutter.”

They want to print essays on “home, family, gardening, neighborhood, and community,” but only the ones where nobody ever gets sick or dies.  Even poets, who are usually exempt from “no sad things” rules, are advised:

“We do not publish work that presents people in helpless or hopeless states.

Nor do we print poetry about death, aging, and illness, or anything dark,

violent, sensual or overtly religious.”

When one of my stories was being published in the AARP Bulletin** http://www.aarp.org/work/social-security/info-11-2011/melanie-griffin.html#.TrqiPkT6_dg.email, they sent a photographer whose only advice was, “You’re not allowed to wear black in AARP.” Apparently, even eighty-year-old retirees mustn’t be exposed to the shadows. Here’s the game:

  • Let’s all be young forever!
  • Let’s keep our penises erect!
  • Keep those age spots bleached!
  • If you break the rules and get old or sick and want to reflect on death, I promise to tousle your hair and say jauntily, “Oh don’t talk like that, you’ll pull through!!”

That last rule is the worst. Not only do we avoid talking about death; we don’t even want the dying to talk about it. This costs us dearly. It is a privilege to help someone to the Great Beyond, but we have to be willing to walk alongside them. Only the dying can truly teach us how to face death ourselves. But we don’t want to hear about it. (Nothing competes when it comes to evasive euphemisms.)

Maybe if we don’t acknowledge the guy over there with the cape & scythe, we can avoid that little unpleasantness altogether.


** – This is not to say that I don’t ADORE the Christian Science Monitor and the AARP Bulletin. I would consider it a great privilege to appear in the pages of those august publications. Honest.

I highly recommend this wonderful little book by a hospice nurse. Yes, its’ about dying: http://www.maggiecallanan.com/finalgifts.htm

If you want, you’re even allowed to joke about IT. Kudos to Tig Notaro, stand-up comedian who I recently heard doing her “I have cancer” bit on NPR’s This American Life. Here’s the podcast site: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/476/what-doesnt-kill-you?act=1