Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Bereavement 101

The other day, my sister Kath was on HuffPo reading Maureen Orth's column on the death of Michael Jackson. Anyone familiar with Ms. Orth's work on Jacko might know that her piece would not be a swooning paean. In fact, she starts out by saying that when she first heard the news, she thought it was a publicity stunt. But my purpose is to neither bury MJ nor to praise him, but to note that, while Kathleen was reading Maureen, she noticed a banner ad for a course offering a bereavement certificate. (Alas, when I looked at the article, something else was being flogged: boring old GE Healthcare.)

While it's a bit curious and ghoulish that such a banner ad would fly atop an article on a celebrity death, it's not surprising that programs in death and dying are coming to the fore. After all, now that most of us have buried a parent or two, it is finally occurring to the Boomers that, unless the miracle that we're no doubt collectively anticipating occurs and this horseman passes by, we're next.

No surprise, either, that Catholic colleges are somewhat in the lead of the bereavement certificate movement - there are programs at Madonna University in Michigan and Maria College in NY. (Madonna? Maria? Didn't they get the message that St. Joseph is the patron saint of a happy death, not the BVM? Do I have to explain everything to everybody?)

The Catholic connection to bereavement studies is a natural one. If there's one thing that Catholics don't traditionally shy away from, it's death (happy or otherwise). Remember, man, that dust thou art and all that, where all that includes a lot o' death-related iconography, info on the gruesome ways in which martyrs got theirs, open caskets as the norm, and - at least if you were a Boomer who grew up an urban, ethnic Catholic - exposure to who and what's in those open caskets at an early age.

Whatever truck I may have with the R.C. Church, they do "get" death pretty darn well.

The secular approach seems more cut and dried. On the Arizona State certificate program page, the first sentence I read was:

"The morbidity resulting from bereavement contributes substantially to healthcare costs"(Kissane, 2000, 173:456).

At first glance, I thought that 173:456 was a wacky scriptural reference - the Gospel according to Kissane? - but I believe what this sentence tells us is that in makes economic sense to help those who've undergone the death of a loved one, or they'll just make themselves costly sick.

Mt. Ida College , just outside of Boston, has a degree program that includes "hands on practical training". (I assume that hands on is, for the most part, metaphorical. Hands on what?)  I do think that this is one pursuit that does require the old metaphorical hands on.

Thus, I don't really see bereavement studies as that appropriate for distance learning. Nonetheless, National University has a program, which I'm guessing was what Kath saw advertised.

I don't get how this would work.  Today's assignment, boys and girls, is to go out and find a recent widow, take her hand and tell her 'I'm sorry for your troubles'.

I'm not sure what National U teaches - it's probably not this - but this was, in fact, the real life guidance my father offered me when, at the age of 11, I went to my first wake solo.

Not really solo, of course. A classmate's father had died, and most of us gathered in front of the church on the Sunday of his wake to walk down to O'Connor Brothers together. We decided to pair up, and I fell in with Mary Agnes Cleary. As we walked down to the funeral parlor, we rehearsed. Mary A was going to hold Mrs. M's hand while I did the talking.

Mary A, alas, panicked, and I ended up doing the hand-holding and the talking, and now wonder what Mrs. M - who was one of the few Italians in our parish - made of my use of the ultra-Irish expression "sorry for your troubles."

Neither Mary A nor I had much to say to our friend and classmate Paul M, other than to stand there with him feeling badly and crying a little.

In any case, I do feel that fellow Boomers who lived the urban-Catholic-ethnic life have leg-up when it comes to bereavement certificates, so we could, perhaps, get Advanced Placement credit for wakes and funerals attended.

In truth, I think that it's not a bad idea to have people schooled in the bereavement process out there as we near the point at which the largest-generation-ever will start falling in droves into the Big Sleep. Mostly, I think we'll need the help because so few people these days seem to have extensive first-hand experience dealing with any one else's grief. Every once in a while I'll fall into a conversation with someone who never attended a wake or a funeral until one of their parents died. (Didn't they have neighbors? Didn't they have great-aunts? Sheesh.)

We do see a lot of phoney distance grieving for celebrities like Michael Jackson - great moaning, weeping, and gnashing of teeth over the death of complete strangers. Maybe these make decent practice runs for coping with the deaths of those nearer and dearer.

But I think the real bereavement certifications are going to be needed to help the Baby Boomers not so much to handle the death of our family and friends, but rather to handle the death that will be most up close and personal: our own.

I'm not a Baby Boomer basher, but I do fear that when the day of reckoning draws nigh, many of our cohort will be going to great and unnatural lengths to extend our stay on planet earth, a place that we just can't imagine without us.

I'm hoping that bereavement counselors, psychologists, death educators, life cycle educators, gerontologists and all the other categories listed on the National U site as good candidates for bereavement studies, will have learned how to help us all recognize when our time has come.

The time to give up our drivers licenses. The time to refuse to grab an organ that would be better used in the body of someone one-third our age. The time to make the big decision about whether we want to get buried in jeans and a concert tour tee-shirt, or in a nice, somber suit.

And I do have an idea that I think just might ease the transition for the Boomers: extend the use of medical marijuana to everyone facing end-of-life. We can all toke up, and go out humming 'truckin' like the doodah man' (whoever he is).

I truly believe that I'm on the something here.

So listen up, bereavement counselors in training.

This may be the only way you'll be able to get rid of us.

1 comment:

Rick said...

My question is, how far in advance of death should one be able to make use of the palliative suggested at the end of your post? Would it be OK if I start a little early?