We Don’t Do Death in America: for Matilda


In America, we don’t do death. One day, it happens to everything that now lives, but as a culture, we just don’t do death. As a nation, we prefer to pretend it’s not going to happen. Conversations about anything’s imminent demise are short, strictly business and as fast as we can segue to more pleasant topics, we do. The irony that we cause so much of it around the world in war scenarios is not lost on me. Other people do death. We don’t.

My dog is sick. We’re awaiting test results that will either tell us for sure, she is in end stage lymphoma or possibly has Addison’s disease; a slightly better prognosis that might give us more time with her wondrous wiggly-ness. She has been a patient at Michigan State University Veterinary Hospital, one of the best Vet programs in the world. We live five minutes away by sheer luck. As I’m moving around in my very silent house, I’m hearing phantom nails clicking on the hardwood floor, telling me it’s time to clip them. I’m coming down the stairs and my heart goes up as I wait to see her pop her big Great Dane face around the corner to greet me and it goes down again quickly when I remember where she is. I think I am practicing grief now so when it really does body slam me in the too-soon future, I might be able to manage it without flooding the first floor of my house with over flowing tears.

Many years ago, when my parents were reaching the end of their stories, I trained as a hospice volunteer. It helped tremendously when I was with them nearing the end and it helped me answer questions and be there in a fully-present way for them and my family. My younger sister even went to do her own training and now works as a hospice nurse.

Hospice, which is what my home will become for our dog, Matilda, starting today at 6 P.M. EST, is the polar opposite of not doing death. It is the sane, logical, holistic and compassionate practice of embracing every phase of life from first breath to last. I remember people asking me how I could be around those who were dying. Wasn’t it horribly depressing? No. It was not. It was an honor to be able to be with people who were fully aware of their situation. They had accepted that it was happening and were using their final days to just be with people in a way they may never have taken the time to be before they got sick.

We, as an American culture, do everything we can to avoid and delay aging and death. From plastic surgery to shark cartilage pills, hormone replacement to Viagra. We want to stay young forever and we never, ever, ever want to die, so we often die without a will, a medical directive or having given our loved ones a clue of what we wanted done with our remains. We spend more than 80% of our health care money in the last two weeks of life trying, desperately, to avoid nature calling for us. Because we do such a fantastic job of stuffing the reality of death into an airtight container in the back of our minds, the “business” of death; funerals, burial options etc., has been allowed to flourish as a ridiculously expensive service that guilt alone can propel families into financial crisis purchasing.

I’ve had a couple of friends in my life whose family business was a mortuary. They all said that they and their parents refused to have any of the expensive and wacky services done to their own bodies and though they may use a fancy casket for a wake viewing, they were choosing a biodegradable box. Why? In their own words, “It doesn’t matter what you put in the ground, a body will naturally decompose inside a paper, wood or metal container. The box is only for the living to feel like they honored the deceased in a special way.”

That last bit probably creeped you out. See? We don’t do death in America. We would rather write a check for $20,000 and buy the “top of the line casket” along with a grave site with a “view” then to look death squarely in the eye and when our or our loved one’s time comes, to say goodbye with grace, not guilt guiding decision making. I intend to honor the living while they are here and allow the endings and the afterward to move in the most natural way possible.

I happen to believe that I am not this physical body. I am a being of light that has stepped into this meat suit, like a space suit, so I could walk around this oxygen dependent planet for a while. I don’t think we just shut down and there is nothing more. I have had too many other worldly experiences to believe that without this meat suit, I cease to exist. In fact, I believe that the most difficult thing my larger light body has had to do was to compress and condense all that I am into this human form. PHENOMENAL COSMIC POWER…iddy biddy living space.

I think it’s the same for animals. There’s some farmy-happy space where their sweet gooey love selves get to hang out. I have a parade of well-loved pets from the past 40 years, hanging out on a sofa in the aethers. Jai, a Lab-Dane. Chunk, a Lab-Shepard. Sydney, a Lab-Australian Shepard. Pez, a Lab-Spaniel and probably squirrel mix. Hannah, a Lab-Golden. Mouse, the cat and Sushi, the cat-both who lived to be over 21. A few years back, I started putting pictures of dogs up on my kitchen cabinets. As they have passed over, the photos migrated to the left side of the collection and our current dog, Matilda, has taken over the right two doors with pup to adult shots with my grown kids. Today, when I went to get a glass out of the cabinet, it smacked me in the face that very, very soon, she would be moving left too. That did it. Me and my Kleenex box needed to have a sit down.

Ram Dass, an American contemporary spiritual teacher and author said something once that has pressed into my heart and stayed there. “We are all just walking each other home.”

Tonight, when I go to get my super large dog friend from the hospital to bring her back into the only home she has ever known, I will be remembering that. I have accepted that death is as natural as birth, and that hospice care is the same as being a mid-wife only instead of assisting birth into this world, we are assisting birth into the next.

I am trying to shore up my reserves of strength so that when the day comes, I can look my sweet girl in the eyes and tell her, “Come on baby. I’ll walk you home.”