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ROTHENBURGER – Getting more comfortable with death

(Image: Pixabay.com)

DEATH HAS been much on my mind this week. Not just the fact that it’s the end of life, but what it’s really all about.

You’d think we’d be more at ease with something that happens so often.

Twenty-one years ago, on the B.C. Day weekend, my mother, Nora Maye McLean Rothenburger, died in her sleep at Royal Inland Hospital.

I think about all that she gave me; I also think about the accidental blessing of being able to spend several hours with her after she died. I regret not being with her in her last moments, but the hours afterward were important in a way I didn’t recognize at the time.

Being with dead people isn’t everyone’s idea of fun. Our natural reaction is to hurry away from death — it reminds us in the strongest terms of our own mortality, and too often of our own loss.

Those hours with my mother after she died are the only time in my life I’ve felt comfortable in the presence of death. There was a practical reason for it — it was a long weekend and the doctor who was supposed to pronounce her death was delayed in the ER, and I didn’t want her to be alone.

The time allowed me to hold her hand and kiss her and say goodbye, and it was an intensely intimate and moving experience. I felt none of the urgency to remove myself from the room that we normally feel in death’s presence. Quite the opposite; I was reluctant to leave.

Death isn’t a cheerful topic. Talking about it at dinner parties is not going to get you invited back, but maybe we need to be more open about it, more involved.

In some cultures, spending several days with a dead loved one is normal. I read a story yesterday about a woman who put her dead mother in a van and drove her around to visit friends and relatives. We all have our own ways of doing things.

I’m not sure we’d fear death less if we knew what to expect. There are different views on that. There’s the white-light theory, for example. Many believe in life after death, that our spirit survives. Some who don’t believe in God do believe in ghosts or are certain that dead people can talk to us.

Are our loved ones “up there watching”? My atheist/agnostic head is sometimes at odds with my heart. I’ve had dreams that are so vivid that at the moment of waking up I’m certain I’ve just been visited by someone I love, that it’s their way of coming back to me, of telling me, “It’s OK, I’m still with you.”

People live on in our memories, and maybe that’s the same as living on in us, or with us. The alternative is unappealing, that death is just going to sleep without dreaming.

Even the word troubles us. “Died” feels so harsh, so we say “passed away” (or simply “passed”) instead. But maybe being more direct about it is a place to begin our reconciliation with death.

There’s a general opinion, I think, that we do too much rewriting of history when we eulogize. In obituaries, the biggest scoundrel can become a great humanitarian. Someone who could barely boil water becomes a wonderful cook. A politician with a questionable legacy becomes a revered leader.

Mostly, though, it’s a question of what to put in and what to leave out. I don’t see anything wrong with some selective memory in such circumstances because there are times when we can be too candid.

We can meet death full on and still be respectful about it. As for me, I intend to write my own obituary. I hope to make the deadline but I’m not in a big hurry.

Mel Rothenburger is a former mayor of Kamloops, former school board chair, former editor of The Kamloops Daily News, and a current director on the Thompson-Nicola Regional District board. He was awarded the Jack Webster Foundation’s lifetime achievement award in 2011. His editorials are published regularly on CFJC Today and he appears Wednesdays on the CFJC-TV evening news with his Armchair Mayor commentary. Contact him at mrothenburger@armchairmayor.ca.

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About Mel Rothenburger (4997 Articles)
ArmchairMayor.ca is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At ArmchairMayor.ca he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

6 Comments on ROTHENBURGER – Getting more comfortable with death

  1. Cindy Ross Friedman // August 12, 2017 at 10:11 PM // Reply

    Powerful and real. Highly original piece, too. You should submit it for a writing award. Particularly moving. Thank you.

  2. A very touching tribute regarding your Mothers passing. It brought back memories of both my Mom and Dad’s (Madge and Doug Daws) passing and how much comfort I received in being there able to hold their hand and tell them both how much they meant to me. Thank you.

  3. I had the privilege of being with my mother when she died; like you, I did not want my mother to be alone, but logistics interfered and life went on as we made the necessary calls, etc. Death is not something to hide away from and pretend it does not exist; rather, we need to be able to observe it (hopefully peaceful events) from an early age so we have a better understanding of it, and from that, perhaps a better understanding of life, itself, will come about.

  4. E M Helen McLean // August 12, 2017 at 1:15 PM // Reply

    What a beautiful tribute to the memory of your mother; you were privileged to spend those special hours with her due to an unplanned delay. It was indeed an opportunity which I too was able to have due to my late husband’s wishes to be in his own bed and fortunately we were able to share.
    Of course none of us know what lies beyond. I am reminded of the words of one of Bob Dylan’s songs:
    ” we do not know when or why we die;
    the deal is done, the deal is done” or words to that effect.
    Take time to write that obit– no rush!

  5. Mel, for you to write your own obituary would be much like writing another book, and you know that’s way too much work. I suggest you arrange to have others at least contribute to your obit, if not write the whole thing. It will be thousands of words and it will be some great reading, in spite of … well, you know.

  6. Jerome Farrell // August 12, 2017 at 9:16 AM // Reply

    Amen to your last paragraph.

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