In the Departure Lounge
Last year at a Day of the Dead celebration on November 2 — an annual dinner hosted by some friends that honours those who have died — we pondered and spoke about those ‘departed’ from the here and now. A few of us also weighed in about a friend who, weeks before, had gone into a regional hospital for a routine biopsy and was dead 48 hours later from a sepsis infection. Boom.
A few days later I stood on a busy downtown street, cleared of traffic for Remembrance Day. A parade of soldiers stood silently as the sound of a snare drum and bugler’s horn penetrated the cold air. Minutes later, at a church ceremony, I couldn’t get through the national anthem, choking back some emotion or other encouraged by being with a thousand people standing in silence, pondering young men marching along on what Jonathan Vance in his book Death So Noble calls the ‘noble narrative’: that which is constructed as a way of avoiding the reality. And from there to their horrifically messy end.
Why not a well-dressed gent who does card tricks, a group of Irish stepdancers, heartfelt speeches of gratitude, irony, wit and love?
Sometimes the way of death for a person is inevitable, where no choice is offered. And sometimes — despite the fact that death, almost by its very definition, is the undoing of ‘control’ — there are situations where we can exert our influence on how someone dies.
Here’s a proposal for one way of doing death better, better for everyone. It’s called the departure lounge.
The first premise of the departure lounge is that, in the event that one of our close circle, family or friends, gets news that their health prognosis is terminal and that an end is in sight, they declare it to us. Not keeping it private so “others aren’t hurt” or “they don’t want to see me go through this”. Not deciding that secrecy is the better policy.
A still from The Barbarian Invasions, a 2003 film about a group of friends learning that one of them is terminally ill. [o]
There are several reasons for this policy of not wanting to be transparent about your imminent death. However, perhaps if a skeptical person were to ask themselves this question: “If I love someone and feel close to them, would I want the chance to say goodbye — let alone get to spend time with them before I won’t be able to?”
The second premise of the departure lounge is that we convene around the person who is dying, as much as possible. And, that the dying person — to whatever reasonable degree this is possible, logistically and emotionally — makes themselves available to receive those who want to be there.
This is consummately hard to do. Yet, for me, I hope that the person who is the ‘honoured guest’ in the departure lounge, the dying one — or me, if I’m that person — will do our best to stave off the expected feelings in this situation: shame, embarrassment and humiliation, sense of failure, immense sadness, and all that comes of ‘losing’ at this particular biological — and ontological and philosophical — game of cards. The loss we knew was coming, sooner or later.
Surely some may not want anything to do with this idea, the prospect as an event convened in their honour and in their midst. Last month I wrote about the death of one of our writers, Craig Comstock, who at 80 was suffering privately from a terminal illness to the point that he needed to end his life, which he did without telling his close friends. Clearly Craig, who was one of the most positive and socially engaged people you might meet, preferred not to have any attention put on his imminent exit when he was alive. Of course that is what most of us feel, and what our culture sanctions: the end of a life is not something to celebrate in the presence of the departing.
Those things have permanence because they go out, and remain, in the world.
That said, despite knowing that our contract with life includes an impermanence clause, to meet it head on, with emotional and spiritual maturity and resilience, is still a tough ask. It’s the whole bloody ‘game’ of life.
But if it can be dealt with — if the news can be reframed to include our communities, large or small — in a way in which celebration, praise and gratitude for a life lived and a person known and valued, recognized and loved are witnessed, despite their flaws.
And those wonderful celebrations that sometimes occur after the person has died, where all the things the deceased person loved — a well-dressed gent who does extraordinary card tricks, a group of Highland dancers, heartfelt speeches of gratitude, irony, wit and love, paintings on the wall that were done, or were favourites, of the person — wouldn’t it be better to have an event like that that the dying person could attend?
So, when you learn you have a finite time to live, you let those close to you know. They rally around, as much as possible, with you and others in the lounge. With luck these will be some of the ‘best’ times ever for all of you — if best in this case can stand in for beautifully real, heartfelt, powerfully and memorably engaging.
An image from Griefwalker, a film by Tim Wilson produced by the NFB about Stephen Jenkinson and his view of turning "the act of dying from denial and reistance into an essential part of life. View film >
One thing we know for certain . . . the memory of looking into the eyes of someone who you care about and who is on their last legs, and their experience of receiving your full attention, those things do have permanence. They have permanence because those actions go out, and remain, in the world; and, becuase of what author Stephen Jenkinson writes about: that we need to acknowledge the importance of showing each other how to die well.
Though the departure lounge may seem that ‘doing death’ more socially is about self improvement, rather than, as some maintain, a matter of affirming our fundamental humanity, it’s more than that. It’s about bearing witness — with deep recognition — as someone is leaving the house. ≈ç≈ç
WHITNEY SMITH is the publisher and editor of The Journal of Wild Culture.