The Farewell Chronicles: How we really respond to death
Anneli Rufus (2005, Marlowe and Company)
It's a fateful day, says Anneli Rufus, the first time someone you know dies: "Without meaning to, you have joined a club. It is a vast worldwide society whose members share no privileges, no solidarity, no secret handshakes, no discounts at Legoland. You are just in. You can never get out." The Farewell Chronicles is about what happens next. You're a different person, it's a different world, and there was no imagining what it would feel like. Yes, you feel sad, but that's the one part you knew about going in, the thing they could have warned you about.
The Farewell Chronicles is a primer on the many other possible feelings evoked by death--"weird, messy, nasty, sticky, scary reactions that slop over the rim of sorrow, or infiltrate it, or flavor it, or poison it, or take its place." You might feel more sad than you could have imagined, but you also might feel less so: numb, relieved, even glad. Anger, evasion, horror, greed--these things did not make it into the songs and poems you recall from the days before death tapped you on the shoulder.
Rufus writes from her own wide experience, and that of her friends. Some of her illustrations serve as warnings about guilt for things you did, and regret for things you have left undone: at some point you will run out of time, and a door will close forever. "Death snatches away all chances to apologize, time's chance to heal all wounds." Other examples deal with social conventions and taboos, which can do only so much to protect us from uncomfortable feelings. You wouldn't be the first person to be struck with a fit of giggles in the middle of a funeral. "The soul is stubborn that way. Forbid it to laugh and it will disobey on principle, merely to prove it can, merely to prove itself alive."
Rufus is here to tell us that there is no right way to face the deaths around us, and no wrong way. Loss will overtake us sooner or later, if we're living any kind of life at all. "You contemplate the cusp, and don't know what to do. And that darkness inside you, that murk which you find shocking and unspeakable, is part of the story, is what you take away. And even at its worst, you are richer for it."
Amen, and Hallelujah.
Voices, January 2008