Death and the "Me" Generation
Monday, 31 January 2011 08:14

There’s no arguing the fact that, currently, given the glaring demographics, middle aged (and beyond) adults are being “orphaned” late. There is also much related evidence that supports the fact that even 60 year old adults who benefitted from normatively dysfunctional childhoods, do experience the loss of recently vibrant, supportive parents as an extreme and traumatic form of abandonment.

While the above has not been my personal experience, as a psychotherapist, I can understand the intense layers of grief experienced by adults who are at the peak or near the end of their careers, yet another critical form of identity and sense of belonging. However, I do have a problem with how a few senior, middle-aged adults, “baby boomers supreme”, position the agonizing struggles and deaths of same-age or younger friends and associates. Though I pride myself in being relatively prescient, I did not see what I view (and feel) as an obscenely “me centered” , generational syndrome related to same-age illness and death – one in consonance with the singularly “me” nature of what will prove to be a one-time, historic, privileged, demographic group.

Case in point: Among others, I frequently hear from a moderately well-educated, American, retired-by-choice, a teacher, who has been “coping” with the illnesses, cancers to be specific, endured by two women she knows (one a moderately close friend but not a “best buddy”, one a “cottage neighbor”) in a way that is, in terms of rendition, saddening and disturbing. The thrust of the reportage is disarmingly subjective. Information about pain control, the environments in which the patients are managing their progressions toward death, whether family and friends are there to provide company, comfort and love, is offered only with questioning, virtual interrogation. The details pertinent to the patients are presented as secondary, even tertiary in the subjective lament. In fact, I find myself asking so many questions regarding the patients themselves that I invariably begin to irk the speaker. But when the central message is not about the patient, someone losing and aware of losing her or his life too early, unplanned and with plans and dreams gone with the burning sting of chemotherapy and radiation, I either ask or indicate the need to move on. How the “person who knows the person-patient” is feeling or experiencing the process and eventual loss is significant, but, surely, it is the less compelling story and less warranting of thoughtful reverence.

I am still trying to figure out why I am made so uncomfortable, even saddened by the preoccupation with “Self” on the part of the so-called “Me generation”, particularly as the preoccupation relates to the suffering and/or deaths of “known” others. The renditions, as mentioned, are “me-oriented” and the perilously implicative word, “I”, dominates sentences and defines the meaning of the message. Instead of the harsh ache and maturing slash of empathy, I am hearing yet another version of, “This hurts me. This affects me in the following ways. It is affecting my life in the following way.” Again, I know I risk sounding “preachy” speaking to this point, but the implications for a huge and soon-to-be needy population group are both wide and worrisome.

Perhaps because I have seen so much death and suffering and experienced much personal loss, each death and process toward death, some almost immediate, some unbearably (for the dying) drawn out, I am, in fact, conceiving of the impossible or, until now, privately asking too much. However, each, very individual, solo passage through pain to death with which I have been merely involved has stayed in what is a heavy heart, but one still (and even more so) enriched and able to embrace great joy. We don’t lose part of ourselves by experiencing or bearing witness to the pain of others, by experiencing related pain, but not, by clear definition, being the subject of the narrative ourselves. In fact, we grow firmer, stronger and more joyfully, if flexibly resilient against the good, bad and indecipherable elements of modern, human existence. Of all things, suffering, close by or afar, should not become yet another easy, subjective construct.

As someone just below the bottom edge of the post-war baby boom, I have heard and re-heard the adages about the “Me generation” since I was in elementary school. I understood the usually critical remarks as best as was possible for a precocious 10 year old. But, now, as a mental health professional and career-woman with a varied involvement in national and international crises, related and unrelated trauma, and suffering, even that caused by mere dehydration, starvation and otherwise manageable diseases, I have become “crusty” when it comes to the not uncommon inclination to self-enrich or self-embellish with the pain and tragedy of others. At added risk of annoying the reader, to the point of gambling with written melodrama, even if someone dies in our arms, the death, the last moments that we cannot know or comprehend , are nowhere near about us.

Like all giving, visiting a suffering, lonely or dying friend or associate in a hospital or hospice is a tremendous gift, even an act of grace, whether it is dutiful or performed with a genuine need to be present. However, the act rusts immediately if it is wetted repeatedly with self-identification, with a kind of ownership of the experience that is both indulgent and with-holding. If we make the relatively close or distant suffering of others about us we are not giving all that we can. We are not listening with our senses or loving, as we can love all things, with the admittedly protected core of our hearts. No one’s struggle is our own. An early death is a person’s or family’s complex tragedy. For us it should be a reminder, one to be and do more in the everyday, to practice quiet heroism on the scale that matters (small gestures, one on one, without exclusion), to, regardless of how we feel, bring light to darkness. This is honoring those who have had their short (or rightful) time here. We must be inspired in their honor, not conspiring to steal their ineffably tragic thunder.

We will know when it is about us. And perhaps only then will we fully get when it was not.


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