I spend a fair amount of time thinking about death. Not really in a morbid way, but in a practical way.
I am, after all, a survivor of one of the world’s rarest cancers, one with a 50 percent recurrence rate and a slew of other inauspicious statistics. I currently have a pencil eraser-sized spot in my lower left lung. I’ve got my fingers crossed it’s a leftover from the lung infection I had this spring and not a distant metastasis. I get checked out again in a week and a half. To avoid going absolutely bonkers with fear, I try to stay busy, stay moving, stay positive, live in the moment. But I also try to stay acquainted with the idea of death. I’m a planner, and I don’t want to get caught unprepared. So I’ve thought a lot about it. How I’d like to go, what I’d like to do before I leave, the who, what, when, where, how. One important thing I’ve decided: please don’t “celebrate my life” when I’m gone.
I think the transition must have happened when I was a child, but at some point, it became passé to be sad at a funeral. Increasingly, those left behind opt to turn the memorial of a dead loved one into a cheerful event. “Uncle Bob wouldn’t have wanted us to cry,” they say. “Susie was always so positive, so we ask that everyone wear brightly colored clothing and be ready to participate in the balloon release after the service.”
There’s nothing inherently offensive about this approach, I guess, but boy, is it not my style. I’ve spent most of my very short life fighting for the right to be sad. No matter what I’ve gone through, be it grief or postpartum depression or even the cancer fight, I’ve been dogged by the “cult of positivity.” You probably know the type. I’m not talking about happy people or those with a positive outlook. I’m talking about folks who can’t bear to hear a complaint, no matter how real. Those for whom anything less than relentless optimism is a failure in character. Those who sweep any and all pain and hardship under the rug and move forward to the next thing without looking back. Those for whom sadness and grief are simply not allowed.
One of the hardest parts of cancer was living up to the social expectations of positivity. There I was, 29 years old with a 2-year-old and a one-month-old baby. Forced out of breastfeeding and baby cuddles and into baldness and hospital beds and chemotherapy. I ended the first half of 2017 not knowing if I would live through the second. To sum it all up, I had some pretty good reasons to be sad. Nevertheless, many of my conversations with well-wishers were full of intense pressure to put on a happy face. I received cards, shirts, posters, even a CD with positive mantras. I received very few telling me they understood how bad and serious this was.
“Have you heard a positive attitude fights cancer?” I heard time and time again. (Scientific fact: It does not.)
Rather than seem ungrateful, I just kept quiet. But I had almost nowhere to turn to tell the sad depths of the true story. It was just too much for people. I sometimes felt like I was performing for others — the hopeful cancer patient. So I turned in on myself, getting sadder and more confused and twisted up and isolated.
“Laugh and the world laughs with you; weep and you weep alone,” Ella Wheeler Wilcox famously wrote. But it doesn’t have to be like that.
I will not force anyone to celebrate my life. Please don’t put on a happy face, wear a cheerful shirt, let go of balloons, give a rousing eulogy.
Instead, I want to let people know it’s okay to be sad. It’s OK to reject the peer pressure of positivity. Pain is sad. Cancer is sad. Death is even sadder. But that sadness is a necessary, even healthy, part of life. We need to experience it honestly and fully to be able to deal with grief and change. We need familiar rituals to help us process. We need solidarity with our peers to help us understand our own pain. Weeping alone after the party is a bad thing. Weeping together at a funeral is a good one.
So, please. Wear black. Pray the Rosary at the funeral home. Pray for my soul at Mass. Bring some tissues. Sing a sad song. Cry if you need to. Go to the bar after and have a stiff drink (that’s my own particular hometown tradition). I don’t need you to do it for me. I need you to do it for you. I want you to get through it and be whole and happy long after I’m gone.