Coaxing death out of the shadows.


Death in art, mourning in fashion.  In this Times article, “bereavement and its handmaiden, melancholy, seem to be sharing a moment of late, taking center stage or hovering in the wings of several current museum exhibitions, on television shows and in films, and in fine art and music, lending a whiff of glamour to a topic most people would prefer to ignore.”



Box of Death


You probably had a memory box at some point in your life: remnants from adolescent romances, a stash of wedding keepsakes, that secret box that no one knows about.

Do you have a Box of Death now?

I do. After my husband died, I packed away all the hospital and funeral stuff. Recently, I took a look. Inside I see a notepad opened to a page with a list, the word ‘Questions’ written at the top in my sister Joan’s pretty cursive handwriting catches my eye, deadly language jumping off the page:  ‘liver,’ ‘detox,’ ‘abdominal fluid,’ ‘FFP’ (fresh frozen plasma). Inside the notepad are receipts I’d kept: 2/1/09 from the hospital cafeteria, we’re all hopeful with the new doctor and the steroid treatment;  2/12/09 from the lobby deli, Robert could no longer tolerate dialysis; a parking receipt from 2/13/09, I’d be a widow in two days.

On top of everything I’d placed a typed bullet list of the box’s contents: ‘hospital notes, sympathy cards, coffin cross, church sign-in sheet’ – as if I were keeping inventory, documenting the days of death. Why?  It seemed as odd as Robert stockpiling empty scotch bottles in the basement, unconsciously cataloguing his decline into alcoholism. But I’d later discover it’s common among the widowed, especially in an unexpected passing, to set aside remnants related to the death for later scrutiny in order to process the past. At the time, it’s too devastating to fully comprehend. Instead, we default to a surviving spouse autopilot, saving any scrap of information that might later…explain? Prove? Reveal? Redeem?

Back then, I was quick to box up everything and stash it in the basement. I couldn’t bring myself to throw out anything, but I needed to be done with it, finish up the ‘thank you’ notes and put it all away. It wasn’t until much later, when I was writing about Robert’s death, that I looked in the box. To write is to process. As E.M. Forster said: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say.” In that box of death time stands still. It’s February 2009 and my life is close to unbearable. I can feel the devastation as I lift off the plastic container’s lid revealing the raw material of those awful days.

Now it’s 2014 and my life is very different. I’m happy and in love with a wonderful man. Even my house is in better shape than it was in 2009.  The box of death has always been in the basement, but initially more accessible. Then, over time, it got relegated to the nether regions. As space was repurposed, the box got shifted around and finally buried in the back of the basement in dead storage.

It’s not that there’s no room for Robert’s Box of Death, but there’s no need. I’ve come to terms with his alcoholism, our marriage, his shortened life. There’s nothing more that the contents of that box can reveal. Or supply. I doubt I’ll need an extra memorial prayer card with an Irish saying on one side and Robert’s name, date of birth and date of passing on the other. Will I ever need to look at the registry book from the funeral home, or refer to the copy of the eulogy Pete sent me?

The newly widowed worry that they’ll forget.  Mementos help us remember. But the reality is — you’ll never forget. And the things you do forget are not meant to be remembered.

I needed that box of death until I didn’t.