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Semantics are window to healing

My friend Paul died on Saturday, and it is difficult to say the words to describe how. It is difficult not only because he was my friend and all of us will miss him, but it is also hard to choose the words to use when discussing it.

Some say, when someone dies, that they have “passed away.” Paul certainly did not “pass away,” in my opinion, because he was killed by a car that did not see him (at least as far as I know presently). That is a violent death that, to me, was hardly peaceful as passing away sounds.

My mom passed away. Her illness lingered and kept her bedridden for over four months. She just went to sleep and did not wake up. I guess that you could use the words, “cancer killed her,” but the cancer sure took its sweet time, and I would not be fooling anyone.

After she died, I had a hard time saying, “my mother is dead.” Instead, I said, “my mom passed away,” on the rare occasions I even felt like talking about it. I can say now that she is dead, and I am also more or less comfortable (under the circumstances) with stating the facts in Paul’s case. I didn’t know Paul well, but he was a gentleman. He wanted to be a doctor, and I know he would have been a good one.

Why is talking about death so yucky to us? Of course it is an occasion for somber reflection, but most of the etiquette for our rituals for solemn reflection do not really allow for outbursts of noisy grief.

Recently, our entire nation was shocked into a collective grieving process. Some have felt it more than others. On Sept. 11, I actually saw people crying in the streets. Never before have I seen a public outpouring of grief in person. Suddenly we were not ignoring death, or pretending it was a yucky thing.

We are talking about it. The newspapers print a daily page of stories of those missing and dead. The television, as usual, showed the devastating calamity in all its brutally graphic glory.

It is more likely, than not, to have been a subject of many of your conversations. All of us are aware of someone, either distant or nearly connected to us, who lost a person in their lives.

What is different now, is that we are unafraid to talk about it, unafraid to burst in to tears and unafraid to express our anger at the criminals who perpetrated this horrible debacle.

We must not be afraid to mourn these deaths. We should cry, write bad poetry, eat too many brownies or whatever it is that helps comfort us whenever a tragedy occurs. It does not matter if the tragedy is large or small scale, because if you ask yourself, is not every death a tragedy?

Those of us who did not lose anyone in the attack are sad too, and we should be unashamed about it. We too, have every right to cry and be angry, because it is only an incidence of geography that kept most Portlanders from the physical horror that befell New York. In a word, it could have been us.

Many of us are channeling our grief productively, by donating money or blood, but you are not a bad person if you have not. For some, that isn’t the way they grieve or show respect to the dead, and I think it is important to remember that. It is totally counterproductive to lecture someone on their civic duties. They probably know in their hearts what feels right for them to do.

Paul’s roommates are beside themselves with grief and shock. I can not do much for them but offer a shoulder to cry on or brownies with chocolate frosting. But, I remember the people who did the same for me in my times of need, and I love them.