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Maybe Not So Pleasant

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The supremest act of love is to cover the shame of the vulnerable. On the other hand, to broadcast their shame -- even a caricature of it -- is the worst kind of betrayal, the victims unable to defend themselves and unlikely to be defended.

Herein lies the transgression of Roz Chast, author of the memoir Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?

Chast, a cartoonist, has little to say, it turns out, on the subject of bereavement, and much more to say on the chronic irritation she suffers, which she ascribes to the neuroses of her two dying parents. She vacates all discretion and, her resentment thinly veiled depicts the indignities of George and Elizabeth Chast in a number of grotesque sketches and much-too-candid anecdotes.

This urge to settle scores -- to avenge old grievances -- is as natural as it is to, well, die. But we lose this privilege, first, when the perpetrator of alleged offenses is unable (by terminal infirmity) to speak against their accuser and, second, when we are more openly critical of the infirmity than of the offense. The maxims are true: you don’t hit a man with glasses and you certainly don’t kick him when he’s down.

While I don’t intend to sound discourteous toward Ms. Chast, it’s important to understand why her book fails either to justify her own annoyance or to honor her late parents. This first: Ms. Chast’s experiences (either in childhood or as a caregiver) are not exceptional, and certainly don’t warrant the public smearing she gives these victims of their own decadent physiologies. Further, Chast’s tirade is made all the more heinous by her attempt to obscure it in joviality -- with comics and whimsical stories. George and Elizabeth Chast are dying in this book, and so the experience of their intestinal, psychological, and domestic breakdown is both excusable and their exclusive property -- not the subject of a second party’s memoir. Our lives are unavoidably communal, free to be scrutinized and published, but our deaths are always our own -- intimate and private.

I am a former pastor and hospice chaplain of over a decade. I’ve observed the undoing of many dozens of human lives and the havoc of grief which accompanies it. To a person, the terminally ill wish for a single thing: to be remembered differently -- better, in fact -- than in their frailty. It tortures the dying to consider they’ve been a burden on those who provided them care. The best reciprocation, then, is to assure them in their failing state that all is, if not forgiven, then regarded as trivial in the scheme of things. The time for catharsis will come, but not toward the dying at their bedside, and not about the dying once they’ve gone.

Perhaps I haven’t been clear: It’s not exoneration we owe the deceased, but discretion -- restraint. A person is accountable only for their misdeeds while living, not for their incompetence or incontinence while dying. Whatever disgust or annoyance we feel at the decline of our loved ones is pure selfishness. People have a right to suffer the natural decomposition of their brains and bodies without also enduring ridicule for it. After all, our turn to join the great majority is coming soon enough, and we won’t want to wish then that we’d been more gracious toward the dying now.

For HPPR Radio Readers, I’m Wayne Mastin. To find more, visit hppr.org.

Wayne Mastin is a public speaker on the topics of corporate culture, professional ethics, and leadership. He is online at www.waynemastin.com.