The Certainty of Death and Christmas

An interesting article about death cafés, some of which host workshops at which participants write their own obituaries, recently appeared in The Washington Post. Now, I’ve heard of internet cafés and cat cafés, but this was the first I’d heard of a destination where one can get a steaming mug of java along with a side of pondering one’s own mortality.

I find the timing of the Post article rather appropriate.  While there is so much outward Christmas cheer to be had, with carols old and new playing everywhere I go, and my grandnieces and grandnephews declaring every piece of schlock touted on YouTube videos as their heart’s desire, it’s easy to ignore the sadness lurking just below the surface for many of us.  We hear annually of the spike in suicides during the holiday season.  The spirit of the season does not resonate for many of us who have suffered losses or who feel lonely, disenfranchised or marginalized.  The mental health challenges that are always with us seem to be accentuated in the month of December.  
In the hustle and bustle of work, family and holiday preparations, it can be easy to overlook our neighbors who are struggling.  Some of them may not make it to the new year.  For those of us who work in social services, it’s harder not to notice.  It’s in your face every day.  We know to expect an uptick in calls about child and elder abuse, an increase in applications for cash aid, and more stories of epic family squabbles than could fill a telenovela.
It’s a good thing that the media and charitable organizations make us more aware of the needy at this time of year.  We don’t want any child to be without gifts on Christmas morning, nor do we want to see impoverished families settling for cereal or soup for Christmas dinner.  So we try to do our part.  We give extra to the food bank; we haul a box of board games over to the toy drive.  And yet, it’s just so little.  We know it’s a drop in the bucket and we only hope that our tiny contribution makes a difference to someone.
But no one rings bells outside Wal-Mart or holds bake sales to benefit those whose suffering extends far beyond the financial.   There are too many whose pain is invisible, who drag themselves through the holiday season like zombies, who pray for January or maybe just to make it through another day.  I regret that the holidays are such a trigger for so many, in the midst of what is supposed to be a season of joy.  And I don’t know what we can do to be of much help.  Lend a listening ear?  Maybe.  Kindness, understanding?  Reaching out instead of pretending it’s not our problem?  I fear I am lapsing into serious cliché here, but that’s an occupational hazard of looking in the mirror, is it not?
I don’t think I’d do a very good job of writing my own obituary at a death café, no matter how strong the coffee.  But I do know that the one line I do not want in my obituary is “He could have done something, but he chose not to.”
Perhaps Dickens got it right when he had the Ghost of Christmas Future pass judgment on old Ebenezer and his self-imposed blindness to the suffering of others.
Carpe diem.

Of Trains and Tragedy

There’s been quite a bit of sadness and mourning going on in our little town.

Two train accidents have occurred in our immediate area in the past month.  One was probably a suicide, the other a tragedy involving two teenagers.

About four weeks ago, a woman reportedly sitting on the tracks a few blocks from here was killed when the train couldn’t stop in time.  And then there was last night.  Two students walking to a local dance crossed the train tracks as so many locals do without a second thought.  The engineer said he blew his horn repeatedly and applied the air brakes but was unable to stop before running over them.

I wish I knew something about the woman who was in such pain that she felt the need to end her life on the tracks.  Did a relationship go sour?  Were her children horrible to her?  Was she unemployed and in debt?  Was she homeless and alone?  Was she suffering from drug addiction or mental health problems or both?  Living here in the parsonage of a church, we are no strangers to such issues.  I woke up from a sound sleep the other day because a woman was sobbing loudly in our living room and Pastor Mom was attempting to comfort her.  Trying to remain inconspicuous to avoid further embarrassment to her, through her tears I heard bits and pieces about someone leaving her knowing she can’t pay the rent and someone else making up stories about her.  Problems likely not very different from those experienced by the woman who sat down on the tracks.

The newspapers and local authorities won’t identify the minors who were killed over here last night, but just about everyone in this area is on Facebook and Twitter so the word gets around.  They were both sixteen years old and in high school.  Just a typical teenage couple heading to a dance.  He was killed instantly.  The word on social media is that she survived only because he pushed her out of the direct path of the train.  Rumor is that one of the train’s wheels ran over her anyway and that she has lost her arm.

There are no words for this.  I didn’t know any of the people involved, but my heart goes out to their families.

So what is the answer?  Better access to mental health care for those who most need it and can least afford it?  Mandatory fences on the railroad’s right-of-way?

I had two close calls with trains in my younger days, one in a vehicle (that someone else was driving) and one on foot.  Many years have gone by since I lived in a place such as this where so many freight trains pass back and forth over multiple tracks at all hours of the day and night.  In the New York town in which I grew up, there were trains that passed through the center of town.  By the time I was in high school, however, the train no longer came through town and the tracks were abandoned.  More recently, we lived out in the desert on the Arizona/California border, where the tracks running through town were similarly abandoned.

Passenger trains are a thing of the past.  I’ve ridden Amtrak on several occasions, but they are constantly on the brink of bankruptcy and survive only due to government bailouts.  Freight trains seem, at least to me, like an anachronism that belongs to this country’s past.  With most goods transported by tractor trailer or air, I question whether freight trains still have a place in our modern economy.  The objection I hear is that certain goods can be effectively transported only in large rail cars.  I say that if we can save so many lives a year by eliminating freight trains, then paying higher prices for those goods seems to be a more than fair tradeoff.

At the very least, grade crossings should be outlawed.  Railroads wishing to have their tracks  pass through populated areas should be required to construct high trestle bridges for their trains to pass over.  As rail transportation is a matter of federal law in the United States, I would suggest that you write to your senator and congressperson to express your feelings on this issue.  If we continue to feel that there is nothing that can be done about it, then nothing ever will be done about it.

I am convinced that those who are hellbent on committing suicide are going to do so one way or the other.  But to have train tracks running through the middle of town so that it is inconvenient for kids to do anything other than walk over them to get from Point A to Point B is unconscionable.

Update, March 30: My niece and her teenaged friends tell me that the young couple on the tracks had made a suicide pact in a sad Romeo and Juliet parody that concerned parental disapproval of their interracial dating. My niece says that only the surviving girl knows the whole truth and that she’s likely to commit suicide before she talks. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again?