A Matter of Life and Death

Jul 18, 2013

“Don’t sweat this deadline,” commented the longsuffering contractor.  “It’s not a matter of life and death.”

Reflecting on his words, I was thinking about how we use that phrase—“a matter of life and death”—to denote the singularly most essential issues in our lives.  Our very language respects the importance of the experiences of life and death, but this honor dims in the reality of our expectations sometimes.

Having a new baby—Life—and saying goodbye to a loved one—Death—entirely disorganize us as human beings.  In the months that follow these events, we find a new way to be the people we thought we were.  Life and Death shake both our identity and our lifestyle to the core.

A newborn’s parents are on call around the clock to the demands of an individual whose needs are great.  And yet, we assume a mother should be able to give birth, recover, and figure out child care so she’s ready to jump back into her pre-baby professional role in six weeks time.

When people lose a loved one, we allow a few weeks of grieving and then we want the bereaved to get over it. 

Other cultures honor the occasions of Life and Death differently than we do.  In India, a mother and baby spend the first month being coddled by maternal grandparents, and the second month being tended to by paternal grandparents. Many countries provide paid leave for mothers or fathers to stay home with babies for the first six months or year, recognizing society’s gain over the long run from this small investment.

Likewise, in many cultures, family members wear black and grieve publicly for a year after losing a loved one.  Many who have endured these losses say they have to create a life all over again, at a time of deep sorrow.  

Our instant gratification society has little patience for people who experience Life and Death, regardless of how our language seems to honor these lifetime bookends. 

Maybe it’s time for us to once again treat birth and loss like, well, matters of Life and Death.