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kottke.org posts about death

Man Self-Immolates in Front of the Supreme Court on Earth Day in Protest of Climate Change Inaction

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 25, 2022

Hoping to draw attention to the climate crisis, activist Wynn Bruce set himself on fire in front of the Supreme Court on Earth Day. He later died from his injuries.

A Colorado man who set himself on fire in front of the Supreme Court on Friday in an apparent Earth Day protest against climate change has died, police said.

The Metropolitan Police Department of Washington, D.C., said that Wynn Bruce, 50, of Boulder, Colo., had died on Saturday from his injuries after being airlifted to a hospital following the incident. Members of his family could not be reached immediately for comment.

Kritee Kanko, a climate scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund and a Zen Buddhist priest in Boulder, said that she is a friend of Mr. Bruce and that the self-immolation was a planned act of protest.

“This act is not suicide,” Dr. Kritee wrote on Twitter early Sunday morning. “This is a deeply fearless act of compassion to bring attention to climate crisis.”

It’s shocking and sad but perhaps not surprising how little media attention this has gotten. Bruce, a Buddhist, seems to have planned this action for several weeks or even months, leaving clues in a repeatedly edited comment on Facebook. His action mirrors that of Thích Quảng Đức in 1963, who self-immolated in Saigon in 1963 to protest the persecution of Buddhists in South Vietnam. Rest in peace, Wynn Bruce.

How Did This Many Deaths Become Normal?

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 08, 2022

In his newest piece for The Atlantic, Ed Yong explores why, despite more than 6 million official deaths worldwide and almost a million official deaths in the US, the toll of the pandemic isn’t provoking a massive social reckoning. This is a hell of an opening paragraph:

The United States reported more deaths from COVID-19 last Friday than deaths from Hurricane Katrina, more on any two recent weekdays than deaths during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, more last month than deaths from flu in a bad season, and more in two years than deaths from HIV during the four decades of the AIDS epidemic. At least 953,000 Americans have died from COVID, and the true toll is likely even higher because many deaths went uncounted. COVID is now the third leading cause of death in the U.S., after only heart disease and cancer, which are both catchall terms for many distinct diseases. The sheer scale of the tragedy strains the moral imagination. On May 24, 2020, as the United States passed 100,000 recorded deaths, The New York Times filled its front page with the names of the dead, describing their loss as “incalculable.” Now the nation hurtles toward a milestone of 1 million. What is 10 times incalculable?

And it just keeps going from there — this is one of those articles so well written and packed with so much information and insight that it’s difficult not to quote the whole thing, even though it paints a bleak picture of America. Read the whole thing here. See also Yong’s accompanying Twitter thread.

The Inventor of the Screw-In Coffin

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 03, 2022

patent drawings for a coffin that you can screw into the ground

In 2009, mechanical engineer Donald Scruggs received a patent for a hermetically sealed coffin that can be screwed into the ground. David Friedman made a short documentary about Scruggs and his screw-in coffin.

I was with some friends having a couple of drinks and one of them mentioned he had to go talk to some people about an automatic grave digger, which meant a huge amount of dirt removal. And I said, “Why don’t we just make a big large carrot shaped thing with threads around it and screw it into the ground?”

Scruggs says that burying someone in his coffin is “no more trouble than putting a fencepost in”.

Documenting Death

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 25, 2021

After Kathy Brandt was diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer, she and her wife Kim Acquaviva, both of whom worked in end-of-life care, started documenting the end of her life on social media. The result was a frank portrait of death, which offered non-medical folks a view of something they rarely get to witness.

Many of the posts deal matter-of-factly with Brandt’s experience of inhabiting a dying body. Did she still crave sex? (“It’s like, for me, at least, there’s nothing there,” she tells Acquaviva, on camera.) Did she remember that she had a diaper on, and that it was time to relieve herself? What were her symptoms today, and how were they different from yesterday’s? The couple’s radical openness extended to a post, the day before Brandt’s death, in which Acquaviva says, “I’m sharing this for nonmedical people who’ve never heard the beginnings of a death rattle. The death rattle is Kathy Brandt’s. … The video is dark and jumpy, but the sound is decent.” The next day, Acquaviva posted a picture of her wife’s face, taken shortly after her death.

Note: this video can be difficult at times (because you’re watching someone dying), but as Acquaviva says, “In a culture were we don’t share almost anything around illness and death, the only way to counter that is for some people to share a little bit more than is probably appropriate.”

Time Lapse Map of Covid-19’s Spread Across the US, 2/2020 to 9/2021

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 05, 2021

Using data from Johns Hopkins, this time lapse video shows the spread of Covid-19 across the US from Feb 2020 to Sept 2021. This looks so much like small fires exploding into raging infernos and then dying down before flaring up all over again. Indeed, forest fire metaphors seem to be particularly useful in describing pandemics like this.

Think of COVID-19 as a fire burning in a forest. All of us are trees. The R0 is the wind speed. The higher it is, the faster the fire tears through the forest. But just like a forest fire, COVID-19 needs fuel to keep going. We’re the fuel.

In other forest fire metaphorical scenarios, people are ‘kindling’, ‘sparks being thrown off’ (when infecting others) and ‘fuel’ (when becoming infected). In these cases, fire metaphors convey the dangers posed by people being in close proximity to one another, but without directly attributing blame: people are described as inanimate entities (trees, kindling, fuel) that are consumed by the fire they contribute to spread.

See also A Time Lapse World Map of Every Covid-19 Death (from July 2020).

What Comes at the End of a Life?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 26, 2021

Jack Thomas has been a journalist for the Boston Globe since 1958 and recently learned he has months to live due to a cancer diagnosis. So he wrote an article about what his impending death means.

As the saying goes, fate has dealt me one from the bottom of the deck, and I am now condemned to confront the question that has plagued me for years: How does a person spend what he knows are his final months of life?

Atop the list of things I’ll miss are the smiles and hugs every morning from my beautiful wife, Geraldine, the greatest blessing of my life. I hate the notion of an eternity without hearing laughter from my three children. And what about my 40 rose bushes? Who will nurture them? I cannot imagine an afterlife without the red of my America roses or the aroma of my yellow Julia Childs.

We told each of the three children individually. John Patrick put his face in his hands, racked with sobs. After hanging up the telephone, Jennifer doubled over and wept until her dog, Rosie, approached to lick away the tears but not the melancholy. Faith explained over the telephone that, if I could see her, she was weeping and wondering how she could get along without her dad. Now, she is on the Internet every day, snorkeling for new research, new strategies, new medications. My wife cries every morning, then rolls up her sleeves and handles all doctor appointments and medication. Without her… I cannot imagine.

(via nextdraft)

The Last Words of Quintin Jones

posted by Jason Kottke   May 21, 2021

Last week, I posted about Texas death row inmate Quintin Jones and his plea for clemency in the face of his pending execution. Again, here is his video message to Texas governor Greg Abbott:

On Wednesday evening, in the presence of two outside witnesses, Texas killed Quintin Jones. Two journalists who were to bear witness to the execution for the public were not called into the prison by officials who somehow “forgot” to do so:

Absent were two journalists who had been scheduled to attend the execution but whom prison officials said they had accidentally failed to summon.

Before he died, a video director for the NY Times recorded a short video of Jones’ last words to the public, in which he thanked everyone for helping him be a better person and even asked viewers to consider the trauma that death row prison guards endure in the course of doing their jobs. A separate statement of his last words was recorded by prison officials:

“Love all my friends and all the friendships that I have made,” Mr. Jones said, according to those state prison records. “They are like the sky. It is all part of life, like a big full plate of food for the soul. I hope I left everyone a plate of food full of happy memories, happiness and no sadness.”

Then he said, “I’m done, warden.” He was pronounced dead at 6:40 p.m.

That same day, Governor Abbott, who is a member of the so-called “pro-life” Republican party, signed a law that bans abortions in Texas after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which is before many women are even aware they are pregnant.

Governor Abbott, Will You Save My Life?

posted by Jason Kottke   May 11, 2021

Quintin Jones murdered his aunt in 1999 and is scheduled to be executed on May 19, 2021. He admits his guilt, his family has forgiven him, and in this video, he shares his thoughts about personal growth & death and asks Texas governor Greg Abbott to spare his life.

During his 21 years on death row, Quin has been the epitome of a prison success story. He entered at an unimaginable low, as lost as a soul can be. And through prayer, sobriety, reconciliation with his family, and longstanding correspondence with pen pals, he has found a way to lead a meaningful life, and even to enhance the lives of others. The victim’s family — who is also Quin’s family — has forgiven him.

Emotionally, intellectually, and psychologically, human beings are ships of Theseus — we are not the same people at 30 as we were at 20 or will be at 40. The death penalty is immoral, full stop. The sooner our system of retributive justice is replaced with restorative justice, the healthier and safer our communities and society will be.

Inside a Covid ICU, Through a Nurse’s Eyes

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 01, 2021

A film crew from the NY Times recently spent several days in the Covid-19 ICU in Arizona, at the time one of the hardest hit places in the world. Two of the nurses wore GoPro cameras while working to witness what they did on a daily basis — the 12-hour days, the grief, the care, the constant death. This video is incredible and incredibly difficult to watch — you actually see a patient die on camera, surrounded by nurses and family (virtually).

So many Americans have died in hospitals without family by their side, but they were not alone. Nurses brush patients’ teeth, change their catheters and hold their hands in their final moments.

At the beginning of the video, one of the nurses says, “Unless you’re actually in there, you have no idea.” Thanks to their willingness to share their experiences, now we at least have some idea.

Update: Vox talked to some ICU doctors about what it’s like for their patients when they die from Covid-19. Because of patient confidentiality and the contagious nature of the disease, society (and even the families) has been “protected and sheltered from seeing the worst of this disease”.

Imagine trying to breathe through a very narrow straw, says Jess Mandel, chief of pulmonary, critical care, and sleep medicine at UC San Diego Health. “You can do that for 15 to 20 seconds, but try doing it for two hours.” Or for days or weeks.

Patients struggling through low oxygen levels like this have told Kenneth Remy, an assistant professor of critical care medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, that it feels like a band across their chest or that their lungs are on fire. Or like a thousand bees stinging them inside their chest. Others might have thick secretions in their lungs that make it feel like they are trying to breathe through muck. Many people say it feels like they’re being smothered.

The ordeal is so taxing that many wish for death. “You hear the patients say, ‘I just want to die because this is so excruciating,’” Remy says. “That’s what this virus does.”

By An Eye-Witness

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 21, 2020

(Note: The images below depict simulated violent death.) By An Eye-Witness is an arresting series of images by Azadeh Akhlaghi that recreate seventeen prominent deaths from Iran’s history. According to this interview, Akhlaghi was inspired by post-election uprisings in Iran and Arab Spring to document these deaths.

Eiferman: How was this like shooting a movie?

Akhlaghi: After three years of research by myself, I found a producer and then a crew. We had one month for pre-production and 20 days to shoot all 17 pictures, so we had to be very quick, with only one day to shoot each picture. We had a very low budget so we couldn’t hire actors, and we mostly used friends or extras. But like a movie, I had a professional team with a make-up artist, set designer, assistant director, and everything.

Eiferman: You have a lot of experience in filmmaking; why did you choose to do this series as photographs?

Akhlaghi: I worked as an assistant director for a few years, yes. But I thought staged photography would be closer to the idea of art I had in mind. I was heavily influenced by old paintings but the narrative techniques are borrowed from my old engagement with cinema and literature.

Azadeh Akhlaghi

Azadeh Akhlaghi

Azadeh Akhlaghi

The Covid-19 Crystal Ball: Estimating Future Deaths from Today’s Reported Cases

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 16, 2020

On Friday, November 13, 170,792 new cases of Covid-19 were reported in the United States. About 3000 of those people will die from their disease on Dec 6 — one day of Covid deaths equal to the number of people who died on 9/11. It’s already baked in, it’s already happened. Here’s how we know.

The case fatality rate (or ratio) for a disease is the number of confirmed deaths divided by the number of confirmed cases. For Covid-19 in the United States, the overall case fatality rate (CFR) is 2.3%. That is, since the beginning of the pandemic, 2.3% of those who have tested positive for Covid-19 in the US have died. In India, it’s 1.5%, Germany is at 1.6%, Iran 5.5%, and in Mexico it’s a terrifying 9.8%.

A recent analysis by infectious disease researcher Trevor Bedford tells us two things related to the CFR.

1. Reported deaths from Covid-19 lag behind reported cases by 22 days. Some deaths are reported sooner and some later, but in general it’s a 22-day lag.1

2. The overall CFR in the US is 2.3% but if you use the 22-day lag to calculate what Bedford calls “a lag-adjusted case fatality rate”, it’s a pretty steady average of 1.8% since August. Here’s a graph:

Lagged CFR

As you can see, in the early days of the pandemic, 4-6% of the cases ended in death and now that’s down to ~1.8%. That’s good news! The less good news is that the current case rate is high and rising quickly. Because of the lag in reported deaths, the rise in cases might not seem that alarming to some, even though those deaths will eventually happen. What Bedford’s analysis provides is a quick way to estimate the number of deaths that will occur in the future based on the number of cases today: just multiply the number of a day’s cases by 1.8% and you get an estimated number of people who will die 22 days later.2

For instance, as I said above, 170,792 cases were reported on Nov 13 — 1.8% is 3074 deaths to be reported on December 6. Cases have been over 100,000 per day for 11 days now: here are the estimated deaths from that time period:



Date Cases Est. deaths (on date)
2020-11-15145,6702622  (2020-12-08)
2020-11-14163,4732943  (2020-12-07)
2020-11-13170,7923074  (2020-12-06)
2020-11-12150,5262709  (2020-12-05)
2020-11-11144,4992601  (2020-12-04)
2020-11-10130,9892358  (2020-12-03)
2020-11-09118,7082137  (2020-12-02)
2020-11-08110,8381995  (2020-12-01)
2020-11-07129,1912325  (2020-11-30)
2020-11-06125,2522255  (2020-11-29)
2020-11-05116,1532091  (2020-11-28)
2020-11-04103,0671855  (2020-11-27)
Totals1,609,15828,965

Starting the day after Thanksgiving, a day traditionally called Black Friday, the 1.6 million positive cases reported in the past 12 days will result in 2-3000 deaths per day from then into the first week of December. Statistically speaking, these deaths have already occurred — as Bedford says, they are “baked in”. Assuming the lagged CFR stays at ~1.8% (it could increase due to an overtaxed medical system) and if the number of cases keeps rising, the daily death toll would get even worse. As daily case totals are reported, you can just do the math yourself:

number of cases × 0.018

200,000 cases in a day would be ~3600 deaths. 300,000 daily cases, a number that would have been inconceivable to imagine in May but is now within the realm of possibility, would result in 5400 deaths in a single day. Vaccines are coming, there is hope on the horizon. But make no mistake: this is an absolute unmitigated catastrophe for the United States.

Update: Over at The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal and Whet Moser took a closer look at Bedford’s model, aided by Ryan Tibshirani’s analysis.

Tibshirani’s first finding was that the lag time between states was quite variable-and that the median lag time was 16 days, a lot shorter than the mean. Looking state by state, Tibshirani concluded, it seemed difficult to land on an exact number of days as the “right” lag “with any amount of confidence,” he told us. Because cases are rising quickly, a shorter lag time would mean a larger denominator of cases for recent days — and a lower current case-fatality rate, something like 1.4 percent. This could mean fewer overall people are dying.

But this approach does not change the most important prediction. The country will still cross the threshold of 2,000 deaths a day, and even more quickly than Bedford originally predicted. Cases were significantly higher 16 days ago than 22 days ago, so a shorter lag time means that those higher case numbers show up in the deaths data sooner. Even with a lower case-fatality rate, deaths climb quickly. Estimating this way, the country would hit an average of 2,000 deaths a day on November 30.

The other major finding in Tibshirani’s analysis is that the individual assumptions and parameters in a Bedford-style model don’t matter too much. You can swap in different CFRs and lag-time parameters, and the outputs are more consistent than you might expect. They are all bad news. And, looking retrospectively, Tibshirani found that a reasonable, Bedford-style lagged-CFR model would have generated more accurate national-death-count predictions than the CDC’s ensemble model since July.

  1. Courtesy of Ed Yong, the lag between cases and hospitalizations is about 11 days. So the full ICUs and packed ERs were hearing about now are going to get so much worse in the next two weeks. And just think about the potential situation a month from now if cases keep rising at the rate they are now for two more weeks…

  2. Just to stress again: this is only an estimate. The real reported deaths from a single day’s reported cases will be spread out over several days or weeks. And case reporting is much lower on Sundays and Mondays than on other days (fewer reports on weekends). Bedford accounted for this in his analysis by using 7-day averages.

Honoring Ruth Bader Ginsburg

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 23, 2020

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lying in repose on the portico of the US Supreme Court building

That’s the flag-draped casket of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lying in repose on the portico of The Supreme Court Building. From the Washington Post (link is mine):

Her casket was placed on the Lincoln catafalque, built for President Abraham Lincoln’s casket in 1865, and surrounded by an arrangement of the justice’s favorite flowers, including white hydrangea, freesia and white tea roses.

Members of the public can pay their respects until 10pm today and from 9am-10pm tomorrow. On Friday, her casket will be moved to the US Capitol, where she will become the first ever woman to lie in state there.

Washington National Cathedral Bell Tolls for 200,000 Covid-19 Victims

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 21, 2020

In the next day or two, the official number of people who have died from Covid-19 in the United States will pass 200,000 (the actual death toll passed 200,000 back in July). To mark the grim occasion yesterday, the Washington National Cathedral tolled its mourning bell 200 times in remembrance, once for each 1000 people who have died.

We toll this 12-ton bell for every funeral held at the Cathedral. Funerals mourn the loss, but they also celebrate the lives of our loved ones, and point us to the hope of resurrection.

This gesture cannot replace the lives lost, but we hope it will help each American mourn the toll of this pandemic.

The tolling goes on for more than 19 minutes and you hear a number of deaths equal to 9/11 every 17 seconds. I recommend listening as long as you are able, to remember those who have been lost, and to inspire action so that 200,000 more Americans don’t have to die before this is all over.

See also A Time Lapse World Map of Every Covid-19 Death from back in July.

Grief and Witness in a Pandemic Ravaged Country

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 02, 2020

For Vanity Fair, novelist Jesmyn Ward writes about losing her husband just before the pandemic descended on America. She begins:

My Beloved died in January. He was a foot taller than me and had large, beautiful dark eyes and dexterous, kind hands. He fixed me breakfast and pots of loose-leaf tea every morning. He cried at both of our children’s births, silently, tears glazing his face. Before I drove our children to school in the pale dawn light, he would put both hands on the top of his head and dance in the driveway to make the kids laugh. He was funny, quick-witted, and could inspire the kind of laughter that cramped my whole torso.

It’s not long, but make some time for this one.

“The Morning You Die, I Don’t Want to Be There”

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 20, 2020

From Dr. Anna DeForest, a devastating article — a prose poem almost — in The New England Journal of Medicine: The New Stability.

This is the day you start to turn. What we suck up from your lungs turns frothy pink and then the frank red of blood. We don’t know if your heart is finally failing or if the virus has destroyed so much tissue that this is necrosis, hemorrhaged in your lungs. There are tests, but no one willing to run them — you are too sick, and you have never cleared the virus. No one would ever want to be what you are now: a hazard, a threat, a frightening object on the edge of death. We try not to touch you. We construct our plans for saving you around staying as far away from you as possible.

I tell your husband about the blood. It’s true that nothing else has changed: your struggling lungs, with help, still take in air, your heart, with help, still brags along. “But she is stable,” he asks, barely a question. Why do I lie? “Yes,” I say, “for now.”

DeForest wrote this in early May as Covid-19 cases peaked at her hospital in New Haven. The country and its leaders ignored this and now cases are spiking in many hospitals all around the country now. Just some sniffles, though, nothing to bother anyone about.

A Time Lapse World Map of Every Covid-19 Death

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 08, 2020

From January to the end of June, over 500,000 people died of confirmed cases of Covid-19. In order to demonstrate the magnitude of the pandemic, James Beckwith made a time lapse map of each Covid-19 death.

Each country is represented by a tone and an expanding blip on the map when a death from Covid-19 is recorded. Each day is 4 seconds long, and at the top of the screen is the date and a counter showing the total numbers of deaths. Every country that has had a fatality is included.

As was the case with the pandemic, the video starts slow but soon enough the individual sounds and blips build to a crescendo, a cacophony of death. The only way this could be made more ominous & upsetting is by including the first song off of Cliff Martinez’s Contagion soundtrack as a backing track. As Beckwith notes in the description: “It is likely a sequel will need to be made.” (via open culture)

Mass Covid-19 Death in Brazil

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 26, 2020

My God, this aerial photo of dozens of recent graves in the Nossa Senhora Aparecida cemetery in Manaus, Brazil:

Brazil Covid-19 graves

The photo is one of several from In Focus’s look at the Thousands of Burials Across Latin America. Brazil has 1.2 million confirmed Covid-19 cases, second most in the world (but only half the total of the US) and 55,000 confirmed deaths, though the number is likely much higher when you take excess mortality rates into account. Way back in April, when the reported death toll in Brazil was only (only!) ~3300, NPR reported on the mass graves and modified funeral procedures that were necessary due to Covid-19 and the Brazilian government’s disastrous response to it.

Yet the coronavirus has introduced a new kind of horror. The Nossa Senhora Aparecida cemetery has begun using backhoes to dig mass graves.

This has become “the only option” because it is “humanly impossible” to dig the required number of graves, says Viana, who runs a funeral company and is president of the Syndicate of Funeral Businesses in Amazonas.

According to Viana, the city’s daily average of deaths has risen from 30 to more than 100. The mayor’s office confirmed to NPR that there have been 340 burials just in the past three days. In most cases, the cause of death was listed as unknown, said a city hall spokeswoman.

City authorities are in little doubt that COVID-19 victims account for most of the spike. This means the virus is taking a far deadlier toll on Manaus than the official count of 172 virus-related deaths suggests. The reported death toll throughout Brazil is 3,313.

Video footage has appeared online showing the collapse of Manaus’ burial services and public hospitals. In one, corpses lie on beds in a hospital alongside live patients undergoing treatment. Another shows a line of vans waiting to deliver bodies for burial at the Nossa Senhora Aparecida cemetery.

The many layers of trauma from the pandemic are going to resonate for decades in places like Brazil and the US. Decades.

What To Do About Our Collective Pandemic Grief Before It Overwhelms Us

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 26, 2020

For That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief, HBR’s Scott Berinato interviewed David Kessler, who he calls “the world’s foremost expert on grief”, about what we’re collectively feeling as we deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

HBR: People are feeling any number of things right now. Is it right to call some of what they’re feeling grief?

Kessler: Yes, and we’re feeling a number of different griefs. We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change and this is the point at which they changed. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.

HBR: You said we’re feeling more than one kind of grief?

Kessler: Yes, we’re also feeling anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. Usually it centers on death. We feel it when someone gets a dire diagnosis or when we have the normal thought that we’ll lose a parent someday. Anticipatory grief is also more broadly imagined futures. There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety. I don’t think we’ve collectively lost our sense of general safety like this. Individually or as smaller groups, people have felt this. But all together, this is new. We are grieving on a micro and a macro level.

And what can we start to do about our grief?

Understanding the stages of grief is a start. But whenever I talk about the stages of grief, I have to remind people that the stages aren’t linear and may not happen in this order. It’s not a map but it provides some scaffolding for this unknown world. There’s denial, which we say a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities. There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.

Acceptance, as you might imagine, is where the power lies. We find control in acceptance. I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can learn how to work virtually.

Kessler recently came out with a new book called Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.

I wrote a bit about grief a couple years back in this post How Do You Help a Grieving Friend?

One of the odd things about getting older (and hopefully wiser) is that you stop chuckling at cliches and start to acknowledge their deep truths. A recent example of this for me is “the only way out is through”. As Devine notes, in this video and her book It’s OK That You’re Not OK, there’s no shortcut for dealing with pain…you have to go through it to move past it.

See also a collection of resources for dealing with death compiled by Chrysanthe last year. (via laura olin)

Update: Trouble Focusing? Not Sleeping? You May Be Grieving by novelist R.O. Kwon:

Other people who couldn’t stay home were going to work every day — many without the option, the privilege, of doing otherwise — while here I was, home, and I couldn’t, of all things, write. Yes, there’s a pandemic, and yes, I felt by turns anxious, furious, and terrified, but it’s 2020 in America, and I’ve felt quite anxious, furious and terrified for a while. The inability to work, though, was new.

But then it occurred to me, as I ate another astringent chip, that this lassitude, the trouble focusing, the sleep difficulties, my exhaustion: Oh yes, I thought, I remember this. I was grieving. I was grieving in early March, I’m still grieving now, and chances are, you are, too.

(via @_chrysanthe)

Going to the Movies with Jackie Kennedy

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 20, 2019

Carly Simon’s recent piece in the New Yorker about going to the movies with Jackie Kennedy (an excerpt of her book Touched by the Sun: My Friendship with Jackie) was unexpectedly moving. And funny. And thoughtful. Trying to avoid seeing anything related to Oliver Stone’s JFK — “scarier, even, would be a two-minute trailer for ‘JFK’ inserted before the feature-length film we’d gone to see” — the two opted instead for Warren Beatty’s mobster flick, Bugsy.

Every time a shot sounded on the screen — and the film was plenty violent — she reacted physically, dramatically, her body mimicking the victim’s.

How do you deal with trauma like that when society keeps reminding you of it, not only generally (with gunshots in movies) but specifically, with blockbuster conspiracy movies that depict in detail the exact moment when your life was torn apart? And how can you be a good friend to someone who suffered from PTSD (and perhaps never recovered)? How do you assure her that you’re a safe harbor for her thoughts and feelings, that you’ll help insulate her without isolating her?

P.S. Somehow, in everything I’ve read/seen about the Kennedys over the years, I’d never heard that Jackie had given birth to a premature baby boy named Patrick in August of 1963. The baby died 39 hours after his birth. Her husband was assassinated just 105 days later. I… Jesus.

Departing Gesture

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 31, 2019

At the Sebrell Funeral Home in Ridgeland, MS (just outside of Jackson), they perform funerals and cremations for people with HIV/AIDS, some of whom have been abandoned by their families because of their disease or sexual orientation.

In almost one-third of the AIDS-related deaths serviced by Sebrell Funeral Home, the family or next-of-kin will either abandon the deceased entirely or refuse to accept the cremains.

HIV/AIDS is a growing problem in the American South, due to social stigma, poverty, and decreased access to healthcare. In this short documentary, we meet Trey Sebrell, who thinks of caring for all deceased people, no matter who they were in life, as part of his mission as a funeral director.

Euphemisms for Death Collected from Obituaries

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 16, 2019

Writer Rachel Monroe recently shared a bunch of “odd synonyms for ‘died’” that her mother collects from obituaries. Here’s an excerpt from her charmingly handwritten notes:

Died Synonyms

Among the highlights:

(via @tedgioia)

The Mosquito: Humanity’s Greatest Enemy

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 13, 2019

For the New Yorker, Brooke Jarvis reviews Timothy C. Winegard’s The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator.

It turns out that, if you’re looking for them, the words “mosquitoes,” “fever,” “ague,” and “death” are repeated to the point of nausea throughout human history. (And before: Winegard suggests that, when the asteroid hit, dinosaurs were already in decline from mosquito-borne diseases.) Malaria laid waste to prehistoric Africa to such a degree that people evolved sickle-shaped red blood cells to survive it. The disease killed the ancient Greeks and Romans — as well as the peoples who tried to conquer them — by the hundreds of thousands, playing a major role in the outcomes of their wars. Hippocrates associated malaria’s late-summer surge with the Dog Star, calling the sickly time the “dog days of summer.” In 94 B.C., the Chinese historian Sima Qian wrote, “In the area south of the Yangtze the land is low and the climate humid; adult males die young.” In the third century, malaria epidemics helped drive people to a small, much persecuted faith that emphasized healing and care of the sick, propelling Christianity into a world-altering religion.

And then there’s this:

In total, Winegard estimates that mosquitoes have killed more people than any other single cause — fifty-two billion of us, nearly half of all humans who have ever lived. He calls them “our apex predator,” “the destroyer of worlds,” and “the ultimate agent of historical change.”

Two other recent reviews of the book: In ‘The Mosquito,’ Humans Face A Predator More Deadly Than The Rest (NPR) and The mosquito isn’t just annoying — Timothy C. Winegard says we’re at war (LA Times).

How It Feels to Almost Die (and Come Back to Life)

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 11, 2019

Many years ago, Christen O’Brien had a massive pulmonary embolism and it almost killed her. In a Medium post from January, she shared her personal experience about what it felt like to almost die.

Realizing that I was dying was like being pushed into a pool. You have no thought but to hold your breath and start swimming. It was the most out of control I’d ever been in my life, yet the only option was to succumb peacefully. I could hear the percussion of my heart beating wildly, recklessly. My breath only reached my trachea now, its pathway closing in rapidly. My palms spread open to the sky, just as my dog moved to stand over me. I am here with you, I am here to protect you.

She is an angel, I thought with that same clear certainty.

She moved her body next to me, and I looked up to the sky in what I thought would be my final moments.

The clouds.

The clouds.

The clouds.

Recently, she wrote a follow-up called How It Felt to Come Back to Life.

Coming back from death showed me that the journey of life is not what we often believe. On the surface, it appears as a journey outward — toward things, people, organizations, achievements. But in truth, it is a journey inward — toward the soul. Toward becoming who you actually are, no matter how far outward you may have to travel in order to discover that all the answers are within you, where you belong.

It would be easy to misread this post as a celebration of near-death, but that’s not O’Brien’s intent. Don’t get it twisted: almost dying is not a stable way of experiencing bliss or contentment or soul-closeness (and YMMV anyway). Her point is more that in this modern world we do not know ourselves well enough to live fully and completely. But as she says, “coming back to life is not something that requires a close brush with death” — it’s something we can all do.

Resources for dealing with death

posted by Chrysanthe Tenentes   Apr 03, 2019

On the topic of death (a natural part of life we don’t often talk about), the website Modern Loss has extensive resources for many types of loss. Some places to start:

How To: Write a Sympathy Note

Don’t Talk About How “It Gets Better”

How To: Be A Good Listener

Modern Loss’ Grief Reads

On Grief and Social Media/Technology

Related: How Do You Help a Grieving Friend?

A Last Lesson: Buddhist Teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s Return Home To Vietnam

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 13, 2019

Thich Nhat Hanh became a Buddhist monk in Vietnam in 1942 and became known over the next few decades as a teacher and peace activist during the Vietnam War, at one point urging Martin Luther King Jr. to publicly denounce the war. For his activism, Nhat Hanh was denied entry back into Vietnam for nearly 40 years.

Thich Nhat Hanh Mlk

Now 92 years old, world-renowned as a spiritual leader, and ailing from the aftermath of a stroke he suffered in 2014, Nhat Hanh has returned to his original temple in Vietnam to live out his final days.

The monk’s return to Vietnam to end his life can thus be seen as a message to his disciples. “Thay’s intention is to teach [the idea of] roots and for his students to learn they have roots in Vietnam,” says Thich Chan Phap An, the head of Nhat Hanh’s European Institute of Applied Buddhism. “Spiritually, it’s a very important decision.”

Vox’s Eliza Barclay interviewed Phap Dung, one of Nhat Hanh’s senior disciples, and asked him what his teacher might be trying to say by returning to Vietnam.

He’s definitely coming back to his roots.

He has come back to the place where he grew up as a monk. The message is to remember we don’t come from nowhere. We have roots. We have ancestors. We are part of a lineage or stream.

It’s a beautiful message, to see ourselves as a stream, as a lineage, and it is the deepest teaching in Buddhism: non-self. We are empty of a separate self, and yet at the same time, we are full of our ancestors.

He has emphasized this Vietnamese tradition of ancestral worship as a practice in our community. Worship here means to remember. For him to return to Vietnam is to point out that we are a stream that runs way back to the time of the Buddha in India, beyond even Vietnam and China.

Miniature Replicas of Japanese Kodokushi (“Lonely Deaths”)

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 10, 2018

Dying alone in Japan is so common that they have a term for it: kodokushi (“lonely death”). Miyu Kojima works for a company that cleans up apartments after people die and for awhile now, she’s been creating miniature replicas of some of the rooms that she’s cleaned. Note: some of these images might be a little disturbing.

Kodokushi Kojima

Kodokushi Kojima

Kodokushi Kojima

Kojima has been working for the clean-up company for about 4 years and explains that she cleans on average 300 rooms per year. To preserve and document the scene, the company always takes photographs of the rooms in case relatives want to see them. However, Kojima noticed that the photographs really don’t capture the sadness of the incident. And while she had no formal art training, she decided to go to her local craft store and buy supplies, which she used to create her replicas. She sometimes uses color-copies of the photographs, which she then sculpts into miniature objects. Kojima says that she spends about 1 month on each replica.

The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 24, 2018

From CGP Grey, an animated version of philosopher Nick Bostrom’s The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant.

Seeing that defeating the tyrant was impossible, humans had no choice but to obey its commands and pay the grisly tribute. The fatalities selected were always elders. Although senior people were as vigorous and healthy as the young, and sometimes wiser, the thinking was that they had at least already enjoyed a few decades of life. The wealthy might gain a brief reprieve by bribing the press gangs that came to fetch them; but, by constitutional law, nobody, not even the king himself, could put off their turn indefinitely.

Spiritual men sought to comfort those who were afraid of being eaten by the dragon (which included almost everyone, although many denied it in public) by promising another life after death, a life that would be free from the dragon-scourge. Other orators argued that the dragon has its place in the natural order and a moral right to be fed. They said that it was part of the very meaning of being human to end up in the dragon’s stomach. Others still maintained that the dragon was good for the human species because it kept the population size down. To what extent these arguments convinced the worried souls is not known. Most people tried to cope by not thinking about the grim end that awaited them.

For many centuries this desperate state of affairs continued. Nobody kept count any longer of the cumulative death toll, nor of the number of tears shed by the bereft. Expectations had gradually adjusted and the dragon-tyrant had become a fact of life. In view of the evident futility of resistance, attempts to kill the dragon had ceased. Instead, efforts now focused on placating it. While the dragon would occasionally raid the cities, it was found that the punctual delivery to the mountain of its quota of life reduced the frequency of these incursions.

Bostrom explains the moral of the story, which has to do with fighting aging:

The ethical argument that the fable presents is simple: There are obvious and compelling moral reasons for the people in the fable to get rid of the dragon. Our situation with regard to human senescence is closely analogous and ethically isomorphic to the situation of the people in the fable with regard to the dragon. Therefore, we have compelling moral reasons to get rid of human senescence.

The argument is not in favor of life-span extension per se. Adding extra years of sickness and debility at the end of life would be pointless. The argument is in favor of extending, as far as possible, the human health-span. By slowing or halting the aging process, the healthy human life span would be extended. Individuals would be able to remain healthy, vigorous, and productive at ages at which they would otherwise be dead.

I watched the video before reading Bostrom’s moral and thought it might have been about half a dozen other things (guns, climate change, agriculture, the Industrial Revolution, racism) before realizing it was more literal than that. Humanity has lots of dragons sitting on mountaintops, devouring people, waiting for a change in the world’s perspective or technology or culture to meet its doom.

The last living human link to the 19th century is gone

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 22, 2018

For the past few years, because of my interest in The Great Span of human history, I’ve been tracking the last remaining people who were alive in the 1800s and the 19th century. As of 2015, only two women born in the 1800s and two others born in 1900 (the last year of the 19th century) were still alive. In the next two years, three of those women passed away, including Jamaican Violet Brown, the last living subject of Queen Victoria, who reigned over the British Empire starting in 1837.

Yesterday Nabi Tajima, the last known survivor of the 19th century, died in Japan at age 117.

Tajima was born in a village on Kikaijima on August 4, 1900. She had 9 children and more than 160 descendants, including great-great-great-grandchildren, according to the Gerontology Research Group (GRG), which verified her date of birth.

At the time of her death, Tajima was 117 years and 280 days old, making her the third oldest person in recorded human history. She said that her secret to longevity was eating delicious things and sleeping well, but she also enjoyed hand-dancing to the sound of the shamisen.

Tajima was born at a time when Emperor Meiji ruled Japan as the nation rose from an isolationist feudal state to become a world power. William McKinley served as president of the United States and Victoria was the Queen of the United Kingdom. The world’s population was just 1.6 billion.

Tajima was already 45 years old when World War II ended…amazing. According to the Gerontology Research Group’s World Supercentenarian Rankings List, the oldest living person is Chiyo Miyako of Japan, who will hopefully turn 117 in a week and a half.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, addiction, and being “all in”

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 14, 2017

In the latest issue of Vogue, Mimi O’Donnell reflects on the death of her husband, Philip Seymour Hoffman, his addiction, and their family.

The first time I met Phil, there was instant chemistry between us. It was the spring of 1999, and he was interviewing me to be the costume designer for a play he was directing — his first — for the Labyrinth Theater Company, In Arabia We’d All Be Kings. Even though I’d spent the five years since moving to New York designing costumes for Off-Broadway plays and had just been hired by Saturday Night Live, I was nervous, because I was in awe of his talent. I’d seen him in Boogie Nights and Happiness, and he blew me out of the water with his willingness to make himself so vulnerable and to play fucked-up characters with such honesty and heart.

I remember walking into the interview and anxiously handing Phil my résumé. He studied it for a few moments, then looked up at me and, with complete sincerity and admiration, said, “You have more credits than I do.” I felt myself relax. He wanted to put me at ease and let me know that we would be working together as equals. After the meeting, I called my sister on one of those hilariously giant cell phones of the time, and after I had raved about Phil, she announced, “You’re going to marry him.”

Option B: building resilience and finding meaning in the face of adversity

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 25, 2017

Option B

Two years ago, Facebook COO and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg lost her husband to an unexpected death. The loss left her bereft and adrift. Grieving hard, she struggled to figure out how to move forward with her life. The result of her journey is a book co-authored by Adam Grant called Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy.

After the sudden death of her husband, Sheryl Sandberg felt certain that she and her children would never feel pure joy again. “I was in ‘the void,’” she writes, “a vast emptiness that fills your heart and lungs and restricts your ability to think or even breathe.” Her friend Adam Grant, a psychologist at Wharton, told her there are concrete steps people can take to recover and rebound from life-shattering experiences. We are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. It is a muscle that everyone can build.

Option B combines Sheryl’s personal insights with Adam’s eye-opening research on finding strength in the face of adversity.

Jessi Hempel’s piece on Sandberg is a good overview on the book and that period in her life, particularly in relation to Sandberg’s return to work and how that changed leadership & communication at Facebook.

Every year in late May, Facebook gathers its policy and communications team for a day-long retreat. Employees fly in from satellite offices in Germany, say, or Japan. It’s a chance to address problems, and set strategy for the year to come.

Sandberg always speaks, but that year Caryn Marooney, who was then in charge of technology communications, remembers everyone told her she could skip it. She insisted on coming anyway. As 200 people looked on, she began telling the group what she was going through, and how it was. “There were a lot of tears. It was incredibly raw, and then she said, “I’m going to open it up to Q and A,” Marooney remembers. People spoke up.

Talking about her situation allowed Sandberg — and the entire team — to move past it and transition into a productive conversation. Having acknowledged the proverbial elephant in the room, they could all focus on the work at hand. “I think people think that vulnerable is soft, but it’s not,” said Marooney, as she described Sandberg’s tough approach to business questions that followed. “It was a blueprint of what we saw from Sheryl going forward.”

Sandberg has also started a non-profit “dedicated to helping you build resilience in the face of adversity — and giving you the tools to help your family, friends, and community build resilience too.”

See also Sandberg’s Facebook post about her husband’s death and her NY Times opinion piece How to Build Resilient Kids, Even After a Loss.

One afternoon, I sat down with my kids to write out “family rules” to remind us of the coping mechanisms we would need. We wrote together that it’s O.K. to be sad and to take a break from any activity to cry. It’s O.K. to be happy and laugh. It’s O.K. to be angry and jealous of friends and cousins who still have fathers. It’s O.K. to say to anyone that we do not want to talk about it now. And it’s always O.K. to ask for help. The poster we made that day — with the rules written by my kids in colored markers — still hangs in our hall so we can look at it every day. It reminds us that our feelings matter and that we are not alone.