Mary C. Howell
Death is the endpoint of growing old. As children, we can hardly imagine death. In youth, we defy death. By mid-life, we begin to understand death as more than a concept--it becomes an inner reality, an expectation. As old age moves through us, we come more and more to accept the coming fact of our own death, an acceptance that is reinforced by our participation in rituals that commemorate the deaths of others who are close to us.
Cross-culturally, awe is always a central aspect of the human regard for death. But in our culture, we have learned to look at death with different emotions--fear, even loathing. In medical science, death is regarded as the enemy to be vanquished. This cultural perspective makes it difficult for us to do the work that we need to do to prepare for death. Only when we can look on death as the last great transition, the proper end to life, perhaps even the beginning of other unknowns, can we look toward our timely death with a welcome anticipation.
People with mental retardation are no different in this respect than the rest of us. We can realize how strongly our culture disparages old age when we hear a person with mental retardation say, "I don't like [that person]; she's old. I don't ever want to be old." We have very little permission to talk about death in an open and exploring fashion; with people who are mentally retarded, the same pained avoidance usually appears when we open a conversation about dying. Allowing and encouraging talk about death, teaching some words and concepts, demonstrating attitudes of respect and strength, are gifts for someone with mental retardation who is growing old and thus approaching death.
Learning to look at death is part of learning to look at loss and mourning. Mourning is a process, not an illness. Commonly, mourning the loss of someone who is important to us takes a period of about two