The Invisible Older Woman, Part II

She Who Was the Helmet Maker’s Beautiful Wife, Auguste Rodin

An erudite literary commentary by Akiko Busch in The Atlantic, entitled the “Invisibility of Older Women” connects an older woman’s decision to decrease public presence with an increase in empathy and insight into the broader world. Her commentary takes my simple little observation in an earlier post about invisibility to an entirely new perspective.

In her article (based on her book “How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency”), Busch is saying that the sense of invisibility begins with the older woman’s choice to limit when and how she is seen. Weaving examples ranging from Hitchcock movie characters to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Darroway, Busch posits that this volitional change in appearances is the basis from which empathy and a broader sense of the world evolve. Ironically, as the identities of the women becomes lost, their understanding of the broader universe is enhanced. Ultimately, their identities become transparent; they are lost: “And it’s probably not the worst thing for any of us to imagine identity as arrangement of letters written for a few moments on the clouded window of a train that is speeding out of view.”

Sounds like death to me.  A willing acceptance of death demands a belief that the world is larger than the individuals within it; logically that acceptance allows us to die.  This takes us to Busch’s concluding statement:

“Invisibility directs us toward a more humanitarian view of the larger world. This diminished status can, in fact, sustain and inform—rather than limit—our lives. Going unrecognized can, paradoxically, help us recognize our place in the larger scheme of things”

Death as Normal

The cemetery at the Kennett Meeting House

Almost every month, there are two resident deaths in our senior community of 400 residents; the deaths are typically balanced by the arrival of two new residents—a dynamic equilibrium of mortality. Typically, a notice is posted, sympathy expressed, and memories of the deceased briefly shared by those who knew them. A memorial may happen although the pandemic sharply curtailed those.  In our Quaker-based community. If there is a memorial it will probably be a simple opportunity for reflection on the deceased’s life and meaning to others. Within weeks, the home of the deceased may be prepared for new occupants. The arrival of new residents adds new passion and flavor to the community and thus the community remains dynamic, not just a “place where people go to die.”

A majority of new residents move into the community as a couple, thus, many deaths in our community are accompanied by the profound grief of the surviving partner.  Watching the community embrace the surviving partner with love, acceptance and support is a constant reassurance for those of us still in partnership. (Professional grief counseling and group grief workshops are ongoing as well.) The awareness of that loving support makes it both easier to die and easier to survive, as experiences of grief are lovingly shared.

Death here is “normalized” as a natural, regular, expected occurrence which ends the life of the individual but not of the community in which they lived.  I think that churches or other communities could normalize death in this way: acceptance of death’s inevitability, recognition in memory of lives well lived, respect and support for the profound grief of survivors, and intention to ensure that the community remains dynamic beyond the deaths of individual members.

When death is viewed as normal, a simple ending phase of life well lived, it is easier for the community to move on. Our senior community is a very good place to live a long and engaged life; it is also a very good place to die.