Is a concentration on death morbid or healthy?
The question should be what do we do with the fact that the death rate is 100%? If ever we have an opportunity to correct one of the blanks in our way of looking at things, it is healthy. Our culture went through something similar decades ago, when we truly believe it to be indelicate or even offensive to talk about birth or pregnancy or puberty. The language of the time was evasive and indirect. Instead of saying that a woman was pregnant, for example, one indicated that she was “indisposed” or was “knitting tiny garments.”
We are not aware that in the absence of directness and honesty, half-truths and misconceptions are sometimes bred and honestly take on a life of their own. American’s attitude towards sex in year’s past was confused, and in turn the subject became morbid and taboo.
The effects of this prudishness lingered on for a long time. Not until as late as World War II, for example, was the Surgeon General of the United States able to break through the veil of secrecy that had long existed about the subject of widespread venereal disease. He made a forthright statement about the social dangers of neglect and the need for wise and effective treatment. All of the evasiveness and subterfuge in the world would not heal one person so effected he pointed out; and the unwillingness to discuss the problem honestly had heretofore placed many innocent persons in danger. Only when the matter was out in the open could it be faced and could programs for social control and treatment be instituted.
It seems sensible and wise that to repress discussion of any important life subject that has to do with personal and community health is not good. It seems healthy indeed when free talk breaks into the clear.
Interestingly in the year 2015 the topic of sex is indeed free – it is the other end of the life spectrum namely death which is veiled in mystery, secrecy and anxiety.
What major emotions is part of what is called grief?
Grief is clinically defined as the emotion of loss. It is where a young widow must seek a means to bring up her three children alone. It is the angry reaction of a man so filled with shocked uncertainty and confusion that he strikes out at the nearest person. Grief is the little old lady who goes to the funeral of a stranger and cries her eyes out there; she is weeping now for herself, for an event she is sure will come, and for which she is trying to prepare herself.
Grief is a mother walking daily to a nearby cemetery to stand quietly and alone for a few moments before she goes on about the tasks of the day; she knows that part of her is in the cemetery, just as part of her is in her daily work. Grief is the deep sympathy one person has for another when he wants to do all he can to help resolve a tragic problem. Grief is the silent, knife-like terror and sadness that comes a hundred times a day, when you start to speak to someone who is no longer there. Grief is the emptiness that comes when you eat alone after eating with another for many years. Grief is teaching you somehow to go to bed without saying good night to the one who has died. Grief is the helpless wishing that things were different when you know they are not and never will be again. Grief is a whole cluster of adjustment, apprehensions and uncertainties that strikes life in its forward progress and makes it difficult to reorganize and redirect the energies of life. Grief is also a universal emotion. Grief is grief, and pain is pain the world over.
Grief is always more than sorrow. When therapists and counselors speak about grief, they refer to the whole process that involves the person in adjusting to changed circumstances. They are referring to the deep fears of the mourner, to their prospects of loneliness, to the obstacles they must face as they find a new way of living. It is not easy.
What are the roots of grief?
Grief is essentially a deprivation experience. We lose – or have taken from us – something that we cherished and do not want to give up. Grief is love not wanting to let go.
It is strange how ill-prepared we often are for this since in reality our lives are so largely made of up of deprivation experiences. Every time we make a choice we have to give up one alternative in order to take the other. Even time is a deprivation experience. Each second that ticks by is a loss.
Death of course is the most acute form the deprivation experience can take. Divorce is difficult but so many times a corpse is NOT part of the legal transaction – or should not be. In death not only do we lose what we love and cherish, but we also feel that some important part of our own being has been taken away in the act.
Because our sorrow is for a part of ourselves that seems to have been destroyed, we have a doubly difficult time in getting through the experience and on with the tasks of living. It is as with the amputee who “feels” pain in the limb he no longer has. His nervous system still wants to communicate with what was once there, even after that part of him is gone.
Our grief is rooted in emotions which reach out in all directions beyond our own physical being. Only as we literally pull up by the roots the feelings that no longer have a soil to sustain them are we able to let them take root again and be nurtured. This nurturing is a real possibility – but unfortunately some individuals get “stuck” in the grief world and stay there.
What is grief therapy?
“Grief” is the general word we use to describe the powerful set of emotions that permeate us when someone dearly loved dies. “Therapy” is the name given to the process that can help heal the deep hurts of grief.
Much of the current interest in helping the grieving person to handle these deep feelings wisely began to grow out of the research and work of Dr. Eric Lindemann of the Harvard Medical School in Boston. As a Professor of psychiatry Lindemann pioneered the research in the field of grief and its reactions on body, mind and spirit. For many years Lindemann’s work was basically the only resource on the subject. His findings, which some say today are outdated, on the wise management of grief did lay the basic pioneering foundation for the work done by other psychiatrists and psychologists, clergypersons and even funeral directors in helping those who suffer from acute grief to cope with their feelings effectively.
Is there any pattern to grief emotions?
One often hears the comment that every person grieves in their own way. Certainly this is true of cultural grieving and mourning practices, but concerning the raw emotion of grief there are some patterns which are identifiable and predictable. The emotions which are part of mourning usually take three different forms. Sorrow is one. We mourn for the person who no longer is a part of our worlds; and at the same moment we mourn for ourselves, for our personal loss. We feel loneliness, emptiness, a painful sadness at having to face life without the person we have known so long and loved so deeply.
Another set of grief emotions clusters around our fears and anxieties. We are faced with change, maybe sudden change. We are not sure what lies ahead. The fear of our own death lurks relentlessly in the back of our minds, and facing of the mystery of death always opens to us the gulf of the frightening unknown.
Another set of feelings has to do with very practical matters of life. We wonder what we are going to do next – where we will live, how we will pay our bills, how we will find for ourselves some security in a world that has suddenly changed so drastically. The future may seem threatening and uncertain. Sometimes we are required to make decisions by ourselves – decisions that were always shared before. This in itself may make us feel insecure and uncertain.
Emotions such as these usually come pouring in upon the life of a grieving person.
Is grief the same for persons of all ages?
Not at all. The grief of children, for instance, is usually seen in actions, not in words. When there has been a death in the family, the child may suddenly become restless, irritable, perhaps even boisterous and noisy. Without realizing it, they may be seeking some way to calm their fears and loneliness. What they’re doing is putting up a show – whistling in the dark, so to speak.
With persons who come out of a stolid, unemotional background, grief may be expressed quietly and over a long period. Those who come out of an emotionally volatile environment may have explosive expressions of grief that pass comparatively quickly.
With older people, grief is often expressed more in physical symptoms than in talk or action. When the aged speak among themselves, however, their conversations invariably dwell on death, illness and various possible catastrophes; it is as if, in talking about these things, they were getting some control over impending circumstances of life.
Middle-aged people often show their grief by changes in their personality and in the ways they do things. A widower may drive himself to work long hours, as if he could work his sorrow out of his system. Another person may lose all interest in work, spending more and more time seeking emotional support in casual companionship. Sometimes the grieving person will take up the interests of the one they are mourning, as if in doing so they can again share the life of the one so acutely missed.
Grief shows itself in so many ways that it may be almost impossible to identify these acts and emotions for what they are.
What emotions in addition to sorrow do we show when someone dies?
Since grief is perhaps the most complex of emotions – and because its roots are so deep – the ways in which it shows itself are not only varied but may even on occasion be unrecognizable.
Sometimes the grief-stricken person will become oversensitive, embittered, and quickly moved to angry words and acts of fury. Reactions such as these are likely to puzzle and worry; the person may not realize that the anger they direct at family, friend and strangers is not an uncommon part of grief.
At other times a person may turn their anger towards themselves. The person will condemn themselves for things said in the past (or not said) and done (or not done) in the past. This is one of the ways the griever uses to give expression to feelings of guilt. (“Maybe,” they say, “I could have prevented this!”) This self-accusing emotion may lead to actions that serve as cruel self-punishment.
Sometimes the reaction to acute loss is utter despair. Life appears to have lost all meaning. Nothing seems to be worth the effort required to do it. To try to carry on without the love and companionship of the person who has died appears to be more of a burden than the mourner is willing or able to carry.
If this despair and the anger against the self persists over long periods of time, life can settle into a state of depression which can result in self destruction.
Can mental health go wrong when death is mishandled?
Yes. It appears clear that unwisely managed grief can be a precipitating factor in severe mental and emotional illness. The Rev. Dr. Edgar N. Jackson reported in The International Journal of Psychoanalysis in 1992 that nine per cent of patients admitted to one English hospital were described as requiring treatment for “morbid grief reactions.”
I took a look at my notes from Mortuary College when Dr. Eric Lindemann came to lecture. Dr. Lindemann that day declared, “For many years psychiatrist and those interested in nervous breakdowns have talked about anxiety and about conflict as things that make people sick. It is only recently that we realized that depression, sorrow and loss of those who belong to the supportive human environment can be equally severe hazards in a person’ life. In the wards of mental hospitals the patient’s mental disease had very frequently broken out when some dear person had departed from his life.”
How do people show their anger when they are filled with grief?
Anger is a burningly strong emotion, and like most fiery emotions it tends to spread easily and quickly beyond the limits of controlled and reasoned actions.
When people are suffering from acute grief some of their feelings may show up in the form of anger. Part of the anger often times may be directed at God. The mourner may say, “If God took away the life of my dear one, then I will never have anything more to do with God as long as I live.” In anger people often deny any responsibility for the events that affect their own life and try to place the blame on some remote source or person or both. The anger at God is sometimes directed at the minister who stands as a representative of religion, or at the funeral director who stands as a representative of the professional/business side of death, or at the hospice worker who stands as a representative of the hopelessness of death, or at the entire hospital who stands as a representative of the failure to stop what has happened. As one widow said to me, “If God could kill a good man like my husband then God is a cheat and a deceiver.” I understood her feeling and was glad that she felt safe in venting this anger toward me.
Others turn their anger against the physician, blaming him or her for the unfortunate turn of events. The medical profession has advanced so rapidly with so many miracle drugs and procedures that many times the reality and truth that the death rate is still and will always be 100% gets hopelessly lost in the shuffle of tubes, procedures, and charts and hoped for miracles.
I remember very well a man burst out at me in anger. In these types of cases where anger is directed at a professional person it is not uncommon for those who make angry outbursts to write a letter a week or two later expressing deep appreciation for the services that were performed during a time of deep emotional stress. I still have the letter this man sent to me in my file.
The anger that shows up in incendiary words and irrational acts usually spends itself in the safe boundaries – usually. Indeed, it is less likely to cause later troubles than is anger that is repressed and turned against oneself in self-condemnation and guilt.
Is there any relationship between unwisely managed grief and juvenile delinquency?
Yes, unfortunately. In speaking with a dozen boys and girls whose lives exploded in violence, promiscuity, drugs and theft, Dr. Mervyn Shoor who was the former psychiatrist in charge of the probation department of the Santa Clara County Juvenile Court said: “These were not children who hated. These were children who mourned.” Then he explained how a death in the family, such as literal physical death or the emotional death of a marriage can cause the kinds of anxiety and guilt that produce self-punishing and self-defeating behaviors.
“Delinquent behavior by children and adolescents is sometimes a substitute grief reaction,” he said. “These children were unable to release their feelings in socially accepted ways when confronted with the impact of loss and death. They could not mourn normally; instead they masked their grief in delinquent behavior. Their mourning, then, was actually pathological.”
Dr. Shoor’s findings are disturbing to say the least, given that the American public has had a 50% divorce rate for almost half a century. There are thousands of disenfranchised young people in America today. Shoor’s findings verify an earlier study made by Dr. Rollo May of Columbia University, published in the book, The Meaning of Anxiety. In a careful study of the causes for the anti-social behavior of fourteen juvenile delinquents, Dr. May found that eleven of the fourteen had, during their early years, suffered the loss of a parent in one way or another, or of one who had assumed the parental role. Their behavior later in life was the “acting out” of feelings of anger against what seemed to them an injective: events that had, no matter what, deprived them of security and happiness.
Columbine, Dun Blan in Scotland, Paducah, Virginia Tech now Aurora all bespeak the reality of this condition. These are not the acts of happy secure human beings these acts are not reasoned actions. They are unfortunately an expression of tremendous emotional forces which are built up and not easily understood and hence not easily controlled. It is a highly unfortunate event in the experience of life for someone to fatally respond to sorrow with unleashed fury and destruction. There are other alternatives.
What are the important steps in handling one’s grief?
Since grief can lead to serious illness, it is vital that we handle and manage it rather than be dominated by it.
I have discovered in my career that the wise management of grief calls for at least three important steps. First comes the painful task of facing the full reality of what has happened. Bluntly and with determination we must resist detours around the truth of what has happened, no matter how terrible the event it. We must realize that there is no known easy way to face the death of one who was deeply loved. We need courage to endure the pain, aware that ours is strangely and essentially a healthy pain, one that has within it its own healing qualities.
The second step centers on breaking some of the bonds that tie us to the person who has died. This is sometimes referred to as withdrawing the emotional capital from the past so that our feelings can be reinvested in the future. Life has been interrelated with the person who has died in significant ways. Parents invest their hope in the life of a child. If the child dies that investment of hope must be withdrawn, for hope for the future of the child is no longer valid. Only when a person withdraws this emotional capital can they look toward the future honestly. Loyalty to a dead person is always counterproductive. Grieving people need to withdraw their dependence and declare their independence over time. Otherwise their lives will be perpetually bound to a false sense of security which no long exists.
Third, it is vital to develop ways that will make it possible for the person to find new interests, satisfactions and creative activities for the remainder of life. New relationships need to be formed, new acquaintances made, as difficult as this might be. The energy of life will have to be planted in areas where it can be fruitful.
The past is past. While its memories may be treasured, one cannot live on memories alone and be healthy and/or find happiness.
Explain the concept of the Reality of Death?
Dr. Lindemann, from his study of the survivors of the Cocoanut Grove First has pointed out two major conditions peculiar to those who suffer mental and emotional disturbances as a result of unwisely managed grief. “One of them is that the person in many of these states cannot remember very well the image of the deceased.” The distress that comes with fears of viewing the dead body is such that the person will avoid doing it. Yet in avoiding this act the person makes so vast an emotional effort that they may completely obliterate the body image of the dead person.
“Not being able to remember the image of the deceased, the griever puts it out of their mind, which is somewhat convenient in the beginning,” Dr. Lindemann declares. “It saves suffering and the suffering is avoided by a good many people because mourning belongs to the most painful state than human beings know.” But to put the dead body image out of mind at the cost of one’s mental health is really too great a price to pay to avoid momentary suffering. It is far better to fix the body image clearly in one’s mind. This is easily done simply by standing quietly beside the dead body hour after hour, until the full emotional meaning of the death is grasped. Then, with the dead body image clearly in mind, the work of reorganizing deep feelings can take place in an orderly manner.
This clear image of the dead person becomes the working basis from which reorganization of life takes place. Seeing is believing. When the image is not clear and the deceased is put out of mind, the mourner may begin to create illusory pictures that serve ill as a foundation for rebuilding life.
What is the “body image”?
Everybody is aware of his/her own body. Its state of health is perhaps the most important thing in the world to each individual. Psychologists know that we all build up a whole bundle of feelings about our own bodies, and this they call “body consciousness.” Through our own body consciousness an individual is able to imagine what other people are feeling even when nothing is happening to them. You can imagine the unpleasantness of a tooth extraction even if your own teeth are in splendid condition. In this way our own body image is projected out toward other people.
American culture today is extremely body conscious, and our absorption with the state of our bodies shows itself in two ways, “body denial” and “body fulfillment.” Many things we do are acts of body denial, where we say in effect that we do not like this part or that part of having a body. When we shave in the morning or apply a deodorant, we practice body denial. When we enjoy a good meal and stretch ourselves with delight, we are engaging in body fulfillment.
Part of our projected body image is an unconscious movement ahead in time. For instance, we can’t really accept the fact that our bodies will die – or that the bodies of other people will die, either. So when we think of cremation or dissection many people cringe at the thought of the intense heat or the sharp autopsy knife. Our imagination, our body image and our body function are all tied together.
When we think of the death of someone else, part of our body image – with all its specials feelings – is attached to the body. We tend to feel sensations the dead are now incapable of feeling. We know this doesn’t make sense, of course, but we also know it happens. We learn to accept the fact that some emotions are outside the sphere of the logical and rational.
In the process of working through grief, the feelings that go with the body image are part of the problem. They must be understood. Their sensitivities must be taken into account. So we try not to do things to a dead body that would stimulate strong reactions relating to our own body image. An example of this would be the Nazi’s treatment of the Jewish dead during the Second World War. Even the thought of the photographs depicting the horrors of the way the bodies were treated are repugnant to any sensitive person’s emotional sensibilities. I have spoken to many survivors of the Holocaust and their recollections of what happened to their Jewish brethren created intolerable emotional injury. Thus the respect and reverence for a dead body in funeral ceremonials is a way of protecting the body image of the living from intolerable injury.
Why do people often try to deny the reality of death?
I believe in death care we have all seen this occur. When someone is called on the telephone with news of the death of a close friend, a typical first response is one of denial. “No. Oh, no. It can’t be true.” The speaker knows, as well as anyone else, that it can be true, and that sooner or later it will be true. And yet the first impulse is to resist and deny the uncomfortable truth.
Early on in my career I served as a Deputy County Coroner in Cheyenne, Wyoming and I saw denial all the time on the part of parents who received the fateful news from me that their child was dead. Again and again I found relatives denying reality and clinging to illusion. And time and again I saw this illusion shattered when the reality of death was established beyond any doubt in their brains when they viewed the dead human body.
I am afraid that some of the funeral and memorial services I see in vogue today appear to be designed more to deny this type of reality and fact than to reinforce the truth of the reality of death that must eventually somehow, someway be courageously accepted. The somehow and someway is viewing the dead body.
Do people in American today have an inadequate view of death?
Yes. Interestingly an inadequate view of death usually leads to an inadequate view of life. When that happens, life can be abused – and sometimes even destroyed. Let me show you how this can happen.
People who have deep and unresolved fears of death may try to prove to themselves that they are not really so frightened of death. They may make light talk about the subject of death, joking about graveyards, undertakers and dead bodies. They may even participate in games designed to prove that they have no fear of death.
The game “chicken” and “Russian roulette” are examples of the immature gamble with life that could only be taken by one who is really saying “See – I am not really afraid of death.” But the real tragedy is that a person who does such things is actually saying that life means so little to him/her that they would make a plaything out of it. Certainly that is a tragically inadequate view of the power of death and utter permanency it also blocks the power of living life to the fullest.
Variations on this demeaning view of death show up in other ways – for instance, when a person commits suicide with the strange twist of logic that makes him/her feel than in this way they are cheating death by controlling it in time and place. The daredevil, the person who deliberately seeks the most dangerous kind of work, or who does the dare for entertainment, or the person who takes unnecessary chances in life are often people trying to prove to themselves that they do not fear death.
Actually what they are doing is quite the reverse. For them, death is an unhealthy preoccupation that affects every aspect of their living.
Should a dead body be looked at?
Only abnormal interests are served, I think, when one is wants to look at a dead body merely out of morbid curiosity. But for close relatives, and friends, and the community of support affected by the death, the viewing of a body can be a vital part of coming to terms with reality and establishing the reality of death. A sorrowing look into the literal face of death confirms the truth of what has happened – truth that our minds and heart desperately wish not to accept but needs to. Indeed, this moment often starts the process we call “wise management of grief.”
You spend a great amount of time talking about establishing the reality of death – but isn’t viewing the body “too painful” and actually “barbaric?”
There is no doubt that the act of looking at the dead body of one who has been a part of our meaning of life can be painful. Often the pain is more in the dread of doing than in the actual viewing.
It is this accumulation of dread which must be dealt with, for it can be carried into the future. The choice is not between a painful act and a painless act. The pain exists. It is a fact. We decide only how we will deal with it – whether we will handle the pain as a sharp, clean stabbing of the consciousness, or whether we will carry a smoldering, festering injury that will infect our whole consciousness increasingly as time moves on.
There is certainly nothing barbaric about facing life or death with complete openness and honesty. It may be that in subtle efforts to keep from being what we call “barbaric” we come closest to realizing the ruthless and cruel abuse of our own feelings and those of others.
I never know what to say. How can a friend help a grieving person?
Much helpful counseling is done over the back fence as a friend talks to friend without restraint about things that are important. Remember my definition of counseling: anytime anybody helps someone else out with a problem. Simple. In fact, there are times when an understanding neighbor can get closer to the real feelings of another person than can a minister, family physician, hospice professional, funeral director or psychiatrist. And there are many good people out there who will resist any kind of “professional” help.
One of the wisest things a good friend can do is to listen attentively. The effort to pour out our painful feelings often relieves emotional pressure more effectively than anything else. Most people want to talk about their problems. To have someone who is ready and willing to be a sympathetic and understanding listener is especially important at the time when grief is most intense. I believe this is a major reason why Hospice volunteers and are often times as effective as and/or at times even more effective in the field than are the Hospice “professionals” who possess the degrees, titles and credentials
In addition to listening to what your friend has to say, it is also important to receive the injured and shattered feelings with attitudes that make these feelings seem proper and right. Sometimes a shoulder to cry on is a most important part of the ventilating of deep feelings. To know that someone is willing to feel with you even when you cannot express your feelings very well is important. And this is often more vital in the weeks and months after the funeral than it is during the when many people are around.
Is crying helpful in expressing one’s grief?
From early childhood the use of the tear glands as a form of expressing deep feelings is a part of life. As we grow older we may not cry as often as we did when we were children, but when strong emotions need to be expressed it is a useful thing to have these safety valves in good working order.
My psychology professor in Boston wrote, “Whenever stimuli of grief, disappointment, anger, or ‘overwhelming’ joy exceeds the tolerance of the organism, the ensuing state of tension is alleviated by a release of energy from various organs or organ systems which abolishes the tension. The shedding of tears furthers the homeostatic principle so well that it is the favorite mechanism of release during childhood. Probably it would so continue throughout life were it not suppressed by the demands of society for emotional restraint and replaced by other modes of discharge.” This is the clinical way of saying that crying is good for you!
Crying can be a healthy and useful way of discharging pent-up emotions. When one is faced with so powerful an emotion as grief, weeping is singularly appropriate and helpful. We should not be afraid to cry – men too and we should recognize that others have the right to cry if and when they want to.
How can one help themselves when they are suffering from acute grief?
Years ago I made the career decision to become a funeral director, and I have been looked at as being strange and odd ever since by many people. However being a funeral director does place one right in the eye of the storm concerning death, grief and mourning. I have observed that in my helping others I clarify things for myself about living life.
I have found that my efforts to help other people face their grief and comprehend its meaning has somehow assisted me – not only in handling my own emotions, but also by giving me the feeling that what I am doing serves as a living memorial for the one who has died, and as a living testimony of help to those who survive.
One of the things a person who is suffering from grief must do is to be kind to themselves. Often we are our own harshest critics, judges and juries. We say and do things to ourselves that we would bitterly resent were others doing it to us. It is mandatory that we stand off and look at ourselves, our motives and the events of our lives as if we wanted to be our own good friend rather than our own severe accuser.
Strange as this might sound it is also helpful for us to try to look at events and feelings from the point of view of the person who has died. Only then can we begin to modify our judgments and reactions in the light of what the understanding love of the dead person might have been were they present to give us the advantage of their counsel and insight.
Is there evidence that grief can cause more than mental anguish?
Yes. Dr. Jerome Frederick clearly established in his series of article entitled “The Bio-Chemistry of Grief” that “bleak and utter despair” which often accompanies the loss of someone dearly loved is a true factor in bringing about chemical changes within the body.
Indeed, research in psychosomatic medicine reveal clear insights into the relationship between acute and chronic grief and the development of a myriad of pathological conditions including malignant tumors.
Dr. Frederick indicates the connection between cancer and grief by stating that emotions affect the glandular system immediately. The glandular system controls body chemistry, disturbance of the emotions that can come from unwisely managed grief keeps the glandular system disturbed; the result is a persistent disturbance of the body chemistry, and this can and does account for the cause of irregular and unhealthy cell division. In addition certain asthmatic conditions, forms of colitis, and even arthritis have been linked to unresolved loss issues in life.
There is clear evidence that unwisely managed grief could be a significant factor in physical as well as mental illness. This is yet another compelling reason for human beings to form a deep interest in grief, and particularly for all who work constantly with mourners – psychiatrists and clergy, funeral directors and psychologists, internists and pathologists, social workers and hospice workers and even guidance counselors.
It is truly unfortunate, particularly for the innocent mourner, that the “Grief University” does not exist. Worse yet there seems clear evidence that there is no serious interest amongst “death care” professionals in establishing such a program. Too, too bad.
How long should grief last?
Longer than most grievers think it should. It is so risky to make time predictions concerning the length of the human beings reaction to a significant loss in life. In a real sense grief does not really end, but instead people assimilate the experience into living life and grow through their pain and suffering. In a culture that demands rapid solutions to any life problems this position is usually not appreciated nor understood, but concerning grief it is true.
With broad brush strokes it can be said that the most distressing physical symptoms of grief – weakness, nausea, faintness, disorientation and generalized misery pass rather quickly – possible in a day or two or a week.
The inclination to weep continually, the uneasy discomfort when in the presence of other people, and the desire to wake up from this nightmare may last for several days.
All of these intense expressions of acute grief really should have lightened up and/or disappeared in four or five weeks. If these extremely intense reactions and expressions continue unabated for a long time, the griever will basically exhaust themselves and often times will require professional help and/or hospitalization.
After the period of intense expressions the true “grief work” begins. Interestingly it is just about this time when the griever is really beginning to journey through the valley of death that many people think they should be over their loss.
In the end there are truly no calendars, no clocks, and no stop watches where grief is concerned. Grief is slow wisdom, pure and simple, no matter what Dr. Phil says.
I hurt so badly how is grief relieved?
Grief is basically relieved by time, and also by understanding and exploring the ongoing creative impulses of life itself. Grief requires self examination, or the danger lurks that grief will ambush the griever and then they are constantly taken by surprise which makes them only more miserable and vulnerable.
With grief the days drag on and on or so it feels. In our fast lane society this is extremely difficult for a mourner to cope with. Regardless of the artificial and meaningless pressures which the mourner has to contend with from society, there are long hours of slow-moving days which are weighted with pain and defeat. Grieving people basically are not fun to be around.
However all people, in all places throughout history have recognized that time has about itself a healing quality. Just let enough time pass without forcing anything and problems have a tendency to create their own resolution. As time moves on, things that were out of perspective begin to move back into their proper place.
I remember when I was a child on the farm in Iowa one of our neighbors got his hand caught in a corn picker and four of his fingers were chopped off. The physicians and surgeons in Omaha were powerless to save the fingers. Our neighbor fell into deep grief over the loss of something that had been attached to his body from birth – he felt true despair and significant loss. “How will I farm?” “How will I harvest my crops?” Important questions for any farmer to ask! However today he is 80 years old and farms everyday – over time and it was NOT easy, he learned to assimilate his loss into his daily meaning of life, but it took time. No magic potion exists for this type of loss.
When someone we love dies it is like a psychological amputation something is chopped off. Someone we are highly attached to has been cut out of our lives.
When we understand what is happening and give a name to it, it is easier to bear it. It is meaningless suffering that people find unendurable. We need to find meaning in what has happened to us. When we can grasp the fact that death is a part of the cycle of life, then death in general is really not as distressing; rather it is the individual death which we contemplate that presents the problem to us. But if the individual death is related to a larger than life process, we are then able to see it in the larger perspective in which is exists and this understanding adds to the deeper wisdom about living life.
Life has about itself a certain built-in momentum. The Greeks called it “kyros.” Translated into English it means “the right time.” Kyros shows up all the time in the meeting of problems and in the finding of solutions. The effort to do the next thing that must be done helps us to relieve the generalized feeling of our grief, and it helps us to know that we are moving on in time.
So we go on about the tasks of the day, and in the words of Winston Churchill “KBO” – “keep buggering on!” In time the days lengthen into weeks and soon, without our being aware of what has happened, the deep wounds slowly begin to heal and even the scar tissue begins to fade away. Life will never again be the same as it was, but there is still life to be lived and it still can be good, and might just be better – in time.
I don’t like funerals, they depress me, and can’t I have a big party where everybody is having fun when I’m dead?
Today our cultures emphasis on living the care-free life has now even invaded the world of death, dying, grief, bereavement, mourning and funerals. The phrase “Celebration of Life” has been competing with the word “Funeral” for sometime.
Here we meet with a conflicting set of purposes. We recognize that there is no easy way of facing the death of one who was important to our structure of life and our experience of meaning. It is painful – perhaps the most poignant pain that human’s experience.
Naturally we want to ease the pain in any way we can. One way, one ancient way to do so is by showing compassion, patience, consideration, understanding, kindness and lamenting the dead. This is quite different from an effort to “make things easy” by throwing a party which contains the real risk of masking and denying the deep strong grief feelings and by trying to prevent their expression.
It will be helpful to discuss some of the ways in which misguided stiff upper lip people, good intended people try to “make things easier.” They attempt to avoid any show of sorrow by the mourners – weeping, moaning, and sobbing. They seek to hide the hurt by masking it with drugs. They try to hide the loss – by hiding the dead body from sight, by cloaking serious emotions with fun and entertainment, by suggesting a hasty vacation that in reality will remove the mourner from the scene of the loss.
As death care professionals we also need to ask ourselves the question whether or not we are being unwitting conspirators in cloaking the reality of death? Why does one minister give a 30 minute funeral which honestly confronts the reality of the situation, and the next minister gives a 3 minute funeral without mentioning the name of the deceased? Could it be that one clergy has come to terms with the lamentation of grief, and the other clergy wants to get it over as quickly as possible? Good question for any professional person to ask themselves.
Party or not, people need to lament their dead and express the deep emotions which are waiting to get expressed. Concealment of reality by serving champagne and caviar at a party will not change the hard truth of the death. Concealment is not celebration; concealment will only delay the expression of emotions and therefore distort reality.
Why do people joke and make unkind comments about funerals and funeral directors?
The grim events that have to do with death are charged with both mystery and anxiety, and some people sometimes gain emotional release by being able to make light of them. Humor keeps reality at a distance. So we have cartoons that make truly serious international political crises seem less foreboding. We have comedies and comedians to make light of the serious problems of life that distress people. We tell jokes to shake off the accumulated tensions that gather inside us, and nothing gives a sense of release like a good belly laugh.
I remember when I was a student at the Mortuary College in Boston there was a nightclub in Kenmore Square called, of all things “Lucifers.” I was a regular. One Saturday night I asked a young woman who was a student at Emmanuel College to dance. In the middle of the dance she asked me what I was studying in college. I told her I was working on becoming a funeral director, and she fainting dead away right on the dance floor. The subject does created anxiety and dramatic reactions. Many people just do not understand.
It is through humor that we feel that we gain some mastery over the things that may really be mastering us – like a 100% death rate. We know that we cannot ultimately master or deny death, but instead of fainting when confronted with this reality we can and do make it less an emotional hazard by taking some part of the subject of death and holding it up for ridicule, sarcasm or biting humor. When Johnny Carson ran into trouble in his opening monologue he always reverted to telling jokes about Forest Lawn Cemetery and Mortuary in Glendale, California because he knew the crowd would laugh hysterically. Because the funeral director is unquestionably the major symbol of death in any community they are an ever-present target for this kind of humor. I know of no funeral director in the world who does not experience and contend with this situation.
In the end death humor is rarely directed at the funeral director as a human being, instead people laugh at the subject of death and use the funeral director’s job as a quick, easy and convenient way of doing so. Most funeral director’s I have encountered understand this fully.
One last thought on humor and death. I have discovered an interesting psychology. It is absolutely fine for other people to make joke after joke about death, funerals and funeral directors, but it is NOT ok for a funeral director to make jokes about funerals. There is a fascinating paradox concerning this situation. I have concluded that people like to joke about funerals to distance themselves from the reality of the subject, but if the funeral director makes the joke the response is serious and judgmental. It is as if the public are saying “It is ok for us to laugh at funerals, but how serious can be take a funeral director who laughs at his own profession? Good heaven’s how could we trust him to take care of our Mom? We don’t want a comedian as Mother’s funeral director!”
Why would anyone want to become a funeral director – isn’t it weird, strange and unbelievably in bad taste?
You will probably never see Robert Redford or Harrison Ford playing a funeral director on the big wide screen in a movie theater – in fact I can guarantee it! Hollywood has a consistent history of handing funeral director movie roles over to actors like Vincent Price, Bois Karloff, Peter Lorre, and Dan Acroyd.
Weird, odd, strange – those are common adjectives used when people refer to funeral directing as a career. However as most people know many funeral director followed in a family tradition, and have inherited both their interest and their establishment.
Some became funeral directors quite by accident, as did the college student who took a part-time job in a funeral home and then became so interested in the work that they never left it.
Then there are individuals who are born to be a funeral director. They have a calling and basically little choice whether or not they will follow what is in their heart and mind. They are driven to the profession by an indescribable desire to fulfill a mission in life in doing service work that is needed and valued in the community.
I went to the funeral home last night and all the funeral director was doing was sitting at the desk dressed in a real nice suit. Does the funeral director have an easy job?
I suppose we are all inclined to think that the other person has the easy job. This is usually because we do not see all that is involved in what the other person does. This is particularly true of working in a funeral home.
In truth the community assigns to the funeral director one of the most difficult of tasks possible, that of ministering to people who are faced with the fact of death – a fact for which the general public have generally had little cultural or intellectual preparation. In truth funeral directors are obliged to deal with some of the most morbid and gruesome aspects of community life – the suicides, the accidents, the homicides, the child’s death, and the end results of long and devastating illness. They are also expected to deal with the most distasteful happenings in the community with 100% quiet dignity and composure.
There are few things in a funeral home environment or about funeral work which the funeral director can show pride. While a fur salesperson can brag about the sale of an expensive mink coat, the funeral director cannot take a similar attitude toward a funeral. Like the doctor or the clergy the funeral director cannot reveal confidences about their professional activities.
So in answer to the question? It would take quite an agile imagination to make one think that the funeral director has an easy job.
What is the real purpose of a funeral?
The funeral services many major purposes. It provides an acceptable way for disposing of the body of a person who has died. It offers an opportunity for the expression of the religious faith that can sustain the bereaved, the people who must face the loss of one to whom they have been closely related emotionally.
Moreover, the funeral gives the community a chance to recognize the loss of one of its members, and in so doing to offer support to the relatives of the dead person. This is usually a matter of both doing and saying.
To all who mourn, the funeral service provides an emotional outlet for strong feelings, and an acceptable setting within which to express them.
What does abnormal/complicated grief look like?
At close range it is often difficult to separate the normal from the complicated. Under the stress of powerful emotions people say things and do things that are quite out of character.
We must then ask ourselves whether an act that may seem strange and complicated is part of a whole pattern of unusual actions and reactions or merely an isolated occurrence. And we certainly want to see whether this new way of acting and reacting is becoming more firmly fixed or less so.
Complicated grief usually shows up, as does most mental disturbances, in extremes. Sometimes what we observe is a seeming inability to react emotionally at all. The person who is cold, efficient, impersonal, and dry-eyed under powerful emotional stress may be “under-reacting.” The person who goes all to pieces may be “over-reacting.” We cannot on the face of it say that the seemingly calm person is handling the situation well; neither can we say, in the face of an explosion of grief, that sorrow is shattering the other.
If the mourner has emotional weak spots in his/her nature they well may show themselves in aggravated forms under the pressure of grief. Also dysfunctional people usually take their dysfunctions right along with them in the grief experience. Danger signals to watch for are unreasonable withdrawal from normal functions, excessive anger at others, or intense suspicion of others. These last may easily be directed at “safe” people like the physicians, minister, and funeral director or even toward members of the immediate family. Moods of inappropriate elation or deep depression may also be indications that things are not right.
One of the best ways to gauge complicated/abnormal emotional reactions are to observe a person and their behavior a month or so after the death has taken place. If intense physical and emotional symptoms do not ease at all, and the person is not able to function it is a fairly specific indication that they should have some special help in meeting their problems of readjustment.
What is the best way to tell a person bad news?
There is no easy way to tell a person shattering news. There are, however, some guidelines that ought to be kept clearly in mind.
Whenever possible, the bearer of news should be face to face with the one who is to learn the distressing information, for then at least the bereaved will not be entirely alone in their ordeal. Even the one who brings the bad news is an ally in facing it.
The sad facts should be presented in as simple and direct form as possible. Beating around the bush only makes the process for lengthy, complicated, confusing and hence more painful.
The calm, direct approach does not add unnecessary anxiety to a problem that already has enough of its own. The person who brings the news should stand as part of the solution to the problem and not as another dimension to the problem itself. Anxiety and fear are easily communicated and amplified, but so also are calmness and confidence.
Having communicated the bad news, it is important to stand by to accept the emotional response and recognize both its importance and its validity. The first outpouring of feeling may be the important first step toward the acceptance of painful truth and the readjustment of life to it.
To sustain a person in these first painful moments is an important service that may produce good fruits for a long time to come.
What about all this fuss and feathers at funerals? I mean what do ceremonies do for people?
Healthy ceremonies are worthy of such a classification when they serve a useful, healthful purpose for a majority of the people in any given community.
Ceremonies provide an appropriate setting in which people can easily express legitimate feelings relating to important events in their lives or in the life of the group. For instance a funeral in the Italian community in the North End of Boston, will be very different from a funeral in the Methodist community located in Iowa.
A funeral will serve as a healthy ceremony when it helps the individuals in a community accept rather than deny their far-reaching feelings; moreover, it serves healthful ends when it is conducted in an atmosphere that permits facing reality not only personally but socially. When a number of other people accept a fact it is increasingly difficult for one or two members of the group to deny it.
A funeral can actually make it possible for the group to verify its faith in the future by saying, in effect, “We also know what is happening to you, for most of us have been through it ourselves.” Unfortunately private funeral ceremonies so limit the community’s involvement that this faith in the future is usually greatly diluted or missed entirely.
I once served a gentleman whose wife had died. He was adamant that he wanted nothing concerning ceremony and ritual. I gently tried to persuade him that he might simply want to place an obituary in the paper to let the community know what had happened in his meaning of life, and he immediately in anger accused me of getting “kick backs” from the newspaper. So nothing was done to confront and announce to the world what had happened to him. In a month he was back in my office ready to pay the expenses incurred in disposing of his wives remains. He looked at me with an expression of such pain and despair and said this: “You really know who your friends are when something bad happens to you. You know not one person, not one person has called, written or stopped by to see me.” I once again suggested that it was not too late to put something in the newspaper and I again, for my own protection, assured him that I was not on the newspapers underground payroll. The poor man agreed to the obituary. Months later I ran into him in downtown Omaha and he greeted me with a big smile. Evidently once the obituary was published the community, who had correctly concluded in the absence of an obituary, that this man wanted to be alone. When the obituary was finally published the community interpreted the news as an invitation to express the communities concern. And express it they did. Cards and letter flooded in, cakes, pies, cookies, casseroles, and telephone calls arrived daily. The community liked this man and they were genuinely concerned about him and once the door was opened by implementing the ceremonial event we call an obituary the community gladly the threshold of sympathetic understand and sent this man but thought and action a mighty powerful message – YOU ARE NOT ALONE! As a footnote the English word OBITUARY comes to us from two sources. In Latin the word OBITUS mean death and in Greek the word OBITUPOLOS means “a cry for help.” Interesting is it not?
The ceremony depends for its efficacy not so much on what is said as it does on the group’s expression of its own experiences, and on the recognized, ritualized expressions of faith and feelings. When words fail people use rituals across the globe. In this way there is verification of one’s ability to find the way through even so devastating an experience as the death of a loved one. Private funerals rarely accomplished these important tasks in the search for healing.
This ability to communicate thought and feeling through acts that are commonly understood gives to the funeral its special value.
I don’t like funerals. I want a party when I am dead, is this healthy?
Funerals are tough ceremonies. However it is in the rigor of such ceremonies that growth and wisdom the type that rarely is discovered at a party can be found. Customarily wise thoughts do not surface at a party. Focusing on only the pleasures of life is truly unrealistic. In fact it is not only unrealistic but unhealthy. I find it interesting that unhealthy people tend to develop for themselves unhealthy ceremonies. The interesting secret of life is that we become what we think about most. So men with an unhealthy streak of cruelty encourage cockfights and get excited while watching violent sporting activities. Make no mistake these are examples of ceremonies. A person does not watch eleven university football players beating each other up while chasing an inflated animal hide because they are hoping such a ceremony with prove the academic superiority of the university. People with an unhealthy compulsion for gambling see absolutely nothing wrong with widespread playing of dice and games of chance. While these two examples of behavior may not seem like ceremonies at first, they absolutely serve that purpose for the persons who use them.
Contemporary funeral ceremonies have already succeeded in unfortunately building detours around reality. The keystone of the funeral ritual is to help people face reality not detour around it. Too often the “party” funeral “Celebration of Life” concept of dealing with the harsh realities of death lacks any of the essentials which are necessary for reality to be established in the minds of the bereaved.
People fiddle with reality all the time, but it seems clear that fiddling with death rituals is in the present time on definitely on the ascendance. Here are some examples of how people fiddly with reality. Gambling, for example, requires that adult men and women to really believe something patently unreal – that one can “will” the dice to fall in a certain way, or that the power of one’s personal wishes can make a horse run faster at the track, or that a ball will fall into one hole instead of another.
Those who do not want to face the full reality of death can easily today develop ceremonies that make it unnecessary for them to look squarely at death. Parties are wonderful ceremonies for the happy times of life however we are not talking about happy times. Parties surrounding death most often lack several essentials which the human experience has found useful over the veil of time in dealing with the reality of death – namely a dead body, time to cry and lament, a serious atmosphere for reflection and evaluation of life, and an acknowledged period of mourning for the survivors. Insofar as the “party” at death concept serves as escapes from reality they tend to be unhealthy expressions.
Similarly, people with morbid curiosity and abnormal apprehensions concerning death may try to satisfy their pathological needs through excesses in the other direction, which has just as disastrous consequences. An example of this excess would be when a person goes dangerously into debt when purchasing a funeral.
It is important to realize that the reaction to a ceremony is a highly individual and personal thing. In the final analysis, ceremonies must be judged on how they help the people involved to fulfill their important emotional needs which is to get a firm grasp on reality.
Why do people try to avoid looking at death?
There is simply something threatening about looking into the face of death – this threat exists in all cultures across the globe. Throughout my career I have seen in hospitals and other institutions when the last flicker of life of a mortally ill person fades away that almost immediately the nurse or physician in attendance will pick up the sheet and cover the face of the man or woman who had died just seconds before.
Morgue entrances at hospitals are almost universally located next to the garbage dumpster at the back end of the building, and today hospitals have gone so far as to invent camouflaged laundry hampers to transport a dead body to the morgue. It is somewhat as if they are saying, “This is something we cannot bear to look at.”
But why? My entire career in funeral service I know that many people privately think “How can he stand to do that job, looking at dead people all day long!” But why? It is because the person who died is worse off? That we do not know, although we do know that the time of physical suffering is past. Perhaps the explanation is that the death is a reminder of our own mortality, and that this is a fact we do not usually want to acknowledge and hence it is a threat.
“One can no more look steadily at death than at the sun,” said La Rochefoucauld, the French sage. Yet even a lifetime devoted to avoiding the reality of death would not make it possible for us actually to avoid it or its meaning for our lives.
Thus when we would “look away,” we need the firm but gentle urging that denies the escape and faces the reality. One of the real benefits of a funeral is that it makes it possible for us to face this harsh reality without gruesomeness.
Why do people get so emotionally upset when the subject of death is raised?
This question assumes a universal response that I do not believe to be invariably true. Mature men and women, who have thought about death, and who have developed a well thought out philosophy of both life and death can think and talk about death quite casually and without personal apprehension. But it takes time, thought, and effort to develop this life asset.
The groups which have mature attitudes towards death, however is minimal in our population. It is quite true that for many, in fact the majority of contemporary human beings, the whole subject of death are fraught with anxiety and discomfort such as the subject of sex was viewed 100 years ago. This may be caused by a number of things. Sometimes it is caused by childhood experiences when death was not talked about nor confronted and so became especially distressing to contemplate as an adult. For others the mention of death may immediately recall one particular death that was so poorly managed that it created emotional damage which has never been accepted and hence not dealt with. For example a car driven by a friend of mine struck and killed a woman who stepped out from between two parked cars. My friend was unable to avoid the accident, and this fact was clearly established without question by the police and by a court that investigated the accident. He was never charged with anything legally. However his emotions were charged so greatly that even now, many years later, the mention of death, any death, still triggers memories for my friend of that horrible moment when he saw what was happening in his life and was helpless to do anything about it.
The mention of death also is a stark reminder about our own fate, and this is in itself quite distressing for people who have not developed an understanding of the meaning of their own existence. To think about death when one is not sure of the meaning of their life is bound to be upsetting.
I have left instructions – NO VIEWING – of my body. How effective is a funeral service without a body?
It is hard to argue with the fact that without the dead body there would be no reason for a funeral. It is also hard to debate the fact that the corpse is an essential in the larger view in life of what has really happened. However dead bodies are controversial and this controversy is heightened when some people talk about their own dead body and what they want or do not want. The fact that they will be dead and it won’t make any difference to them seems often times to add to the anxiety of the subject instead of bringing a quite sense of resignation to the truth of that statement.
Beyond all anxieties and concerns the presence of the dead body is one of the essentials of a funeral. The presence of the body makes the funeral service specific. There is a clear identify to the event. It clearly becomes a ritual for the person who is there represented by their dead remains. When a dead body is not present by choice or by necessity (lost at sea for example) the ritual tends to become very much like other rituals, but a death ritual is much different from a wedding rituals, how meaningful would a wedding be without a bride and groom, or a christening without an infant? Hence without the dead body the death ritual can lose much of its meaning.
If the purposes of the funeral ritual are to be served then a ritual with its unique characteristics is necessary. A funeral ritual without a dead body present is somewhat like a baptism or marriage by proxy, or a birthday celebration without the birthday boy or girl present. The ceremony can certainly be carried out, but it lacks individual identify.
What about putting make-up and cosmetics on a dead body?
When a body is prepared for the funeral ritual an effort is made to recreate a resemblance to the appearance the person had while alive to which the mourner’s can connect and identify. Proper respect for the dead body determines that it should not be made ready for viewing in an unkempt and disheveled condition. So just as in life the hair is combed and the face shaved.
Let’s look at this issue a little closer. It is not secret that in our culture many people try to improve on the achievements of nature by special cosmetics applied to their faces. I was in Las Vegas and counted over 300 pages of plastic surgeons in that city alone. That was proof enough for me that many people, many, many people try to improve on the achievements of nature by special treatments to their appearance.
My mother has a favorite saying “I can’t go yet – I don’t even have my face on!” Naturally she is not speaking of the face nature gave here, but of the improvements in color and design that she wants to make on improving nature.
Since the efforts to prepare the dead body for viewing take into account the appearance of the person while they lived it is quite natural that the modified appearance cosmetics provides would have to be considered. What often times are objectionable to may is the occasional inappropriate use of make-up. Too much cosmetics, painting up the dead body, are examples of this. However as not every clergy gives wonderful sermons, and as not every nurse gets all the paperwork correct and on time, it is true some funeral directors are not skilled at cosmetics, that’s life. Last thought on this cosmetic subject: remember the main purpose of the funeral is to establish the reality of death in the minds of the bereaved and the thickest cosmetic you can possible have at a funeral is a closed casket lid, then all reality is truly covered up.
What is the secret in healing grief?
All my career grieving people have asked me “How do I get the pain to ease up?” Good question. Answer – go out and do something nice for somebody else. This is truly the secret grief tonic, and it works amazingly well.
Looking out for number one may be in fashion today, and certainly the emotion of grief is a self absorbed experience, however lending a helping and giving hand to others has never gone out of style. Maybe that’s because doing nice things for other people has always had a lot going for it – like the tendency to make people happy, the giver and the receiver. This does take effort, which grieving people may not immediately have the energy to tackle, but in the end it is good grief medicine.
When you do something nice for someone else the griever actually lose themselves in the other person. This process can help block out depression, make us less aware of our own challenges (like coping with grief) and help us surmount our person problems.
Doing nice things for and giving to others, is what can be called prosocial behavior. It is a way of putting others before your own ego and pain, of reaching out to the people around you. And that can only increased well-being because without some connection with others, life doesn’t have much meaning does it?
What does a funeral have to do with the dignity of man?
The way various cultures treat the bodies of those who have died tends to reflect their philosophy as to the innate worth and dignity of the entire human family and experience. In a society where, for example, the state decides who is important and who is not, the irreverent and reckless care of the dead is common place. Nazi Germany’s treatment of the Jewish dead during the Second World War is a premier example of this fact. In fact throughout history civilization have in part been gauged and evaluated as to their advancement concerning the dignity of human beings by how they care for their dead.
There is an alarming pattern in contemporary American culture to disregard the dead. We hide them from sight, to dispose of them and quickly as possible, and to spend the least amount of time in their presence. This pattern of disregard threatens the whole ideas of the human’s special quality to attest that life is more than just a biological event. When the body that has served as the physical residence of the spirit is treated with disregard, disrespect, and disinterest on the part of the living the basic assumptions that we cherish about life named regard, respect and interest are challenged.
The care we show for the dead is really, then, a means we employ to guarantee respect for life. Reverence for life has on the flip side reverence for the dead. Indeed, what we are talking about here is a matter of the value we place upon life itself. If we make any part of the human experience – birth, childhood, adulthood, old age – any part cheap we cheapen all the rest of it. It is regrettable easier to downgrade respect for human nature than to build it up again.
For a long period of time we quite naturally and tenaciously clung to values that dignified the human innate qualities of being. Today however we are certainly gazing with dismay on contemporary practices that allow for this basic respect, regard and interest to wither away.
If death is anything it is democratic. The Grim Reaper is the best example of an equal opportunity employer in existence. When we look at how we care for the dead, we are also looking into a moral mirror of how we take care of the living. Sometimes the reflection in the mirror is hopeful and optimistic, sometimes, many times, today, it is not.
You talk a lot about ceremonies. They seem to me to be too much, too much, too much. Why are ceremonies so important?
Ceremonies are usually elaborate ways of doing things that really don’t have to be done at all except to satisfy important emotional needs.
It is certainly easy and possible to get a diploma without attending elaborate commencement exercise, but nonetheless “graduation days” are wonderful occasions, particularly for the parents who paid the bill, which mark important milestones in life.
A couple can be just as legally married by obtaining a license and having a justice of the peace mutter a few legal words, yet many thousands of people are not satisfied with just that. They choose instead to spend hundreds or even many thousands of dollars that might otherwise be invested or used for furnishing the home to have a big wedding with many friends in attendance, a grand reception with an expensive dinner and flowers, gowns, and much, much more. They take pictures of it so that they will never forget this wonderful moment. None of this wedding ceremony is legally necessary, but it serves an important purpose in the lives of the participants. They seek to surround a most important event in their life with all the meaning, dignity, tradition and joy they can employ. What is absolutely amazing is they do all of this and the divorce rate is 53%. Spend $20,000 or $200,000 and the marriage lasts a year. However people still do the ceremony.
Actually, as with most ceremonies, it is an investment in meaning, not permanency. It is perhaps difficult to justify in terms of hard dollars and cents, yet so important to the emotional needs of the participants that wherever you find human beings you will find elaborate ceremonies, made lavish with an extravagance that reason alone won’t easily justify.
I remember all the times I have watched the changing of the guards and Buckingham Palace, or the ceremonies at the Royal Horse Guards, or watching Princess Diana’s funeral on television, or even reruns of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth with all the great pomp and ceremony and simply being enthralled with the sophistication of the British rituals. Of course I know very well that the English monarch has not really had any political power for centuries, but that logic and rational view means nothing to me when I am caught up in the splendor of the ceremony.
It my be the simple baptism of a little baby in a small village church with its quiet joy; the meaning of the social ceremony has its value ultimately not in what it costs (however no one should ever go into debt over a ceremony) but in what it does for the participants.
Where is the grief pill? Isn’t it good to try to remove pain and discomfort from life?
In answering this question we must recognize that there are different kinds of pain. Some we would gladly remove; some we must hold on to as valuable.
For instance, most people would generally agree that it is a good thing to remove the physical pain that goes along with a dental extraction or a surgical procedure. Here the function of pain as a danger signal has served its purpose. Now a competent professional person can remove the source of the pain without danger to the person. Pain teaches us, warns us, and guides us in many ways that help us keep our bodies healthful and intact. Without pain we could easily be cut, burned, frozen, or poisoned. I watched my niece put her finger in the flame of a candle one evening at dinner. She immediately started crying. I looked at her and said “I bet you’ll never do that again?” She meekly replied, “No I won’t Uncle Todd.” So some pain is a good thing.
There are emotional pains, however, that cannot be removed without hazard to the person experiencing them. For instance, it is not a comfortable thing to suffer from a guilty conscience. Yet if we did not experience the dismay that comes with guilt feelings, we would not know the meaning of moral choices. And it we had no basis for moral choices our whole structure of society would simply fall apart. No one of us would be able to depend on anyone else. Trust would evaporate. Moral responsibility can never be separated from the discomfort that comes with feelings of guilt.
So also our feelings of grief tend to show not only the value we have placed upon the life of the person we mourn, but also demonstrate the value we place upon life in general. To try to blot out that discomfort would be to threaten the whole structure of human values. Some pain is so valuable for personal and social good that we cannot blot it out without doing incalculable harm.
Clementine Churchill, the wife of Winston Churchill wrote potentially about her husband’s pain and suffering’s as Prime Minister of Great Britain in the Second World War. She wrote with tender affection in the year before her own death of the tears of grief which would roll down Churchill’s face when the decision was made to send this division or that one into battle, and then there would always be more tears when he read the casualty lists. However, no matter how great was Churchill’s pain and suffering he knew the pain was valuable and indispensable for the personal and social good and safety of the entire world in the face of Nazi domination. Mrs. Churchill wrote that “I knew that he knew without many month and years of blood, tears, toil and sweat against Hitler and his thugs there would certainly be incalculable harm done to the human race.” In other words the pain which Churchill suffered in destroying Hitler was in the end good, and some historians would go so far as to say the greatest good in the modern history.