One of the most fortunate learning experiences I have had in my entire life was the time I was a student of the Rev. Dr. Edgar N. Jackson. He was on the faculty of the New England Institute and I took my education and training to become a funeral director at that old venerable institution.
Since I graduated I have depended on Dr. Jackson’s thinking, concepts, materials and approach to dealing with and understanding human loss on countless occasions. I have found that his thinking seems to never get stale or obsolete. On the contrary his wisdom is a powerful today in my career as it was thirty-five years ago when I sat in his classes trying to write down every word that came out of his mouth.
He was without question one of the best friends the funeral profession ever has had.
Today, however, all of Dr. Jackson’s books are out of print. I have concluded that that is a shame for the young funeral professionals in this country who might not have had the opportunity to ponder Dr. Jackson’s concepts. To that end I have composed this series of article on the Wisdom of Edgar N. Jackson
ARTICLE ONE – Dr. Jackson’s Approach
Primary to Dr. Jackson’s approach to the psychology of grieving was his ever present attention to healthy mourning practices.
Dr. Jackson promoted the idea that even though death is universal, it is an event for which no one can be fully prepared to deal with when it occurs. And the experience of death varies, depending first upon the type of death involved – violent, unexpected, expected, etc., and secondly upon the person who is experiencing the loss. Jackson feels that the death experience expurgates the bereaved person’s true psychological makeup, this evidenced by the variety of responses to death, i.e. Normal grief, masked grief, delayed grief, exaggerated grief, abbreviated grief, complicated grief, no grief.
Yet there are certain common reactions to death also. Dr. Jackson related that sudden and violent deaths often cause those affected to focus upon the physical signs and symptoms of the distressing happening. Fainting, loss of strength and nausea are typical reactions to such a loss. These responses are normal Dr. Jackson is quick to point out – typical reactions to the drastic changes in the life situations of those most deeply affected by the death.
In addition to the common physical reactions are several typical emotional reactions to the death of a significant other. Included are the loss of orderly thought processes, feelings of fear and anxiety about the future, self-pity, anger, resentment and vengefulness. Keeping in mind that these physical and emotional reactions must be honestly faced and experienced is integral in the healthy mourning process. A key belief of Dr. Jackson’s was that the reality of death must not be denied or taken away, since emotional energy spent on denial could be used productively on acceptance stances.
It must be stated that the death that is anticipated often results in similar feelings as the unanticipated death. The anticipation falls away upon the death, giving way to the understanding that it is a time of substantial readjustment, with strong emotions bound to arise.
But whether the death was expected or unexpected Dr. Jackson says our reactions are grounded heavily in our attachment to the deceased. Dr. Jackson called the death of a loved one “emotional amputation,” comparing it to the amputation of a limb of the body (phantom limb syndrome). Dr. Jackson refers to these bereaved individuals as “vulnerable victims.”
Mourning as a healthy process Dr. Jackson says is an experience of personal value, the knowledge gained in reinvesting in one’s life.
Two factors emerge in Dr. Jackson’s thinking as the great effectors of one’s responses to death. First is the degree of relationship to the deceased, second is the type of loss. To a lesser degree are the factors of prior experience, emotional stability, strength and general personality makeup.
The topic of anticipated vs. unanticipated loss surfaces again. Dr. Jackson writes: “If you have time to prepare for the loss – to brace yourself against it, you can cope more readily than if you are surprised and caught off balance by the event.” Sudden loss gives no time to muster defenses, and the full brunt of the loss is felt.
The work of Marianne Simmel is helpful to understand this concept of Dr. Jackson’s. Simmel’s study is of the relationship between the loss of a body part and the loss of a loved one to death. “Where she found phantom limb experiences in a significant numbers was among persons who had lived lone enough to integrate the body part into their total life function, and where the loss of it was sudden and unexpected.”
This analogy reveals that true to Dr. Jackson’s beliefs, the extent of attachment and the type of loss greatly affects one’s response to the death of a significant other. Going one step further, Simmel found that those who readily accepted the loss of a limb were better able to adjust than those who denied the reality of the situation.
ARTICLE TWO: DR. JACKSON’S “JUST” AND “UNJUST” DEATH CONCEPT
Some death is logical, as in old age, while other death is illogical, as in one whose life is taken by circumstances which are untimely, unexpected, and unnatural.
Dr. Jackson maintains that some death is real. It is seen firsthand and experienced closely in each of its phases, while other death is unreal. An example of real death may be the death of a parent in a nursing center, where the family experiences the slow withering of life. An example of unreal death may be that of a soldier who dies in a far off land, this death is far removed from the context of the family’s everyday experience. Not only is it difficult to relate to, but it is difficult to accept as really having happened. Dr. Jackson wrote: “Loss that is unreal may be infected by doubt and uncertainty. This infected wound tends to heal more slowly and may never heal completely.”
According to Dr. Jackson regardless of whether the death is expected or unexpected, real or unreal, logical or illogical, or just or unjust, one truth is clear – physical and emotional response is inevitable. The extent to which these reactions manifest themselves is affected by the type of death, though. Whether one is productive in accepting the death or unproductive by denying the reality of the death this choice alone will determine the course of the mourning. As Dr. Jackson put it, “You capacity to have deep feelings for another person is also the source of your capacity for acute pain at the time of loss.”
Dr. Jackson proposes the three items are of primary importance in a person’s response to death:
- Face the reality of the situation. Jackson was firm in his thinking that “specialists in the management of grief say that it is essential to break through the denials and to face the painful reality before we can begin the healthful work of mourning.”
- Accept the emotional and physical feelings aroused. There is nothing brave about denying your feelings. According to Dr. Jackson, “To take heavy sedation to blot out feelings is usually unsound, for it tends to postpone rather than remove our feelings.” Jackson believed that the initial confrontation with the dead body is the time to really being the healthy mourning process.
- Realize that others have experienced similar loss and can help you get through yours. Ventilation of feelings, Dr. Jackson believed, is best facilitated when there is a community of persons with whom you can talk.
ARTICLE THREE: CULTURE AND DEATH
“How skillful we are in coping with death is determined at least in part by the attitudes toward death in our culture.” According to Dr. Jackson this fact is not good news for the mourner. Dr. Jackson continues, “Being a part of our culture, and being so close to it, we are adapted to the values of the culture.” Part of such adaptation Dr. Jackson felt has been in our treatment of death in our society, and such adaptation involves death denial attitudes. Contributing to this stance is the removal of death and the dead from our everyday experience. In an age of advanced medical technology, death is seen as almost an anomaly – something rare. Death has been taken from the home and placed in hospital and nursing homes. Even Hospice today resembles more of an institution than a home. “We have moved from the emotionally involved to the technically skilled,” Dr. Jackson said.
This cultural mood, Dr. Jackson felt, is working directly against a healthy concept of death in our society. The disintegration of the stable family and community unites is also undermining the well-being of the individual relative to the situation of death. Once a source of support and understanding the family, Dr. Jackson felt, has changed in a way that is of no benefit to the bereaved. Disruption of the family unit upon the death of a member makes such a death very threatening. Grief expressions tend to be suppressed in such an environment. Dr. Jackson strongly felt that new methods of expression and support must replace the analogs lost through societal change.
Dr. Jackson said, “How other say you should feel and act is secondary to how you really feel and want to act.” Dr. Jackson stressed that ones feelings cannot be intellectualized away. They are unique and must be realistically faced, in a person way, for healthy mourning to progress. Societal restrictions have no part in such circumstances.
By “acting out,” Dr. Jackson is referring to rites, rituals and ceremonies, and their inherent ability to facilitate normal grief and mourning. These traditional activities, Dr. Jackson believed, are the culmination of history’s solution to solace in a stressful time. These acting out activities enable participants to act out feelings and emotions that are too deep and complicated the put into words and hence express. Funerals, Dr. Jackson believed provide the perfect medium for such acting out. The structure of the funeral, a stabilizing factor in bringing order to chaos is indispensable.
“Acting in,” a term coined by Dr. Lawrence Abt, is the holding inside of ones feelings. This is the opposite, true to its verbiage, of acting out. These feelings, as Dr. Jackson was always quick to instruct, do not cease to exist because their expression is denied. Rather they remain inside, unresolved, and will manifest themselves in abnormal and complicated grief reactions at some later time. Thus it is wise to deal with the grief situation as it arises, for it is at this time that the necessary resources are readily available for use by the bereaved. The funeral is an excellent resource, according to Dr. Jackson.
“All the time, when life is shaken by the overpowering of man’s physical immortality, belief in his spiritual immortality can be especially helpful in sustaining life.” Dr. Jackson believed strongly that there are realities beyond our senses, and that we should accept this spirituality as a source of strength in a troubled time. Stabilization can be realized upon acceptance of the notion that there is more to each person than simply biology.
ARTICLE FOUR – THREATS AND RESOURCES
Death causes many crises. Of significant importance is the obvious loss of the individual person who was a major part of the life of the bereaved. New role relationships arise – the physicians, funeral director, clergy and sometimes police, as well as newly defined roles within the family in adjusting to the loss. Dr. Jackson believed that these stresses can be alleviated to a great extent by community support in the death environment. The family, he felt, no matter how dysfunctional is central to this supportive frame work. In addition there are close friends and casual acquaintances. It would be unwise through isolation behaviors, to shut oneself off from such support.
Using the internal (family) and external (funeral) resources aids the bereaved in resolving the loss. “If you focus on the tragic event, it will become even more tragic in its effect on your life.” Dr. Jackson wrote. “If you focus on your ability to cope with it, it can be a growing experience that will strengthen your life.”
He hinges of history, as Winston Churchill pointed out, swings on the events that are brief in time but great in effect. The wise management of such events according to Dr. Jackson leads to both person growth within and a growth in one’s ability to help others who are experiencing similar difficulties. Dr. Jackson observed, “Instead of asking, ‘Why must I endure so much?’ you might ask, ‘How can I find life’s true meaning in these painful events?’”
Dr. Jackson continues his observation by pointing out that it is natural to respond to the death of a loved one by blaming others. One may blame himself with such feelings leading to guilt. Intellectualizing of true feelings is a process of numbing the reality of the loss. According to Dr. Jackson, “Pastors spiritualize, physicians sedate, and funeral directors generalize.” All of these behaviors are examples of self-deception in the death environment and all will ultimately prove to be unhealthy. Deception arises with the feeling of hopelessness in a situation, when the distress of the moment is exaggerated. “There is no therapy in creating a world of falsehoods or delusion” said Dr. Jackson. One must realistically assess emotions and feelings and determine what resources are necessary and available to deal with the grief. This, Dr. Jackson believed firmly, was not facilitated by self-deceitful behavior.
Closely associated with self-deception is the emotion of anger. Grief often unleashes violent angry emotions. Again such a response to loss is natural – normal, considering the stress involved in the situation. Repressed anger, like other denied emotions, will not cease to exist because they are held in check. Their expression is only delayed.
Such anger is usually directed at the deceased, society, church, or the self. Dr. Jackson outlined four resources to effectively manage anger:
- Admission of the anger
- Analyze the anger
- Acting out the anger with expression
- Abandon the anger
The key is that destructive tendencies can be controlled and turned to a constructive purpose. This wise management not only makes valuable the grief experience for the bereaved, but it enables the bereaved to reinvest their new knowledge in the community with a helpful stance towards helping other people.
ARTICLE FIVE – FUNERALS
Dr. Jackson believed and maintained that a specific order must be maintained at the time of death. He mapped this order in the following manner:
- The event of the death
- Notification of family and community
- Gathering of wits and confrontation with the reality of death
- Community support mobilization
- Religious/faith support
- Disposition of the body
JACKSON’S THOUGHT ON THE VALUE OF THE FUNERAL
“When we come to the end of life, proper recognition of the life of the person who has died seems appropriate. But common sense tells us that it does the dead person no good. But every group in every culture has found it necessary to perform certain rituals at the time of the death of one of its members. Why? For one simple reason: They do it for themselves. They need to verify the dignity and importance of their living and to help guarantee the practices that will protect them from indignity in death when they are helpless and dependant.”
Dr. Jackson believed that the dignity of man in life is comparable to the dignity of man in death. The funeral he felt consists of a series of activities which assist the bereaved in breaking the ties with the deceased in order to modify the relationship. This task of letting go of the past and its object of affection is of major importance. Dr. Jackson felt that viewing the body in death is of major importance on the road to healthy mourning.
“While it is good to remember fine things about a person, it is dangerous to try to keep him alive after he has died,” Dr. Jackson warns. The changes brought about by the death can be more readily accepted if there is a true understanding that the object of grief is in fact dead. This is to face reality and it is readily accomplished through funeral activities.
ARTICLE SIX – DR. JACKSON AND GRIEF
Dr. Jackson’s pattern of grief consists of seven phases, they are:
- Shock – at the news of the loss
- Catharsis – upon realizing the reality of the situation
- Depression – a normal reaction to loss
- Guilt – either evident or masked blame directed inwards
- Pre-occupation – with the deceased
- Anger – blame directed outwards
- Absolute reality – the acceptance of the death
Dr. Jackson was clear that there is no order to the above mentioned responses. Grief, he felt, like any emotion, is unique to the individual experiencing it.
Dr. Jackson believed that if one has met life’s problems with strength and assurance, it is likely that they will meet death in a similar manner, but if their life experience has been one of distress at the onset of problems, a similar response will there be to death.
Finally Dr. Jackson addresses three basic issues in dealing with grief, they are:
We are deprived of our loved one, and that leads to fear, and this is a fear among other things of the unrevealed future without that special person, and lastly is insecurity, where order and become disorder and there is no power to stop it.
Dr. Jackson believed that there was little that anyone could do to remove deprivation of our loved one, but to banish fear and insecurity Dr. Jackson believed that could be accomplished by reasoning over and over that there was a purpose to the death, even if that purpose is not readily evident. Dr. Jackson also admonished that before these feeling arise there must be that realization and reality of what has truly happened. Grief, according to Dr. Jackson is eased when one’s emotion can be freely expressed.
Finally Dr. Jackson condemns six “do not” behaviors in dealing with grief, they are:
- Do not drug yourself – you are only postponing the inevitable.
- Do not feel sorry for yourself – self pity is ultimately futile.
- Do not run away – the best place to face the readjustment is where the readjustment must finally be made.
- Do not withdraw yourself – you are cutting yourself off from helpful resources
- Do not cross bridges until you come to them – do not allow yourself to be overwhelmed about the uncertainty of the future.
- Above all, do not underestimate yourself – each new experience can call forth new abilities and resources from within.