The Western world has a lot to apologise for when it comes to bereavement. Our approach to dealing with death actually makes it more painful for some people. There is some societal expectation that we can just “get over it”, and that “closure” is our objective. We live in fear of our own deaths, as if death were an option and not a reality. We even fear the corpse – as if it were somehow separate from our once living body, not simply another step in the life cycle. Is this healthy?
The seminal book, “On Death and Dying” was written by Dr Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. I had the pleasure of attending her workshop on the five stages of grief following death and was changed forever. Dr Kübler-Ross reminds us that since we never know when we or others will die, we should never leave a loved one unsure of our feelings for them, and never let your last words be those filled with malice.
In our counselling practice, clients come to us trapped in their grief over the passing of loved ones, angry at their own impatience that they just can’t get past these feelings.
Dr Kübler-Ross was one of the first researchers to analyse an individual’s response to death. Each person’s grief is unique and depends on their personality, the relationship with the deceased, the quality of death (sudden, long, quiet, violent), the emotional style of the bereaved, their mental health, and the social and cultural perspectives on death and the afterlife.
Your personal experience of grief might be some of the elements that you could address with a counsellor in therapy. In addition to your individual expectations, we would also explore how, as a product of society and culture, you can experience bereavement in different ways
The societal and cultural views of death and grief
There are three basic cultural beliefs about death. First, there are those cultures which death is to be defied. They believing that death can be vanquished and is temporary, such as the beliefs held by ancient Egyptians. Second, there are cultures that accept death, including those of the Pacific region, such as the Fijians, believe that death is simply a stage of life. Death is a stage of life, and therefore discussed openly. Finally, we have a western view – the death denying. We behave as if death can be avoided and that grief should to lead to quick and convenient closure. This approach can exacerbate feelings of shock around the experience of death. Suddenly someone you love is gone, and society expects you to just move on. When we struggle we start to wonder if there is something is wrong with us, rather than the expectations of our society.
Rich in rituals
The use of rituals at the time of death may help or hinder the experience of grief. The formal funeral common in the western world is a far cry from the Maori Tangihanga – a three-day grieving ritual with gathering, storytelling, beer and tears a plenty. The same could be said of the Irish tradition of a merry wake. These highly emotive celebrations lament death and mourning as a rite of passage, normalising the expression of pain. It is not sombre, quiet and with restraint. All emotions are explored and experienced.
Connecting to the echo
Staying connected to those who have passed helps people to grieve. Celebrating a loved one’s birthday with their favourite food or wine, or enjoying one of their activities, continues to keep you connected to those who have died. In her wonderful book for children, “The Invisible String”, Patrice Karst reminds us that we remain connected to the dead through our shared love and remembrances. Rituals and celebrations are a great way to maintaining connectivity. The Mexican celebration, the Day of the Dead invites the departed to revisit the earth and join their families. The Chinese traditionally improve the afterlives for their loved ones by burning paper objects such as iPads, new clothes and even cars so that their ancestors are nice and comfortable. These rituals keep the departed loved, remembered and, most importantly connected to the living.
I close with the wonderful poem Death is Nothing At All by Henry Scott Holland, who speaks eloquently for the departed.
Death is nothing at all.
I have only slipped away into the next room.
I am I and you are you.
Whatever we were to each other,
that we still are.
Call me by my old familiar name.
Speak to me in the easy way
which you always used.
Put no difference in your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.
Laugh as we always laughed
at the little jokes we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word
that it always was.
Let it be spoken without affect,
without the trace of a shadow on it.
Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same that it ever was.
There is absolutely unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind
because I am out of sight?
I am waiting for you,
for an interval,
somewhere very near,
just around the corner.
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Angela Watkins is a psychologist and counsellor at RED DOOR Counselling in Hong Kong. Her current clinical work focuses on parenting, family life, parenting SEN children, anxiety, OCD, career change, stress management and divorce.