Fight and Failure and the Effects on Grief

If we “fight” cancer, then when we die is it a failure? What does it mean when someone has a life-limiting illness but people don’t talk about it and instead say they really “love life”? If someone accepts that they are not going to get well again, does that mean they “don’t love life?” I live near a large university who’s motto is “the victors.” That’s fine for a sport’s team, but when it’s all over the walls of the hospital, are you a “loser” when you die? How do we accept “Being Mortal” (the name of the best selling book by Atul Gawande) when our language around illness and death clearly does not?

*****How does this affect our grief? If we don’t believe “It’s OK to Die” (Monica Williams-Murphy’s powerful book), how do we make it “OK to grieve?” We have distanced ourselves so far from the normalcy of death it is now pathological (extreme, excessive, abnormal) to die. This has also distanced us from, and pathologized, grief.

*****Look at our funeral rituals and mourning practices. They aren’t helping us any. We instantly move from a paradigm of fighting illness to an urgency to accept death and say good-bye. The body, which becomes putrid and dirty the moment it fails, must be disposed of rapidly. We don’t encourage seeing the body right after death; it has no value. It is not “normal” to sit with the body, to touch it, nor heaven forbid, to hold it. We are expected all of a sudden to shift from unacceptance to acceptance and move on. And it only gets worse after that.

*****Americans today seem to think they have two choices for what to do after the [fight and defeat of] death. The body is removed from us quickly as if it’s dangerous, as if the sight and feeling and sound of being around it will damage us. The professional, whom we’ve paid to antiseptically care for this body, either

  1. cleans it, preserves it, makes it look alive again, displays it, seals it away in something that looks like a jewelry box, buries it it in a hole you can’t see, and covers it with perfectly green grass
  2. OR takes it privately to be cremated and then gives us a flowerpot-looking thing full of what we are told are it’s remains, which we then dispose of. We don’t see the body at all.

This way of dealing with the dead body puts the emphasis on hurrying up and dealing with the grief over the loss. As we are expected to not linger with the body, we are expected to not linger with our grief. We are expected to move through it rapidly, one year at the most, get over it and move on. I think THIS is the dangerous thing; in order to fully accept something we need to fully see it, and that takes time, more time than we are allowing ourselves these days.

*****Our American funeral practices deny us time with the body. It is valuable to be with the body after death. It can help us. In fact, I think it is normal to want to be with the body. After caring for someone in life, it is normal to care for them in death. Taking our time to sit with the body, to touch it, to hold it, to wash it, and to anoint it actually benefits us and assists us to come to grips with and accept what has happened.

*****If death is not a failure but a normal end to life, then maybe the dead body is not a failure but a normal part of the end of life. If we accept the dead body, take our time and care for it, then maybe we can accept our grief, take our time, and care for it. No need to hurry. Time and space to see, time and space to honor, time and space to feel. The gift to us in being with death and not distancing ourselves but feeling it, seeing it and touching it, is to help us understand it, and our own emotional, psychic and spiritual responses to it. If we don’t deny death or the dead body by immediately removing it and sterilizing it, then maybe we won’t deny our feelings about it, remove them and sterilize them. We can more easily integrate them, grow through and from them, and get along with them. This is normal grief.

*****New funeral practices, new ways of seeing and caring for the body, can help us. This is so very important to ourselves, our culture and our future.




Fight and Failure and the Effects on Grief — 2 Comments

  1. Many thanks for this article, Merilynne. There is so much to be said for shifting our attitudes towards death, death-care and grieving, but I will only share one here.
    Perhaps the worst part of grieving is NOT the grieving itself, but the isolation that encouraged by our cultural. We are afraid to acknowledge our personal grieving, for fear of being told that ‘we should be over it by now’, and/or imposing our feelings on others (guess why the first statement is made — because folks are afraid of having another’s grief imposed on them). We are also taught not to share our grief for fear of triggering the other person’s personal grief (re their own dead loved ones). How strange it is that some of our cultural traditions are, in fact, based on an awareness that grief does NOT disappear in the few months; but react to that fact with traditions of denial.
    A home funeral (doing post-death care at home over several days, etc.)allows for the development of a ‘community of grieving’. It gives everyone involved — especially the close family and friends, but visitors ‘saying their goodbyes’ as well — permission to share their feelings with one another.
    And those feelings aren’t just mourning/tears/grief; but also funny memories of our loved one and the often silly things that can happen during the practical parts of death-care; and deeply spiritual glimpses of life that arise spontaneously or out of our day-by-day ceremonies. And all of this flows in and out of the purely practical parts of living during these days (making food, cleaning house, paying bills, etc.)in the appropriateness of the moment — the way that the healthy ‘out-working’ of any emotion should. During the home-funeral days, we give each other permission with the energy (as trite as that may sound), and in and out of each other’s energy flows.
    Having done this during the home-funeral days, it is so much easier then to share grief in the future (when and how it comes up). And in so doing, we open up the possibility of re-gathering to honour our loved one in the future (spreading of ashes, first year or each year anniversary) — knowing that it is OK to share further/deeper elements of the grief, or our personal transformations of grief(i.e. to a new relationship with our deceased), at these times. How many urns lie in the back of a closet somewhere, because the family are afraid that the grief will re-arise in the process of collectively deciding what to do with them?
    Home funerals are not for everyone — but they are an option that we have forgotten about; and an option that has layers of values (such as the ‘community of grieving’)that our culture has heitherto denied us.

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