Death and Grief

We tend to deny death. In the United States, our culture has erected a great wall against it. Whenever death manages to slip through the cracks, we cannot bear to look at it directly, and can hardly speak of it.

Because we deny death, many of us are unable to be truly sympathetic in matters of grieving. Further, we are often unable to explore our own deep grief because of a feeling that we must “get over it” and return to work, or because being emotional is seen as being weak.

By denying death, we deny the fullness of our lives. We repress mind and body in order to armor ourselves against death. We spend so much effort keeping it unconscious that we sacrifice spontaneity and the ability to respond authentically in times of tragedy, grief, and emotional need.

Humans have never been inclined to think about death. In fact, human history is largely the story of our struggle to keep death at bay, by ignoring it through pleasure-seeking, and by trying to overcome it, as in warfare. However, there was a time not so long ago when death was a more visible component of our lives.

When life expectancies were lower, people were, of necessity, more attuned to the cycles of life, death, and grief. Also, with more families living rural agricultural lifestyles, death in general was more obvious and less easy to ignore, as with the killing of farm animals for food. Humans who lived with a greater awareness of death were able to grieve more fully and be more fully supportive of the bereaved. Though the life-enhancing medical breakthroughs of modern times are a blessing, they have obscured essential aspects of death that our ancestors took for granted.

Another factor that has suppressed our culture’s ability to face death and grieve deeply is the change in burial practices that occured in the 20th Century. As late as the 1950s, it was not uncommon for corpses to be prepared by the families, displayed at home in the parlor, and sometimes even buried at home in the family cemetery. Extended family, friends, neighbors, even much of the community were more used to visiting the bereaved, offering consolation and discussing death. Remember hearing about people being "in mourning" for a year? This was an arbitrary time-period, but at least it was more significant than the week or two we're allotted these days. The study of how less industrialized societies - and some more "grief-friendly" industrialized countries such as Italy and Mexico - live with death teaches us that the more we are able to recognize death, the more likely we are to deal with it directly, discuss it with family and neighbors, and express genuine sympathy when somebody dies.

Today, death is usually handled in the hospital or on the way to it, in the ambulance. The body is prepared out-of-sight at the mortuary. The memorial service happens quickly, and afterwards the children go off to play while the adults eat, try to keep the conversation light, or mill around in confusion. The bereaved, no matter how severe their feelings of loss, anger, and confusion, are reminded that "time heals all" and are encouraged to get back to their jobs.

But how can any job take precedent over the need to grieve?

Quite a few people love their work and are comforted by it. Some have duties critical to the functioning of society, and must continue working for the public good. Many work because their finances demand it: they have mouths to feed, bodies to clothe, bills to pay. Others embrace work in order to occupy their mind. The fact of their loss is simply too overwhelming to consider. And some go back to work because they don't know what else to do with themselves.

Yet there are less comprehensible reasons why, after the death of a loved one, people hurry back to their jobs. Some have been raised to think they must "be strong" for their families; any admission of grief is, in their own minds, an admission of failure. Some return promptly to work because the people around them say they must. They are pressured to get over their grief and rejoin the world.

But there isn't always a "getting over it," especially for those who suffer the deepest kinds of grief.

People who haven't been through deep grief can't know why the bereaved may not want to work or "be happy," why they sometimes think suicidal thoughts, why the holidays may be hurtful for them, why they begin to spend time walking through cemeteries and discussing death.

The death of a loved one can, for some people, be the death of meaning. When one's spouse, parent, sibling, child, or friend is gone, reasons for living may seem to fly out the window. Former pleasures, such as making and spending money, eating, and making love can suddenly seem insignificant. The ideas of "pouring oneself into work" or "having fun" may be consoling for some people, but for others these thoughts can be an outrage. Some people find that after a major tragedy, such as the death of a family member, they are unable to live the kinds of lives they used to, and that, indeed, they don't even recognize themselves. Who am I? What am I? Should I keep living? And if so, where should I go and what should I do? Such questions can be extremely pertinent to the bereaved.

But often, they are not allowed to dwell on these thoughts. Well-meaning family, friends, and co-workers cajole them away from what they consider self-destructive morbidity, and try to get them to rejoin life. Widows are encouraged to go to parties and to date. Parents are told they ought to consider adopting a child. Or get a pet. The family puts pressure on the bereaved to celebrate the holidays, as if the sheer force of bright lights and laughter will somehow cheer them up.

The need of family, friends, and even the bereaved to somehow "overcome" grief exemplifies our culture's denial of death. The results of this denial can be disastrous for the bereaved, who may have been whisked into a universe that others cannot understand or feel threatened by.

Each person grieves uniquely. No matter how much we think we know about what the other person is feeling, or how they ought to get better, we don't always really know, and by interfering in their bereavement with our suggestions and remedies we may be doing them more harm than good.

When someone experiences world-shattering grief, suddenly he or she becomes the expert. Sometimes, the best thing we can do for those in deep grief is to make a safe, comfortable place for them and watch in awe as they teach us what it means to be alive. We should never pressure them to "get better," because grieving is not necessarily a process or something that can be hurried through or dispensed with; it's something one may carry for the rest of his life. Rather, we should feed them, clothe them, and love them as unconditionally as possible. If and when the time is right they will decide to make their own pathway through grief, on their own terms. We can never know just what the outcome might be. Nor should we. Yet it is probable to conclude that, given safe space and nonjudgmental care, some of the bereaved will come to live extraordinary lives, and embrace the ever-present realities of suffering, death, friendship, and love.

Well-trained grief counselors, bereavement-support organizations, MISS-certified counselors, and clergy are aware of these ideas and ready to help. We at Friends Along the Road,Inc., look forward to recommending counselors who reflect such values - and there are many. Visit our Referral page to find those counselors in your area who can listen with compassion and possibly offer helpful frames of reference.

Creative Commons License
Copyright © 2012 by David Dell Pierce, Jr. Some Rights Reserved. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Copy and distribute freely if noncommercially, unchanged, with attribution, and including this notice.