Friday, October 28, 2011 10:43 AM
When someone you love dies, an avalanche of tasks customarily follows: You must meet with the funeral director, select a casket or urn, fret over final attire, write an obituary, choose service music, greet relatives, and assure everyone that, yes, you’ll be all right. But still, somewhere under the crush, there’s time for grief.
Increasingly, though, deep mourning is being suppressed or pushed aside, whether by prescribed medication or by the trend to choose upbeat celebrations over traditional cry-your-eyes-out funerals. Understandably, the bereaved want to save money (the Federal Trade Commission estimates the average funeral costs over $10,000), they want to honor the deceased, and they want to feel better faster. But in The United Church Observer, associate minister Kenneth Bagnell writes that we should give old-fashioned grief a chance.
Diminished funeral customs are admittedly less expensive. But some grief specialists warn we may be eroding helpful rituals of bereavement, the loss of which we may not notice at first.
Such specialists often question the trend to replace words like “funeral” and “memorial service” with “celebration of life.” They see it as a subtle attempt to avoid the reality of death, which we ought to recognize even when painful. Their skepticism…strikes me as understandable, especially in regard to some funerals I’ve conducted and can never forget: the young child who died of cancer, the 20-year-old who hanged himself, the actor stabbed to death in his home. In such tragic circumstances, the word “celebration” has, to me, an inappropriate, even offensive ring.
According to Bagnell, dismissing traditional rituals, such as viewing the body before the funeral, is harmful to our grieving process, our acknowledgment of death’s verity, and our profound need for closure. “In my own life,” he writes, “I’ve lost friends but (for reasons I’ll never fully understand) have had no chance to pay my respects.”
Two were friends whose obituaries mentioned a celebration of life at a place and date to be announced. I watched. There was no announcement—certainly none I could find. What I missed, apart from the theology of it all, was the chance to say goodbye.
Source: The United Church Observer
Image by jpockele, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, July 08, 2011 2:06 PM
According to a study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 26 percent of Americans live with some type of mental illness. (Read Utne’s coverage of America’s mental health crisis here.) The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—or more commonly the DSM—dictates how the entire body of medical professionals diagnose mental illnesses. Thus, changes to the manual affect the lives of thousands of people. The fifth version of the DSM is due out in 2013, and the expected changes to the psychological definition of grief, reports Scientific American, are evoking intense controversy.
Specifically, the DSM-V would change our understanding of grief in two important ways. First, the manual introduces a new diagnosis dubbed “complicated grief disorder,” which entails “powerful pining for the deceased, great difficulty moving on, a sense that life is meaningless, and bitterness or anger about the loss” past six months after the death. More controversially, the new version of the DSM will allow depression therapy as early as the first few weeks after experiencing a loss. (Currently, doctors and psychologists must wait until two months have passed since the death.)
Eventually we all suffer crippling grief; it’s a universal facet of the human condition. Then most of us overcome that grief. The proposed changes to the DSM-V make it easier for typical grief to be conflated with depression or diagnosed as abnormal.
Critics of the DSM change worry that grief will be overdiagnosed and exploited by pharmaceutical companies. “There will be vitriolic debates when the public fully appreciates the fact that the DSM is pathologizing the death of a loved one within two weeks,” grief researcher Holly G. Prigerson told Scientific American. On the other hand, professionals like Kenneth S. Kendler of the DSM-V Mood Disorder Work Group, who claim that “on the basis of scientific evidence, [mourners are] just like anybody else with depression,” argue withholding depression treatment is professionally unfair.
The article concludes: “In many ways, parsing the differences between normal grief, complicated grief and depression reflects the fundamental dilemma of psychiatry: Mental disorders are diagnosed using subjective criteria and are usually an extension of a normal state.” Those probably aren’t very reassuring words to someone on the precipice of despair.
Source: Scientific American
Image by e3000, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, October 20, 2010 3:35 PM
The delineation between the clichéd and the truly illuminating “death essay” is a fairly easy line to draw. More often than not, narratives of loss meander into the trite, growing further and further away from any original or discerning insight. William Giraldi’s “The Physics of Speed,” featured in the Fall 2010 issue of The Antioch Review, finds itself on the less populous, and more rewarding, side of the line.
After his 47-year-old father is killed during a high-speed motorcycle accident, Giraldi is gripped by a terror so profound it feels as physically pervasive as a highly infectious disease. Giraldi writes after attending his father’s funeral:
In the following days I learned that absence takes up space, has mass, moves from room to room. Grief is much heavier than fear. Fear hung before me in anticipation, whereas grief was planted like a sequoia in my stomach, its roots reaching far down into my legs for water, its branches reaching up through my arms and torso and neck, the poison from its fruit spilling into my cells.
What seems to seize Giraldi’s consciousness more so than grief is a fervent need to know how this catastrophe transpired. So, Giraldi digs into the details of his father’s demise: visiting the location of the accident, speaking with witnesses of the crash, and even phoning the coroner’s office to obtain a meticulous report on the fatal injuries his father sustained when he was hurled from his motorcycle and subsequently crushed between the machine and the guardrail. The coroner, a man named Steven Grim (seriously), was unavailable at the time of Giraldi’s call, so instead the grieving yet relentlessly curious son spoke with the coroner’s assistant:
Grim’s assistant—that soldier of truth, he who had literally seen inside my father, that place in his head where his thoughts came from, and that place in his chest where his love was—left me with these stories: the dying who refuse to die even when they want to, the bereaved who refuse to bury their dead. And he left me with those cold nouns, larynx and cranial vault. They split like thin, sun-baked shale. Human evolution had no way of anticipating steel and speed, and so we are like graham crackers in the grip of an angry child. Our bodies, so perfectly adapted to the African savanna of one million years ago, are simply waiting to be shredded in civilization.
If only there existed more narratives of loss like Giraldi’s, maybe finding the shared experience of true despair, confusion, and grief in literature would be less difficult to come by.
Source: The Antioch Review
(excerpt only available online)
Wednesday, April 21, 2010 3:30 PM
This is a difficult six minutes, but it's a beautiful piece of documentary work...
From the director:
In 1999 Stevie Lee Fugate took his own life. His death was unexpected and devastating to his family. But rather than give in to despair, Stevie’s father chose to channel his grief into action. Over the past ten years Steve Fugate Sr. has walked almost 25,000 miles, and did it all with a sign over his head saying, simply, "Love Life." His mission is to teach his love for life to every person he meets, so that no other parent will lose a child to suicide.
LOVE LIFE: The Tale of Steve Fugate from Erin Henning on Vimeo.
Monday, July 27, 2009 11:47 AM
There is a wonderful conversation between photographer Zack Bent and journalist Paul Schmelzer over at Eyeteeth. Bent speaks of a piece of his called Lachrymatory—a clear vial he uses to collect his tears and the tears of his wife and children. He explains:
Tears fall often in our house. Collecting them in the vial became a similar ritual to kissing a bump on the head. It became an act of love. This is a case where my art practice heightened the quality of our inter-family relationships and made physically manifest our maternal and paternal care giving … The title Lachrymatory comes from the ancient tear catching vials that were often filled by grieving widows. I collect a lot of tears as a father. The piece definitely memorializes mourning and weakness. The result of the collection is salt; an element of preservation.
Image courtesy of Zack Bent.
Wednesday, October 17, 2007 12:00 AM
If the death of a child is an unthinkable loss, then it must be, by extension, unwritable: a grief that defies language and refuses explanation to those (thankfully) uninitiated. Cathy Smith’s brief essay, "The Unthinkable," in the parenting zine Hip Mama (article not available online) is compelling, in part, because she doesn’t except you to fully understand: She's keenly aware that she's reporting from the other side. Writing about the car accident that took her daughter's life, she provides a burning glimpse into a parental grief, into becoming the “one you never want to know what it’s like to be.”—Julie Hanus
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