A Different Way to Honor the Dead


We can learn from other cultures how to have different perspectives and attitudes towards loss and grief. Memorializing the deceased in this way seems to honor them yet also see death in an irreverent way.


colorful skull
Day of the Dead Skull

With November 1 and 2 arriving soon, I thought about how differently we handle memorializing the dead in the dominant culture of the United States versus Latin America. They hold celebrations every year called Dia de Los Muertos on the day after we celebrate Halloween. I realize that there are also funerals for individual deceased people in both Anglo and Latin American cultures, but we in the USA don’t have the same kind of mass celebration for our dead loved ones.

The celebration is most strongly associated with Mexico, although other Latin American countries celebrate it as well. It is a combination of the celebration that the Aztecs have and the Catholic celebrations of All Souls Day. Offerings are given to the souls of deceased family members, and the occasion is very festive with music and feasting. The celebrants believe that the deceased would be offended by sadness and somber behavior, so instead, they have a lively gathering in the deceased’s honor.
In the USA it seems more somber and staid when a loved one passes, and while we have fanciful notions of ghosts coming back from the dead at Halloween, the actual celebration of a loved one’s passing is usually a very sad funeral wherein people speak mournfully about the person. There are wakes, which in Celtic cultures are meant to be a time to view the body of the deceased before they are buried and I wonder how we would respond to someone having a party in honor of the deceased or going to the person’s graveyard with a big picnic and speaking to the dead as if they were still alive?

It seems very different from Anglo culture, and no one culture is right or wrong. It is just a different perspective and approach. I think it is healthy to have a balance between allowing oneself to be sad and upset about the death, and celebrating the person’s life exuberantly and even with humor and a bit of irreverence. The sculptures of skeletons playing the violin and dancing say to me that some people are able to look at death in a whimsical, humorous way and not take it too seriously. The candy skulls and painting one’s face like a skeleton suggest to me a link between the living and the dead. We are part of a continuum of living and growing older and dying. We may be here on earth for a time and then pass on to some other state of being, but (depending on your spiritual beliefs), we leave a legacy behind, whether actual human beings or the work and impact we have on others. Others are affected by our passing and want to acknowledge that they knew us, that we meant something to us. Similarly, we want to do that for others.

It’s healthy to acknowledge that we miss people who are no longer able to be touched, heard, embraced. But the essence of our experience of them lives on in our hearts and souls. We carry them around with us, and some people even say they speak to their deceased loved one when they need comfort, advice or guidance. I think it is part of the tapestry of acceptance that we weave when people come into and leave from our lives. The tapestry has some bright threads and some darker colors, and we get to enjoy the totality of who that person was to us by acknowledging the spectrum of feelings that accompany his/her passing.

I’m not sure how you will celebrate this Halloween and the days after, but I am in awe of the diverse ways that we humans honor the dead. I think we can learn from all of them and be enriched by the different traditions.

Feliz Dia de Los Muertos!

 

Is my grief normal?


People often wonder if the way they respond to grief is “normal” and expected in relation to what other people do and say when they lose someone to death. Unfortunately, the answer is not always so simple. Some factors include the culture of the person, how they were doing psychologically before the loss, what they expect of themselves post-loss, and how they view the loss. For some folks, if their deceased love one was suffering greatly before they died so death may provide some relief, whereas someone who lost their loved one suddenly and unexpectedly may feel a sense of anxiety and bewilderment.

As mentioned in previous posts, there is a difference between what is psychiatrically considered normal, uncomplicated mourning and complex grief. A sense of bewilderment, some brain fog, sad feelings interspersed with other transient emotions, loss of appetite, and temporary anhedonia (not feeling pleasure in activities and things that used to bring enjoyment) are all symptoms of normal grief. Interestingly, other cultures seem to give people longer to grief before they consider a person’s grief pathological or problematic (e.g., Egypt). Our culture seems to think that most of the symptoms of grief should be over after about a year, which depending on the nature of the bond between the survivor and the deceased, could be an awfully short amount of time to sort out one’s feelings about the loss. To give you a sense of what is considered “complicated”, I refer to Pomeroy and Garcia’s book The Grief Assessment and Intervention Workbook for ease:

  1. Are you especially sensitive to other loss and separation experiences?
  2. Do you try especially hard to suppress anxiety with relation to loss and separation?
  3. Are you anxious about death and loss of other loved ones, or yourself?
  4. Do you have an especially strong, unrealistic idealization about the lost loved one or your relationship with them?
  5. Do you have rigid obsessions and compulsions about the dead person and the loss thereof?
  6. Do you avoid socializing with others because you’re afraid of losing new people too?
  7. Do you have a hard time expressing emotions about the loss, and does that difficulty last a long time?
  8. Do you self-sabotage other relationships after the loss?
  9. Do you abuse substances (drugs and alcohol) after the loss?
  10. Do you have PTSD-like symptoms like numbness, alienation, depersonalization, and emotional overwhelm?
  11. Do you have depressive symptoms like anger, irritability and hopelessness that last a while?

If these symptoms are present, you might want to get some help to cope with the loss with professional support. I would be happy to help you, can be reached at 661-233-6771. You can also look for a bereavement support group in your community. Many hospices have them and they are low or no-cost. Whatever you do, try not to judge yourself for what you’re experiencing. You are doing your best in a very hard situation.

 

Traumatic Grief


This is a new way to think about grief, which is a more intense and prolonged form of grief that disrupts people’s lives over a long period of time. There are elements of PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as well as sharp pangs of longing, searching for the dead loved one, and excessive avoidance of reminders of the dead loved one. A person can have strong sadness and other severe emotions, including fear and anger, and hostility and bitterness about the death. Intrusive thoughts, fantasies and memories about the deceased often plague these sufferers, and they have a hard time functioning. Sometimes people develop severe fears of illness and death in themselves or other family members, and they have a hard time separating their fears from reality. It is as though the death of their loved one acts like a wound, and any subsequent stressor feels like salt on the wound.

Some things that make traumatic grief worse include involvement in a court case, since that keeps the details of the loved one’s death fresh in their minds. Just when a person starts to recover, they have to re-experience the trauma of the loss all over again for a deposition or court date. Another factor is how close the mourner is to the deceased, as well as how their relationship was before death. I often see that when there was conflict between two people who were close, it is harder to let the death go because of intense guilt and/or anger. Lastly, the type of death can make a difference as to whether the grief is traumatic. Sudden or unexpected death of the loved one can trigger traumatic grief because there is no preparation for the loved one’s death. This is often the case with murder, suicide and accidental deaths.

If you or someone you know is having some of these symptoms, it is a good idea for them to get help for it. Grief support groups like the ones offered at hospices and through Compassionate Friends (for parents and siblings of deceased offspring) are one possible source. Another is psychotherapy. Please call me at 661-233-6771 if you would be interested in getting help for Traumatic Grief.

Stages vs. Adaptation


We have a lot of common “knowledge” about grief in this culture and a lot of misinformation as well. One thing that people hang onto when they are faced with bereavement is the idea that they should progress linearly through discreet stages of grief, like the ones described by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. She had the stages you often hear about, including denial, bargaining, anger, and acceptance. People wonder what’s wrong with them when they don’t march methodically through these stages or when it takes them longer to progress through loss than what our culture allows for. I want to propose a different way to view grief. William Worden suggests the idea of adaptation to loss rather than stages, and he proposes four tasks. These tasks are:
1) Accepting the reality of the loss
2) Processing the pain that accompanies grief
3) Adjusting to a world without your loved one, which includes internal considerations like who are you without that person around, and external considerations, such as how to live without them. Additionally, there may be a spiritual adjustments, like how to understand the spiritual meaning of what happened to their loved one
4) Forging a connection with the deceased that endures beyond their death, while starting a new life without the deceased.
These tasks are outlined in William Worden’s excellent book, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner, 4th Edition, published in NY by Springer.