Death is a reality of life; we will all experience the death of a friend, family member, neighbor, or even a pet during our lifetime. And while death is a reality, it is also a topic that many find uncomfortable, unbearable to talk about, even tabu particularly when it is not our own loss, but someone else’s. In working with bereaved individuals, I come across horrific stories of ways in which friends and even family of those who have suffered the death of a close one have turned their back or entirely abandoned the relationship because the “death was too much to handle”. After a short three months after her teen’s son funeral, a grieving mother mentioned how her friends told her to get over it; the family of a grieving spouse and mother of two cut off any communication, and numerous others have abandoned their grieving friends simply because they did not know how to approach them or the situation. These are just a few examples of how the “support system” reacted in front of someone else’s tragedy.
Bereaved individuals are expected to stay “strong”, contain their emotions, and abstain from making their sorrow and pain known to the world. Since when did crying for the death of a loved one become so socially unacceptable? When did this become the norm, and most importantly why?
As I am pondering about the issue of death, I cannot help but wonder if the ways in which we are “expected” to grieve or deal with the death of a loved one are of a cultural nature. I am considering the cultural implications mostly because I come from a different country, and I have been exposed to something entirely different than I am used to. It is indeed quite possible that westerners might view the eastern European practices related to death, funerals, and grieving as primitive and uncivilized. We don’t have pretty funeral homes (and in all honesty I am having a hard time wrapping my mind around the use of word “home” in this context); we bring our dead home from the hospital and keep them in their real homes, in our living rooms with the casket open; we cry out loud for our dead and are not ashamed of the deep tragedy we are feeling. We don’t dress up for the funeral and wake and we hardly ever just weep, while covering our faces to hide our emotions.
The counselor in me wonders about the positive outcomes of containing such deep emotions, of keeping the secrecy of our pain; I wonder about this because when I look at my clients, I notice that in fact, nothing good comes out of it.
So, why is it that we need the pretty funeral homes and perfect ceremonies? Who are we putting a show for, and why? Others? Why is that important?
I am thinking that maybe by “allowing” bereaved individuals to grieve “out loud” a difference could be made in how prolonged and intense the pain will manifest in the long run. I am thinking that maybe if those bereaved would be “allowed” to go with the flow of natural emotion, without interfering and stopping it, the rates of long term depression would lower and mental health illness would stop knocking at their door.
Is it even possible to change –or attempt to- what is “socially acceptable” in this context? Do we even want to, or are appearances and others’ comfort level with the issue of death more important than the mental health of the ones to come?
Diana C. Pitaru is a counselor-in-training, and a student at Walden University. Her theoretical interests are in Gestalt, Art, and Narrative therapy while focusing on multicultural issues and eating disorders.