by Terri Daniel© 2008
"Embracing Death: A New Look at Grief, Gratitude and God."
I'm normally an outgoing, very verbal person who is comfortable with emotional exposure. But during the first two years after my son Danny's death, I went into radio silence in terms of sharing my true feelings with people. I'd moved to a new town and made new friends, but they knew a different me… the A.D. (After Danny) version of me. And I barely knew that person myself.
I could talk to them about my divorce or the other dramas in my life, all of which were safe topics that anybody could relate to. But the subject of my son's death and the black hole in the middle of my heart was something so taboo and unspeakable that I barely mentioned it. People were comfortable as long as they felt that I was doing fine and putting the "tragic" event behind me.
In deep grief we suffer alone. Death is so untouchable in our culture that the bereaved themselves become untouchable, and bereaved people are frequently shunned by their social groups, family members and colleagues soon after a death occurs. Our society is sorely lacking in etiquette guidelines for dealing with death and bereavement, so the preferred method is usually to sweep it aside as quickly as possible. The standard for bereavement leave in American companies is only three days, after which we're expected to get back to work and back to normal. While friends, colleagues and family members may gather to bring food, help with funeral arrangements and offer condolences for the first days or weeks after a death, many of the bereaved find that after the calls and cards stop coming, nobody speaks of the event again.
In our culture, the less attention drawn to our grief the better, because our grief makes other people uncomfortable. Yet one of the greatest gifts we can give to someone who's lost a loved one is to stay in touch and speak of the departed a year later, two years later, five years later and beyond. Even though I published a book about my son's life and death, there are members of my own family -- people who knew and loved him -- who have not read my book because they're unable to touch the core of their own grief. Sadly, for most bereaved individuals, within a month or two, our grief is neatly filed away and forgotten by the people who love us.
In Judeo Christian America, we are taught, as children, how to behave in a museum, at a birthday party or in a classroom. We're taught how to speak respectfully to our elders, how to say please and thank you and how to act appropriately in various social situations. But nobody teaches us how to behave around death.
I once had a client with whom I worked for several years. He became a dear friend and spent a lot of time with my family, frequently joining us for holiday dinners and backyard barbecues. He was like an uncle to Danny, but didn't come to Danny's funeral and never said a word to me about Danny's death. We just carried on our business relationship as if nothing had happened. In the same vein, a widow once told me that her husband died of a heart attack while playing golf with a friend. The traumatized friend didn't come to the funeral and was not heard from until more than a year later. Similarly, many bereaved parents find themselves ignored on Mothers Day, Fathers Day or the child's birthday, even though they would cherish some support and acknowledgment on these important dates. It's also common for the friends and family of bereaved parents to avoid talking about their own children for fear of triggering grief, pain and envy in the parent who has lost a child. But all this does is isolate the bereaved person even more. It does NOT help to avoid the truth. None of us has the right to deprive another of reality.
It's understandable that we would be uncomfortable about the death of a child or someone who dies tragically, because it brings home the reality that none of us is ever truly safe from harm and we're all potentially vulnerable to such a fate. But why shy away from the death of an elderly person who was seriously ill, for whom death is a natural, expected event?
In my 80 year-old mother's social circle of elderly widows, it's not unusual for their married friends to stop socializing with them once their spouses die. The widows form their own social networks and become excellent support for one another, but they're acutely aware that they've been shut out by the couples who were once their closest friends.
I hear stories like this all the time. Is this is a behavior peculiar to modern America? Is it different in Australia or England? Is it human nature, or is it culturally programmed? Does it vary among different social structures or communities? Do African Americans deal with death differently that American white people? Do Catholics behave differently than Jews? Do poor people respond to death differently than rich people?
My friend Mukesh Chaturvedi is a writer and attorney in India who recently wrote this fascinating description of how death is handled by traditional Hindus:
"Helping a family when a death occurs is both a spiritual and social duty. There are no professional undertakers here, so it is the family's task to care for the body and the cremation. For the first 13 days there are continuous ceremonies. The responsible family member, usually the eldest son, performs the last rites, which includes lighting the pyre, and during those 13 days he will be somewhat of a hermit while relatives care for the rest of the family. Women cry a lot, and are encouraged to do so. On the 13th day, there is a feast, and religious ceremonies can continue for up to a year. Many marriages are arranged during this period because the community is so tightly massed together.
The death of very old people is always celebrated, and people start planning the feast immediately. Death is accepted, understood and honored here. Lots of what people say on such occasions reflects philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita [sacred Hindu scriptures]. They say, " He is not dead, he has only left his earthly body behind.
Perhaps you know of this Islamic tradition… if you meet a janaza (a funeral procession with people carrying a coffin), you are supposed to walk alongside it or help carry it for at least 40 steps.
What a beautiful tradition! Not only are Muslims required to stop what they're doing to honor the passing coffin, they are required to walk alongside it, to be part of it, and allow it to be part of them. It's an excellent way to personally and publicly embrace death without fear or repulsion.
Odani Keiko, a Japanese journalist, says that dying in Japan has been increasingly handled quietly and covertly in hospitals, but there are still strict social conventions related to honoring the dead, attending funerals and maintaining relationships after a death. It would be unthinkable to avoid a funeral or leave a social circle just because somebody has died.
"The Japanese are not burdened with guilt about facing God, so perhaps this makes the concept of an afterlife easier to accept," Odani says. "It's believed that human souls still live after death and come visit the family in mid-summer. I still remember the old days when people made animals out of cucumbers eggplants and sticks and put them on streets to greet the return of the dead. The dead are clearly more loved than feared."
George Bonano, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University whose work focuses on coping with grief and trauma, recently conducted a study comparing grief processing in the U.S. and China. Bonano noted that the focus of grief in western countries is mainly on accepting the finality of death, so western grieving is very much about breaking bonds with the loved one. By contrast, in China it is believed that the person isn't really gone, and there are rituals and behaviors designed to acknowledge the continued presence of the departed.
"They have a responsibility to help the dead person on his journey," Dr. Bonano says. "Because of this belief, the sense of loss isn't as important as working with the dead to help them find their way. This task helps people feel connected, so grief is much easier to deal with. Some of these practices include cleaning the grave regularly, bringing offerings of food and burning paper replicas of everyday objects that the dead might need in the afterlife, such as shoes or pots The most common paper offering is paper money. In cemeteries and ancestral halls, the Chinese literally burn bags of paper money, which they send as offerings to deceased loved ones."
While most of us can't imagine burning bags of money, the idea of "afterlife care" links the world of the dead with the world of the living in a way that blurs the boundaries between us and expands our view of existence. Can you imagine how different bereavement would be if our culture supported us in maintaining an after-death connection? And if we could learn how to be consciously and fearlessly involved in the dying process -- for ourselves and for others -- the whole circle of birth, death, dying and the afterlife could be approached with eyes and hearts wide open.
 http://www.hizmetbooks.org/Endless_Bliss_Fifth_Fascicle/Bliss-5-Chapter-16.htm When seeing a janaza, Muslims who happen to be in a store, in a cafe, etc. should at least carry it forty steps, walk behind it for a while, and say the Fatiha and other prayers for his soul. It is written in Maraq-il-falah and Halabi-i kabir that when seeing the janaza it is tahrimi makruh to stand up and wait with your face towards it.