The mourning process is a surreal and awkward experience in modern American society. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. They pointed out to us in Sociology class (the only class required for all seniors when I was in high school) that our society doesn’t really “do” death.
We don’t even use the word, except with respect to cars. I can tell people that my minivan “died” at the stoplight. But my Dad “passed away.” Even dogs are “put to sleep.” Our loved ones aren’t allowed to die. We can say they are “no longer with us.” But then someone is bound to remind us that loved ones are always “with us in spirit.”
Well, maybe they are some of the time. But most of the time, they’re not. They’re gone. A dead person is dead. And we need to accept that in order to move on with the rest of our own lives. Signs, reminders, feelings of closeness – they’re all great. But if we focus on searching for connections to the dead, we never truly mourn the loss of the connection. And we should.
Because the loss is real, however much we may tell ourselves that so and so is “with us in spirit.”
Grief may seem selfish at times, and that’s okay. The dead person is no longer in pain, no longer dealing with the cares of this world, has moved on to be with God. Isn’t it selfish to wish them back? Yes. We should go ahead and do it anyway. It’s not like wishing is going to reincarnate loved ones unless we go all “Pet Sematery” about it. What we are really grieving is the loss of connection, and while that is self-centered, it’s natural and part of the healing process. And we owe it to the people we cared about to heal and get on with our lives. No soul wants to go through eternity feeling guilty because his death caused someone else to tether themselves to a memory and miss out on the flow of life.
So we have to stop for a while and grieve in order to move forward later. It’s a little bass ackwards, but then, so is life overall. What makes it even more awkward is that the time to stop and grieve is not measured, at least not in our current society. Other cultures, or even our own in an earlier age, had rituals and customs that were expected to be followed by families mourning the death of a loved (okay, no one cared if anyone actually loved the deceased—just say a closely related) family member. There were ways to dress, things to do and not do, for a specific amount of time. Artificial? Yes, but it allowed time to accept the loss and provided a pretty constant reminder of it. I don’t advocate a return to the required wearing of widow’s weeds and restraints on socializing, but when our society lost those rules, it also lost the sense that mourning is a process we need to experience, and it takes time to get through it.
When my dad died last month, many people expressed condolences (which I gratefully accepted even though I’m not really sure what they are). And people excused me from the responsibilities of day to day life—until the funeral was over. Then it was back to normal (except for a few friends who seem astonished that I’m not a blubbering mess 24/7). My boss sent a nice fruit bouquet, but then expressed surprise that I was behind on my work after ten days absence at the office. Everyone still expects me to work on committees, attend meetings, plan events, promote everything and in general carry on as if I hadn’t just experienced a major transition in my life. In fact, they expect me to be even more efficient than usual, to make up for the time I missed.
But in reality I need to move slower for a while. I’m not going to spend hours blubbering. But I need extra moments here and there for contemplation. I need time to reach out and connect to others experiencing the same loss. People send cards and flowers, but I wish they could send me time instead.
They can’t. I will just have to take it.
And I will be selfish and mourn some of the time.
My dad deserves it. And I do, too.