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Kugelgen’s Grave by Casper David Friedrich, 1822

My family and I are still in the throes of grief not only from the demise of my engagement a few months ago, but also the passing of my Nana this past week. It is interesting how different kinds of loss affect people. It all boils down to types of grief, or if you want to get all medical, “stages of grief.” I am not expert, although I did take an eye-opening Grief and Bereavement class in college. However, during a span of 18 months between 2006 and 2008, six family members died. SIX! Needless to say, I was forever changed as a result. So my Nana’s death, is not my first rodeo, but admittedly it was the one of the most beautiful and gut-wrenching funerals I ever attended.

I am an “anticipatory” griever, meaning if the loss can be seen coming a mile a way, such a gradual decline in health, I prepare myself for the evitable death. People who grieve this way usually cry uncontrollably, become angry or depressed, all BEFORE the person/animal/relationship has died. Once the passing happens, there will be a some tears, but acceptance comes far sooner as early as the next day or just a few weeks. There is a sense of relief the event occurred and the declining entity is no longer in pain or discomfort. Now, the anticipatory griever can help assist with after-death rituals, taking care of others, or getting back to business.

Is this the best way to grieve? No, because there is no “best” way. Some people respond by distraction; keeping busy whether it’s related to the death such as funeral preparations or simply cleaning the house excessively. Others become despondent and “check out.” They refuse to interact with the world and may forget to eat or sleep for inordinate amount of time. Due to the brush with mortality, others throw themselves into risky behaviors in order to feel alive or numb the pain. This can manifest in alcohol, drugs, temporary adrenaline junkie quests or even a spike in promiscuity. Granted, these behaviors ought to be monitored by family members or a professional therapist.

Like parenting, a person cannot know how they will react until the event occurs the first time. Depending on the relationship with the deceased and the phase in a persons’ life, they will handle the loss differently. According to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a giant in the field of near-death studies, there are five stages of grief: bargaining, denial, depression, anger, and acceptance. The biggest take away from my college course was grief is NOT linear! More over, some people go back and forth through the various stages. These stages do not do not have a set time. A person is not expected to go through Bargaining stage for three weeks, the Denial phase for three weeks, and so on. Some people never even hit certain stages and skip straight from bargaining to acceptance. Others never accept it for the rest of their lives.

For example let’s say Allen’s sweet grandfather passed away recently. Allen’s stages of grief might be thus:

  • A few months bargaining with God ‘Please don’t take my grandfather. . . If my grandfather lives through this I’ll never say an unkind word to him for the rest of our lives. .  .”
  • A few weeks in denial. “He’s not really gone. He’s just in the next room.” The shock of reality is too great to deal with. It is a built-in defense mechanism to help people go about their lives until they are able to process the loss.
  • Half a year in depression. Allen does not have a mental illness, he has a legitimate reason for his sadness. Reality has sunk in and Grandfather truly is gone. He’s not coming back. Ever.
  • A few weeks with Anger. This is a normal and natural response. Unfortunately no person is safe from Allen’s wrath.
    • “Those stupid doctors! How could they not fix it?! Why are we paying them a million dollars if they are not going to save his life?”
    • “I’m so peeved at Grandma for feeding him this crap all these years when she knew he had a problem. She killed him!”
    • “How dare my friend Sam try to tell me a joke right now! This is not the time for joking! That insensitive jerk!”
    • “Grandfather, you knew you had a problem, why didn’t you seek help earlier?? Why did you force poor Grandma into getting it for you? If you weren’t already dead, I’d kill you myself!”
    • “God, where are you in all of this?! I avow you do not exist! Do you hear me?! No loving God would take away my Grandfather. He did not deserve this death!”
    • “What kind of sick bastard am I blaming everyone else?! I’M the one who killed him. I introduced him to that food years ago. What kind freakin’ fool am I? I should have known better! Damnit, I am so mad at myself. I’m going to hell for this aren’t I?”
  • Back to a few more weeks of Depression. There was nothing anyone could do. There is no blame or if you look closely ‘everyone’ is to blame. The past caught up with the present.
  • Finally Acceptance. Which does not mean Allen is fine or okay with the loss. It means he has accepted his new reality. Death is inevitable after all. A notion which does nothing to diminish the pain and ache of loss. “But what is death, if not rebirth.” Allen’s personality and life course has changed, hopefully something ‘good’ was set in motion at the time of Grandfather’s demise. Perhaps Grandfather’s nurse, ends up becoming his future wife or Allen gets some inherence so he is now able to finish college and get his degree. Or maybe it’s all internal and Allen will show more sympathy to others who experience loss and be able to gird himself for when his Grandma passes away a few years later.

The Victorians have turned grief and bereavement into High Art fraught with enormous amount of symbolisms and rituals. There was a joke during the era that England’s national pastime was Mourning. Why? Queen Victoria made a career out of it. After the death of Prince Albert she wore black for the rest of her life. It is taken from ancient times where how long a person mourned was equated with how much the mourner loved the deceased. As it was often the case, widows wore black for the rest of their lives. In that sense, Queen Victoria was practically common. However, given her station, it was not expected and there was the assumption she would return to normal court duties of balls, parties, other manners of gaiety and frivolity.

Thus said, a widow or widower was allowed to remarry. For a widow, she had to mourn for a full year or two, unless her situation and status demanded otherwise. For a widower with children, it was expected for him to remarry as soon as possible because men simply could not raise the kids. However, if a widower had no children, he wanted to marry the next day, he could without too much gossip. But during the 19th century it was “a sweet testament to the relationship,” if the surviving devoted spouse never remarried.

However the length of mourning was dictated by the relationship to the deceased. This relationship also specified what colors, fabrics, clothing style were acceptable. This includes the accessories of jet and the hair jewelry made from the deceased’s tresses.

Restricting social activities was also considering honoring the dearly departed. If you are sad, then you can’t be happy. You must focused on your loss and it would be sacrilegious to have a good time while your loved one is rotting away underground.–At least that is the arch typical and prevailing mindset of the Victorians.

Funerals were elaborate spectacles, naturally. As were the ornate headstones. The Victorians never did anything half-assed. All were done in the name of honoring the dead and showing how much they were loved.

Incidentally, since mourning periods could be quite lengthy, it is possible for some people to never come out of mourning because some relative or friend just recently died. So perhaps Queen Victoria had a point, every day someone dies (actually, it’s more than one person a day. I’m sure of it.) Albeit, Queen Victoria mourned forever for her dear, darling Prince Albert. Which also brings up one last point, despite any caustic character qualities a person had while alive, they suddenly became saints at the time of death. It was a very real thing during the 1800s to idolize the dead and never speak ill of them. Part was polite courtesy, part of it was superstition. Word will cross over into the netherworld and Aunt Mildred will come back to haunt since she heard you talking smack about her now that she was gone. Tsk. Tsk.

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