Father’s Day thoughts on bereavement and grieving

Today was my first Father’s Day without my Dad. I feel lucky that we never really needed Father’s Day as a reason or an occasion to show love or appreciation – it was ever-present. But today was still a bittersweet day, and the past few weeks of blanket Father’s Day ads, and cards and gifts in shops, have compounded the sense of loss.

Part of the sadness lies in continual developments and achievements that my Dad won’t get to enjoy – like my nephew crawling for the first time, my niece starting to form sentences and, most keenly felt, anything new my daughter does that my Dad won’t see. It doesn’t diminish the achievements but there’s always that feeling of something missing; someone missing.

The Long Goodbye: a memoir, by Meghan O’Rourke

My sister found this great long-form piece by Maria Popova on Brainpickings.org, reviewing a memoir by Meghan O’Rourke about her mother’s death from cancer, and reflecting on everything that followed. The memoir and the review are both beautifully written. I’ve quoted quite extensively from both and hope you’ll be able to read at least the article if not the book. Here I’ve focused perhaps more on the practical aspects of trying to deal with bereavement, but there are some lovely, poetic passages to the book that cover more existential and spiritual considerations.

Paradoxes of loss

Near the start of Popova’s review, she says that in the book: O’Rourke “contemplates the paradoxes of loss: Ours is a culture that treats grief — a process of profound emotional upheaval — with a grotesquely mismatched rational prescription. On the one hand, society seems to operate by a set of unspoken shoulds for how we ought to feel and behave in the face of sorrow; on the other, she observes, ‘we have so few rituals for observing and externalizing loss.’”

This lack of rituals to help towards understanding, processing and getting support for your loss (as well as some of the reasons why moved from a collective to a private approach) are explored later.

“Noting that ‘the mourner’s mind is superstitious, looking for signs and wonders,’ O’Rourke captures [another] paradox:

‘One of the ideas I’ve clung to most of my life is that if I just try hard enough it will work out. If I work hard, I will be spared, and I will get what I desire, finding the cave opening over and over again, thieving life from the abyss. This sturdy belief system has a sidecar in which superstition rides. Until recently, I half believed that if a certain song came on the radio just as I thought of it, it meant that all would be well. What did I mean? I preferred not to answer that question. To look too closely was to prick the balloon of possibility.’

While I’m a pretty rational, unsuperstitious, essentially (and in the plainest sense of the word) godless person, of course I do sometimes let those things in, even if it is only to dismiss them just as rapidly.

Stages or patterns of grief?

Popova says: “Tracing the history of studying grief, including Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous and often criticized 1969 ‘stage theory’ outlining a simple sequence of Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance, O’Rourke notes that most people experience grief not as sequential stages but as ebbing and flowing states that recur at various points throughout the process.”

I agree with this idea of ebb and flow and I think it’s also heavily influenced by the speed at which the process happens… and while it might not make you reach some kind of acceptance more quickly (or possibly ever), from my own experience I found the speed with which we lost Dad, the exponential decline in less than a month, meant that a lot of the reflections I later found in this book and advice I’d previously read elsewhere didn’t really apply.

‘Acceptance isn’t necessarily something you can choose off a menu… Instead, researchers now think that some people are inherently primed to accept their own death with “integrity” (their word, not mine), while others are primed for “despair.” Most of us, though, are somewhere in the middle, and one question researchers are now focusing on is: How might more of those in the middle learn to accept their deaths? The answer has real consequences for both the dying and the bereaved.’

I think the answer also depends, again, on how much time you have left with (or as) the person who is dying and what (if any) treatment options there are, among other things.

Perhaps pancreatic cancer is exceptional, but even with the shared experiences on somewhere like the Macmillan online pancreatic cancer group, or with the positive words of a relevant book such as The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, it really feels like you have no time even for resolving practical issues, let alone being ‘primed’ for or, better yet, ‘accepting’ of death.

As the end nears (and even though you know it will be soon, you of course don’t know exactly when) you have to try to find a balance between sorting out practical (legal, financial) issues and supporting your wider family, and doing basic things like eating and sleeping – but hoping this is not at the expense of having those few, precious final days or hours with the person you love who is dying.

After bereavement: try to let go … or hold on?

In her review, Popova says: “One of the most persistent psychiatric ideas about grief, O’Rourke notes, is the notion that one ought to ‘let go’ in order to ‘move on’ — a proposition plentiful even in the casual advice of her friends in the weeks following her mother’s death. And yet it isn’t necessarily the right coping strategy for everyone, let alone the only one, as our culture seems to suggest. Unwilling to ‘let go’, O’Rourke finds solace in anthropological alternatives:

‘Studies have shown that some mourners hold on to a relationship with the deceased with no notable ill effects. In China, for instance, mourners regularly speak to dead ancestors, and one study demonstrated that the bereaved there “recovered more quickly from loss” than bereaved Americans do.

‘I wasn’t living in China, though, and in those weeks after my mother’s death, I felt that the world expected me to absorb the loss and move forward, like some kind of emotional warrior. … embedded in it is a desire to avoid looking at death. We’ve adopted a sort of “Ask, don’t tell” policy. The question “How are you?” is an expression of concern, but as my dad had said, the mourner quickly figures out that it shouldn’t always be taken for an actual inquiry.

[…]

‘A mourner’s experience of time isn’t like everyone else’s. Grief that lasts longer than a few weeks may look like self-indulgence to those around you. But if you’re in mourning, three months seems like nothing — [according to some] research, three months might well find you approaching the height of sorrow.

[…]

‘It’s not a question of getting over it or healing. No; it’s a question of learning to live with this transformation. For the loss is transformative, in good ways and bad, a tangle of change that cannot be threaded into the usual narrative spools. It is too central for that. It’s not an emergence from the cocoon, but a tree growing around an obstruction.

Private/individual grief vs shared/collective grief

Popova goes on to say that O’Rourke notes: “Another Western hegemony in the culture of grief … is its privatisation — the unspoken rule that mourning is something we do in the privacy of our inner lives, alone, away from the public eye.”

It was fascinating to read the theories for why this happened, starting with the unprecedented scale of human loss from the First World War but taking in a trend away from home-based work to external employment, with more women joining the traditional workforce, and the rise of psychoanalysis prompting a shift from the collective to the individual experience.

“Though for centuries private grief was externalised as public mourning, modernity has left us bereft of rituals to help us deal with our grief:

‘The disappearance of mourning rituals affects everyone, not just the mourner. One of the reasons many people are unsure about how to act around a loss is that they lack rules or meaningful conventions, and they fear making a mistake. Rituals used to help the community by giving everyone a sense of what to do or say. Now, we’re at sea.

[…]

‘Such rituals … aren’t just about the individual; they are about the community.'”

I agree that a more community-based approach is the key. I think it’s also interesting that social media is giving more of a platform, or just a different way, to “speak to your ancestors”… a different medium from the Chinese example above, but I have seen people on social media addressing their dead loved ones directly. It seems to help some people just to say it, somewhere, somehow. In practical terms too, social media can help with sharing more practical information to your wider support networks who might not be sure how or whether to act. Ideally, you would find the balance that works best between the options of personal contact, phone calls, emails, or social media. I got practical information online and benefited from wonderful support from my family, friends and employers.

I’m reminded of the lovely blog posts Beth Kanter wrote about her father when he passed away and she organised a tribute to his memory. And the beautiful blog post Sheryl Sandberg wrote after the sudden death of her husband. It’s also good that charities such as Macmillan Cancer Support, Marie Curie Cancer Care and Sue Ryder have online communities where you can share your experience and find support when dealing with terminal illness or bereavement.

And while many aspects of mourning are deeply personal to the individual, I think a more collective understanding of and approach to dealing with the loss of loved ones would help. Crucially it would help the dying and the bereaved, but it would also help the people trying to support them at a devastating time.

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