On Death and Grief
By Karen Harradine –
Death is the last taboo in our society. We endlessly debate and discuss everything else except death. Our instinctive drive for survival makes death, and its shadow partner grief, a grisly subject to discuss openly.
Grief has many forms. We grieve over a loss of a relationship and so mourn for the person we no longer are connected to. For immigrants, like myself, leaving our homelands ignites a grieving process. Any hurtful loss can capitulate into grief. The difference between purposely severing contact with a loved one at the end of a relationship and having a loved one die is that the former are still tangible and here with us, but the latter are no longer physically present in any form in our dimension here on earth.
Death is a certainty. It happens to all of us. But in Western society we seem to have banished it from not only from our minds but from our cultures too. The dead are hardly ever mentioned again. Grieving becomes a very private affair, behind closed doors, and the dead, who were once living their own lives, are hardly ever mentioned again, expect by those who mourn them the hardest. But those who grieve are desperate to talk. Not only do they want to keep the memories alive of those they have lost but they need to vent their own pain.
It’s like having the same collective nightmare over and over again yet it remains unspoken; a stigma marked on those who mention it. This most painful of human experiences is the one that is least spoken about.
Our survival mechanism, the ego, makes it difficult to discuss death until it happens to those we know. And so any mention of death and dying is an uncomfortable reminder than our loved ones, and ourselves, will die one day. The finality of death is frightening to grasp. As humans we prefer to avoid any discussion of it because of this fear.
The Western desire for privacy and individualism, made somewhat contradictory by social media where the minutiae of our daily lives are displayed for all to see, means we stay mostly silent about grief. We tell each other about illnesses, breakup of relationships, problems at work. Although social media gives us the space to remember our dead on the anniversary of their passing or their birthdays, there seems to be a strange, and silent communal rule, that we cannot mention our dead too frequently outside these parameters.
Shortly after the funeral is finished those we don’t mention our dead as they have no wish to upset the mourner. Death is only mentioned briefly when a loved one passes. The grieving process is hardly ever discussed. But mourners want to speak about their loved ones, often to the point of desperation to keep memories alive. We whisper about our grief like it’s a dirty little secret, an anomaly peculiar only to our secular Western society. Talking about loved ones who have passed is not obsessing over them but a way of honouring the fact that they once were living, and a central part of our lives. To not be able to do so stalls the healing process which needs to take place so that the mourners can adjust to their new reality.
We live our real lives behind walls and doors, hidden away from many. And so we suffer in the dark grip of grief, often not being able to express how we feel. To do so could be perceived as morbid, depressing, even ghoulish. Some might accuse a mourner of being self-indulgent if they talk or write about death, dying and grieving, in an expansive way. We are encouraged to only think positively in our society, to practice mindfulness to avoid focusing on fears and pain, and not drag others down with negativity. Any mentions of death and grief can invoke accusations of selfishly ruining the party. A mourner is allowed only a brief amount of time to verbalise their grief. This is not nearly enough time because the grieving process cannot be rushed and takes a lot longer than most realise it does (until they go through it themselves).
Westerners have adopted identity politics as their religion now. Judeo-Christian spiritually is now seen as passé, too restrictive and not applicable to 21st century life. This is inter-generational, with more people rejecting the traditional notion of a biblical G-d and seeking to anchor themselves either in new age spirituality, a far more fluid notion of G-d, or none at all.1 But not believing in a power greater than ourselves is to inflate our own sense of importance, this same narcissism that drives identity politics and is destructive for society. A belief in a power greater than ourselves shifts us away from only thinking of ourselves. This does not necessarily imply that we are part of a greater cosmic plan as this diminishes the concept of free will. But what it does accomplish is to humble us into the realisation that our connection to others is as important as our egotistical sense of individuality.
The invisibility of the grieving process in the West hampers healing. Comparatively, several African tribes have the tradition of shaving their hair during a designated mourning period, like the Xhosa of Southern Africa who shave their heads for 12 months. Their grief is visible and so mourners are treated accordingly, which aids recovery.2 3 The more grief is hidden the harder it is to overcome it. Rituals like this are woven into the norms of the cultures which practice it, their familiarity eases the mourner into performing them. There is communal help for those too depressed and traumatised to assist them in performing these rituals of grief. This communistic support is often very healing in itself, as are the rituals.
Grief is not one size fits all either. Sadness from the loss of losing a loved one is almost universal. But the circumstances in how and when that loved one died can turn grief into a debilitating and chronic condition. There are no good deaths. Each death, and the grieving process that accompanies it are traumatic events. But trauma is intensified if a child dies. No parent should have to bury a child – it contradicts the natural order of life that we expect. And nobody should have to lose so many loved ones in such quick succession, as I have.
Some might find it easier to do all their mourning in private but most want to speak about their grief. And not necessarily in an over-emotional way either. Mourners often desire to talk about their lost loved ones without resorting into hysterical crying. In the west, religion is seen as private and not public, unlike many societies in Africa. Public displays of religion make many Westerners feel uncomfortable. Death and religion are intertwined, mostly because religion seeks to explain and understand death and the afterlife. So death and grief are assigned into the private sphere, just like their cohort religion is. Any forays out into the public sphere invokes feelings of scorn and fear.
During the Victorian and Edwardian eras the middle classes initially dressed in black to signal their mourning.4 The colour of their clothes were changed to indicate each successive stage of mourning. The grieving process was made publicly visible by clothing worn, sometimes for years. This was required ritual for anyone who thought of themselves as upstanding members of society. The contemporary practice of wearing black to a funeral is a hangover from Victorian mourning requirements.
Perhaps the Victorians and Edwardians healed from the grieving process far more wholly like that. But social pressure, so ubiquitous in those two eras, is stifling and restrictive. I would not want to sacrifice my free will to dress how I wish for the sake of obeying strict societal rules on dress codes which could last for years. The grieving process is traumatising enough without having to obey such stringent rules for endless years.
Far better than we are just able to talk about death without being labeled ghoulish and obsessive. Sometimes the simplest of remedies are the most effective.
Jews sit shiva, usually for a period of seven days.5 The family of the deceased are marked out by their torn or cut clothes. These visible signs of mourning means the grieving are known to the wider community and are given the support they need.
The grieving process cannot be rushed. It has its own rhythm and timings. Grief is the experience we go through when a loved one dies. Loss is the emotion that accompanies this darkest of times but it is not the only one inflicted on us by the grieving process. Grief is an umbrella word, it encompasses all the pain, sorrow, rage, denial, sadness, guilt and loneliness which swim unsteadily alongside loss. These rise up within us, like bilge in the mouth, sickening making, devastating, overwhelming. The grieving we might experience in waves, sometimes more intensely at one time than others. But all who mourn will encounter these afflictions of grief.
Grief is exhausting in its loneliness – an unexpected emotion that accompanies it. Grieving is made even lonelier if a grieving person does not belong to a church, synagogue, mosque or temple. There are no religious leaders to offer comfort, no members of a congregation to visit and bring meals when grief has sucked out all vitality to the point that getting out of bed seems an insurmountable task. Religion offers a sacred perspective on death. But some find religion isolating because they find little comfort in the offerings of metaphysical concepts and ritual. For those who do reaching out to friends is a necessity, and something I failed to do during my grieving process.
In the hollowness of grief, questions, which previously floated in the peripheries of our minds, come roaring out. Is there life after death? Does G-d exist and if so why is there so much suffering? What is the meaning of life? Some might even have visions of their loved ones in an afterlife. Grief can feel insurmountable, to the extent that mourners might want to commit suicide in an attempt to join their loved ones who have passed. Only by granting a mourner space to talk can we know if that person is having suicidal thoughts, which occur more frequently than you might think. This is one of the many reasons why giving a mourner space to talk about their dead, for as long as they need it, is crucial.
Religion and science are not a binary choice. Like Albert Einstein a human can hold strong beliefs in G-d – the binding pinnacle of the three Abrahamic faiths – together with science. But even a belief in G-d – for which religion is not necessarily a requirement – can feel unsustainable at moments. Death and the subsequent grieving process focuses the mind onto these perennial questions, often forgotten about in the tumult of daily life. Even for those who have never contemplated their own spiritual selves will find themselves responding to death in a similar way. A belief in a religion is not required to think in these ways, it merely offers a framework which makes it easier understand death. Agnostic or not, we will all find ourselves musing over the difficulties ingrained in accepting the tragedies of existence while trying to make the most of our own lives.
A belief in G-d does not take away our free will. It is humans, and not G-d, who enact their free will to inflict pain and suffering on others. To blame G-d because a psychopath murdered a loved one is to misunderstand the meaning of G-d and the concept of free will. Blame and anger, although often intertwined, are two different emotions. I have often been angry at G-d but I do not blame G-d for what has happened to me. To do so is to diminish my own free will and that of others. Blaming G-d misdirects the pain of grief, whereas anger helps release it. Suffering is indeed part of the human condition but so is joy. To find the meaning of life is to find the balance between the two and to seek out that balance is part of the free will that we can wield. Death itself is not evil but the circumstances in how a person dies can be so.
Death feels final because it is. The body which housed the person that we love stops functioning and ceases to be. We can no longer touch or talk to that person, we can no longer see them. Their physical presence is gone, and what we are left with are our memories.
And these memories are sometimes agonising to recall.
In the winter of 2014 my baby sister Janine and father Robert died within 21 days of each other. During that harrowing time my friend Medlin Lewis-Spencer, the anti-racist campaigner and a wonderful human, also passed away.6
I hadn’t seen my sister for a number of years. She lived in South Africa and had a difficult marriage for most of her short adult life. She struggled even before she became ill, which out respect for her I won’t document the details in public.
In 2013 she was diagnosed with mouth cancer. In August 2014 I had a phone call from my mother to tell me that my father too had been diagnosed with lung cancer. My sister had subsequently moved to the UK and was living with my parents. I decided to go and visit after a long absence of not seeing them. At the beginning of September I drove up north with my husband William.
Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw when entering the house that my parents were renting. Swathes of floors were taken up with myriad oxygen bottles. My father sat in the living room, with an oxygen mask on his face. My mother sobbed in my arms in the kitchen. As I made my way upstairs to see Janine my father quietly told me to me to prepare myself.
The sight which greeted me reverberated through my entire being and still does. I have never seen a person so changed by illness. My beautiful and slender sister was utterly transformed by cancer, her face and body swollen beyond the point of recognisability. Only her cornflower blue eyes were familiar to me. Weakened and terribly ill she lay in bed with oxygen plugs in her nose. She was unable to swallow properly or speak as her tongue had been cut out and replaced with an artificial one, made from the skin from her forearm, where the scar was still very visible.
To know that both my father and sister were dying at the same time filled me with sadness and fear. I expected to feel crushing sorrow but was unprepared for the paralysing fear arising from watching them die together. I was concerned for what would happen to my mother once they both passed. I feared that my mind could shatter from the pain of losing them both in such a short time. I was terrified that that I did not have the strength to carry this pain.
I felt frozen, especially when it came to making decisions. I was studying for my post-graduate diploma in journalism at the time and was unsure whether or not to stop. But my mother persuaded me to carry on. William was working in Malaysia at this time and I did not know what the right choices were – to join him there or stay behind with my family. I chose the latter. William was unable to get much time off which meant that I was on my own most of the time during this entire tragic event.
We could only stay a few days as William had to fly back to Malaysia, returning to the UK in October to accompany me back to see my family. By then my sister and father had both been moved to the same hospice and it was there we went to as soon as we arrived from our long drive.
My sister lay in her hospice bed, her skin grey to sight and papery to touch, her dark blonde hair in a neat bun, her eyes closed, Every few minutes the left side of her body would tremble because of the brain seizures she was having. Her nails had been painted bright pink, and each time I looked at her hands I thought I was looking at mine as they were so similarly shaped. The only difference was that my skin colour was a healthy pale pink. Her blue eyes remained shut during the entire time I was there, opening once only when I sat at her bedside, holding her hand, my body convulsing with the deep sobs that came out of me. Janine cried once, when my husband came to say goodbye to her and mumbled that she wanted a good husband too, her ex being the opposite of that. My parents’ neighbour, who kept constant vigil at her bedside, cuddled her and assured her that she would soon find a good husband – poignant yet comforting words for a dying woman.
During those long hours that I spent at the hospice I frequently walked down the short corridor which linked my sister and father’s room. Each time I took that walk, which lasted only 30 seconds, I felt parts of my soul wither into darkness, the light of which has still not returned today. My father was more alert, he too was dying but cancer had not decimated every part of his body as it had done to my sister.
I walked that pathway of hell for the next two days. It never got any easier. On the Sunday morning we had to drive back home as William was flying back to Malaysia that night. As I said goodbye to my baby sister I realised then that the human body is capable of infinite tears. I knew it was the last time I would ever see her. All that was left now was to wait for my sister and father to die.
After arriving home I checked Facebook and screamed when I saw a post. My friend Medlin had passed away the night before. She had been battling breast cancer but I truly thought she would survive it.
To be surrounded by so much death and dying in such as short time is to feel suffocated by the sorrow of life. A few days later, on the 16 October, my mother called me from the hospice to tell me that my sister had died five minutes before. All I remember from the phone call was screaming at my mother to wake my sister up as she was ‘only sleeping and not dead’. Janine was only 43 when she died. In trying to keep some semblance of normality I wrote an assignment for my journalism class and even managed to attend it that evening. But halfway through the class words no longer made any sense to me and I had to go home.
Two days later I travelled up on my own to my parent’s house, where my father had been sent home from the hospice to die.
William was still in Malaysia and my friends were not able to able to come to my sister’s funeral as it was held on a week day and the cemetery far away from any of them.
My sister’s funeral was the worst day of my life. While having breakfast at the small hotel where I was staying my hands shook so much that I tipped an entire cup of coffee all over the table. My father was too ill to make the trip to the cemetery so he stayed at home that morning, with a family friend to keep him company. My mother, deeply grief stricken, sat in the back of the hearse with me. All I could think of was that my precious sister’s body lay in the plain pine coffin right behind me. Jews are all buried in the same type of coffin.
In the small hall, just inside the cemetery gates, the rabbi cut my clothing and that of my mother’s – the traditional ritual for family mourners of the dead. We then stood with the other mourners while the rabbi recited prayers. I could not cry at that stage, I knew there was worse to come. But my enter body trembled with such force that I thought I was going to spontaneously combust.
At my sister’s gravesite I shook so much that my cousin held me in her arms to make sure I did not fall to the ground. When it came to my turn to throw dirt on Janine’s coffin I uttered a wail akin to the noise a dying animal caught in a trap might make – a sound which I have not made before or since. Back at my parent’s home I experienced the most anguished part of those dark three weeks – watching my dying father sit shiva for my dead sister.
Because of my father’s fragile state my mother chose only to observe the first three days of mourning. And so on the fourth day I prepared to travel back down south. Saying goodbye to my father was devastating as I knew that this was the last time I would see him alive.
Eight days after my sister’s funeral I attended Medlin’s one. Even then I could not cry as I had to stay intact. This wasn’t over yet.
Thirteen days later, on the 6 November, my mother called me in the morning to tell me that my father had passed away seconds before. I cried so heavily that my mother asked me to call a friend so I would not be alone. But solitude is what I craved during that time. The grieving process exhausted me to the extent that I was too ill to travel to my father’s funeral so instead stayed at home and performed my own ritual to say goodbye to him.
Grief lasts a very long time, much longer than expected or hoped for. I internalised my grief. I swallowed it back down. Not only because of the peculiar phenomena of silencing the names of the dead but because I could not even utter the names of my loved ones without being engulfed in a wave of anguish and guilt.
This all pervading pain, which feels like shards of glass cutting me over and over again, stems from the remembrance of the suffering that my sister and father went through. I feel this far more sharply than I do the loss of them.
Subsequently I became quite ill. Grief not only eats at the soul but the body too. My experience has left me wondering how many more people suffer from swallowing back their grief, too afraid to mention their pain because they don’t want to be branded as self-indulgent ghouls.
But death was not done with me yet. The following spring one of my closest friends was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Ingrid and I had been the closest of friends for almost fifteen years. I met her on my first day of work at a Jewish charity in London, in September 2000. When introduced to her I thought she looked like a movie star. I soon realised that her inner and outer beauty matched.
For the years that followed until her death we were in contact with each other almost every day until a few weeks before her passing when she was admitted to hospital. She had been misdiagnosed for so long, despite her obvious symptoms, so by the time she got the treatment she needed it was too late. In early July her sister phoned me to tell me that Ingrid had died a few hours before. It was then that I felt my heart lacerate into a million lost pieces. Ingrid was the only friend I called the morning of my sister’s funeral, from my hotel room. And now she too had gone.
Grief shreds the soul, twists and crushes it so that all is recognisable is a faint shadow of what used to be. There is no recovery from grief, especially grief like this. There is only a desperate initial attempt to survive it and then resolutions to live the best life possible in honour of those who no longer live. The grieving process is so incredibly painful, life changing and if kept inwardly silent, harmful. I still can’t speak about that winter of death. I can only mention it when I find brief sparks of courage. And even then I have to wait for someone to ask me about my family. My grief turned in on me, and made me ill, capitulating me into suffering a relapse from the auto-immune disease that I have. The stress and anguish which I experienced, combined with the inability to verbalise my grief, became too much for my body to cope with. I understood the grief I was experiencing but failed to let it go.
The petty arguments, the vicious standoffs which lasted for months, the every day squabbles which arise from being so close somehow melt away when a loved one dies. What remains is a wistful longing to have had more time to repair the damage and mend what is broken. Because this is never possible because that person has left, what is left is a bruise on the soul which never quite heals. And that bruise remains despite healing from the grieving process. Grief changes a person in so many ways, and that eternal bruise is part of that change.
During my own grieving process I hardly read anything about grief except the popular five stages of grief as described by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It didn’t have much resonance for me. Guilt, fear, rage and searing memories of the suffering my loved ones endured were my stages and in no particular order either.7 8
The rage I felt was mostly directed at G-d. How dare this deity make my loved ones suffer like this! I was far too angry to see myself of a victim of tragedy. Paradoxically my belief in G-d helped carry me through this immeasurable sadness which I felt at the loss of my loved ones and for their suffering. My anger at G-d strengthened my belief. Because I believe in free will the ability to connect with G-d like this, even in my angriest state, made me feel that I was not alone. And that is very healing in itself.
But in the most selfish way I felt a brief sense of anger towards my father and sister, resenting that they were inflicting their suffering, and deaths, on me. I was taken aback from this irrational feeling but it persistently clung onto the edges of my grief, intensifying my distress. I admonished myself several times for this but found it difficult to shift. Only time, that great but so true cliché, soothed this anger.
I prefer the approach of my favourite psychologist, Carl Jung, who described death as one of life’s great mysteries.9 Death is an archetype to experience like birth and ageing, and witnessing the dying another shadow self to integrate. Jung thought that life and death should garner equal importance, something lacking in Western society where we obsess about life in great minutia, and all death is hidden away. Not only our own impending deaths, but that of those we love, should encourage us to prioritise, to enrich our lives further. The extreme anguish which death brings to the dying and their mourners reminds us that we are still alive, that we still have a life to live and that we should seek to live it as best we can. And perhaps someday that pain will subside. I found that grief encompassed me like a swaddling blanket and became my daily reminder to prioritise, to seek the truth in everything, to make the most of my time left here. Jung’s advice is to cultivate a good life around the obvious reality of death. Which means finding joy despite the suffering that is so often part of life.
Whether their deaths were more unfair than others is something which is difficult to decide. Many suffer from cancer and die horrible deaths like my loved ones did. But the deaths of my father and sister, in such quick succession, and witnessing their intense suffering, compounded my sense of injustice. It is how they died that saddened me the most, rather than that they did die, as death comes to us all. Some deaths are more tragic than others and theirs certainly were.
Janine was still so young when she died. She was making plans to move to Israel, to study and continue painting, as she was an artist with a delicate touch. And then she fell terminally ill.
Wherever I travel in the world I take my dead with me. My father is my political muse, my sister a source of sadness and glimmers of childhood happiness, and Medlin and Ingrid are both much missed sources of radiant light in my life. In Singapore, as I wandered around the hawker stalls, I remembered my father’s fascination with Asia. London street markets remind me of how Ingrid would buy pashminas of all colours. Janine would have loved to sunbathe under a hot Vancouver summer sun as I do frequently.
I remember my sister and I clutching each other in hysterical fear, sitting on the floor in my parent’s bedroom, watching Twin Peaks. I still have the habit of reading at least four different newspapers each day, as taught to me by my father as soon as I could read. Medlin would amaze me with her depth of knowledge about everything when we chatted and sipped tea. Not a day went by in fifteen years without Ingrid and I contacting each other. At least once a week we should speak on the phone, her greeting me with the usual refrain of: ‘Hello darling face!’
Death and grief are an inescapable part of living. And the pain that they bring is part of the human condition. For without it we would not know joy, the antithesis to this shadow of pain.
Life is complicated, death even more so.
1. See http://www.bsa.natcen.ac.uk/latest-report/british-social-attitudes-36/religion.aspx
4. See http://www.sewhistorically.com/victorian-mourning/