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Posts Tagged ‘mourning’

Interesting to read this short piece by Jenny McCartney about the way we try to hide from the reality of death in our Western culture. She doesn’t give any real spiritual perspective, and she doesn’t speculate about how this lack of a spiritual perspective might be the very cause of the problem she highlights – but her comments about how death has almost become taboo are worth reflecting on.

It is the fashion, in modern times, to emphasise the need for tastefulness in talking of death, of a certain concealing decorum. We used to be like this about sex, but that’s gone now: the media is saturated with sexual imagery and advice, and everywhere you turn, public figures are kissing each other lasciviously on the lips – particularly if they are glamorous women – and telling you more about their bedroom antics than anyone ever asked to know.

The taboo has simply shifted, however. As the door to the bedroom has been thrown open, access to the deathbed has been barred. No one seems to linger long there, conversationally or otherwise: too often, a death is treated like an embarrassing fact, a regrettable failure of life that is best hushed up.

We are built to cling to life, unless that instinct is withered in us through long suffering, extreme altruism or despair, and so when we read about the deaths of other people, we are moved partly because we start imagining our own: the pain of leaving the people we love, and their confusion at our departure. Or we think of the helplessness of watching someone we love slipping beyond our reach. The notion of death is so mysterious and enormous that, in many cases, it seems easier just to lock it away, although it has a way of escaping and sneaking up on our peripheral vision.

The rapid expansion of the “anti-ageing” industry in the West peddles an airbrushed vision of a world in which ageing or mortality can be almost indefinitely deferred by the dutiful ingestion of supplements and restless application of pseudo-scientific skin treatments. What it can’t offer, of course, is any guaranteed change to the final outcome.

Still, the option of pretending to ignore death (for a period of our lives, at least) has not been available to the bulk of humanity throughout history. In the 15th century, when the Ars moriendi, or “Art of Dying”, was written, the book desperately sought to popularise the concept of a “good death”, partly because – in the aftermath of the Black Death – an early demise was so frequent and lurid that some kind of etiquette guide was required. Both real-life accounts and novels were later preoccupied with the deathbed scene, which was, in many ways, the dramatic high point of a person’s life. It was their moment in which to forgive, regret, recant or curse, the final deal, the instant at which they revealed their essential self, and onlookers were unashamedly interested in it.

I can never think of the deaths of those I knew and loved, even those who were very old, without some small recurrent aftershock, some fresh sense of the overwhelming strangeness of their disappearance. The ritual of mourning and the ceremony of the funeral or memorial provides shapes for grief to stumble into, yet even those are designed primarily to comfort the living. What our society presently lacks – save for a few enlightened homes and hospices – is much structured means of comforting the dying, who are too often abandoned in hospital wards surprised by fear and pain.

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I came across another thoughtful article by Mary Kenny, this time about how we have lost touch with the importance of feeling sad, and our sensitivity to the different shades of sadness that can come upon us has been dulled.

Prince Hamlet

Depression, thank goodness, is much better understood than it used to be. And we are much more likely than we used to be to express our feelings to others. But our emotional vocabulary has become diminished.

Take the word, “trauma,” which is now frequently and commonly invoked in conversation today. A person who has suffered a bereavement is said to be “in trauma”.

“Trauma” comes from the Greek word for a “wound”, and in a medical sense, it is what happens to the body when a wound delivers a shock.

But bereavement, of which I have much sorrowful experience is, alas, part of the natural course of life’s sad events.

As Shakespeare observes, with Hamlet, his father lost a father, and that father lost a father before him, and so on, ad infinitum, through the hinterland of human history.

Grief is desperately upsetting: it hurts you for ages, and the loss of someone you love is emotionally painful, and can be enduringly so. But why not call it by its proper name: bereavement: grief: loss?

One reason, thinks Mary Kenny, is that we are losing touch with the social rituals that have allowed us to express these feelings.

When I was a young woman in France in the 1960s, you would come across a shop with its blinds drawn, and a notice saying: “Ferme pour deuil”: closed for mourning.

It is still seen in France, and is also a usual response in Italy. Mourning symbols were widespread in all cultures – widows’ weeds, black armbands – and the community was expected to respect those who mourn.

Outward signs of mourning have declined, if not been abolished in more secular societies now: but our sense of sadness and loss endure, and instead of this being called mourning, it is called “trauma”.

And she thinks it would help us if we could recapture some of the wider, non-medical vocabulary for the emotional difficulties we face in the ordinary course of human experience.

Depression may also be melancholy: it may be discouragement, disappointment, abandonment, sadness, sorrow, mourning, rejection, regret, anxiety, grief, obsession, introspection, loss, separation, loneliness, isolation, alienation, guilt, loss of hope, temperamental woe and simple, pure, unhappiness.

It can be forms of low mood now out of date. The Edwardians were very keen on a condition known as “neurasthenia”; Virginia Woolf was diagnosed with it.

It was also known as “nervous debility”, or, in its milder form, being hyper-sensitive and thin-skinned.

“Anomie” was another condition once favoured in the 19th Century by the sociologist Emile Durkheim, and from a sociologist, a sociological condition. Anomie was defined as an isolated mood caused by the breakdown of social norms, sense of purpose and rules of conduct.

There was also a spiritual form of depression called “accidie” much brooded on by some of the saints – this was “dryness of the soul”. The writer Malcolm Muggeridge also complained of suffering from it at times.

There are even, I think, some romantic-sounding forms of melancholy: the German idea of weltschmerz – a yearning sense of “world-sorrow” and unfocused sadness for humanity: or the French nostalgie du passé, that bittersweet Proustian condition of longing for the past, with a rueful sense of regret for missed chances and lost opportunities.

I also rather like mal du pays – the exile’s yearning for the country of childhood, and it comes to me in flashes, both in the spring and autumn, when I think of Irish country lanes, and the smell of fields of mown hay. Ah, bonjour tristesse!

No doubt we are better off for shedding much of the stigma surrounding mental illness – but with it, have we lost some of the variety, the dark poetry of the human condition?

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I was at a funeral last Thursday of a friend and fellow priest who died tragically in a car crash, Fr Edward Houghton. May he rest in peace; and may his family and all those who mourn him receive comfort and consolation.

So many thoughts remain, most of them too personal for a blog, but one stands out in reflecting on death and how we view it today. In the sermon, Fr Peter Houghton (Fr Ed’s brother) used a simple but powerful phrase: If we are afraid of death then we will be afraid of life. If we cling to life and its joys too powerfully, if we see death only as a threat, then life – paradoxically – will be harder to live. We will be crippled by anxiety and overprotective of all the good things that come to us. But if we are able to acknowledge the horizon of death, and to accept it as a possibility at each moment of our lives, then this will give us a kind of freedom and serenity: to live for the moment – not recklessly, but with gratitude and humility; to take risks – when there are good reasons; to realise that we are not ultimately in control of everything – and that we can learn to trust in something or someone greater; to hope in the possibility of life beyond the grave – not as an escape or a refuge but as a fulfilment of all that we are living through now.

Perhaps the opposite is also true: If we avoid thinking about death then it will be hard to find any peace in this life. If we immerse ourselves so completely in the reality of this present life, it could just be a way of masking an underlying anxiety about where it is heading, and an unresolved fear of losing it, a kind of hidden dread.

It is not easy to face death, but it is much harder (both psychologically and spiritually) spending a lifetime trying to avoid it. How we find the courage to face death, and then to accept it with some kind of serenity, and even to hope that there will be a way beyond death into another kind of life – that is another question…

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