Tuesday, January 06, 2015

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine

People have different ways of grieving. This can be affected by one's worldview and culture.
1. In Buddhism, all good things come to an end because everything is temporary. So practice detachment. 
2. New Age psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross famously presented a five-stage model of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. 
i) But she herself later admitted that this is too schematic. 
ii) We also need to distinguish between how people grieve, and how they ought to grieve. Even assuming her model is empirically accurate in many cases, that doesn't mean this is how people are supposed to grieve.  
iii) In addition, her scheme is rather simplistic and confused. Normally, the concept of grief has reference to surviving loved ones, and not the decedent. We don't typically think of a terminally ill patient as "grieving." To conflate the two muddles the analysis. Grieving typically occurs after death, not beforehand. 
In cases where there's a terminal prognosis, both the patient and her loved ones will often experience emotional turmoil. But we need to distinguish between dread and mourning. The bereaved aren't typically in denial about the death of their loved one. And at that point, bargaining is moot. There's a difference between resignation in the face of death and resignation to life without a loved one–after their passing. 
3. More generically, grieving is often treated as a process. Supposedly, it's normal to pass through certain stages. One you complete the grieving process, you're able to "put that behind" you and "move on." That's part of the emotional "healing" process. Otherwise, you "prolong" the grieving process. "Unresolved" grief creates further problems. So you need to "accept" the loss. One secular source tells us that unresolved grief is characterized by  "intense longing and yearning for the deceased," "intrusive thoughts or images of your loved one," "feeling that life is empty or meaningless," and "wishing you had died with your loved one." Another secular source tells us that "healing can begin once the loss becomes integrated into our set of life experiences."
4. Atheist Daniel Dennett says:
Whenever an animal treats something as an agent, with beliefs and desires (with knowledge and goals), I say that it is adopting the intentional stance or treating that thing as an intentional system.
So powerful is our innate urge to adopt the intentional stance that we have real difficulty turning it off when it is no longer appropriate. When somebody we love or even just know well dies, we suddenly are confronted with a major task of cognitive updating: revising all our habits of thought to fit a world with one less familiar intentional system in it…A considerable portion of the pain and confusion we suffer when confronting a death is caused by the frequent, even obsessive, reminders that our intentional-stance habits throw up at us like annoying pop-up ads but much, much worse. We can't just delete the file in our memory banks, we wouldn't want to be able to do so. What keeps many habits in place is the pleasure we take from indulging in them. And so we dwell on them, drawn to them like a moth to a candle. We preserve relics and other reminders of the deceased persons, and make images of them, and tell stories about them, to prolong these habits of mind even as they start to fade. D. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Penguin 2006), 110, 112.

5. So what's the Christian perspective?

i) It's often said that the bereaved need to have regular contact with friends and family. But I wonder if that equally applicable to extroverts and introverts. I imagine that introverts, who are already emotionally drained by grief, would find it exhausting to entertain comforters and well-wishers. I expect introverts would like some time alone to process their feelings. Perhaps in their case it's more a question of being available to them and letting them initiate contact. Minimally, I suspect introverts prefer a select few friends or family members to contact or have around. 

Grief is a very private affair: a world within a world. The world can't see the grieving heart. 

ii) How people grieve should depend in part on how close they were to the decedent. How important that person was to them. And that calls for some prioritization. In a modern mobile, urban society, thousands of people pass through our lives. People we knew for a few weeks or months. A barber. A cashier. Classmates. School teachers. 

People come and go throughout our lives. The core relationships are few.

I think one danger of social media is confusing friends with causal acquaintances. Or becoming emotionally invested in perfect strangers, because their death made the headlines. 

As a rule, the death of a pet shouldn't hit as hard as the death of a friend or member of your immediate family. An exception might be elderly widows whose dog is their only companion. 

iii) Coping depends on part on what compensatory relationships the bereaved may have. A childless widower may be in a very different position than a widower with grown children. But even in the latter case, grown children frequently live out of state. They only see their parents for an annual holiday trip back home. 

iv) How people should grieve also depends on the time of life. Take a man who loses his wife to cancer in his mid-fifties or sixties. He's at that awkward time of life when it's too soon to die but too late to start over again. Telling him to "let go," say "good-bye," and "move on" is cruel. He has no life to go back to. He made his life with her. He can't just pick up where he left off at 20. He's beyond the point at life where he can turn over a new leaf. The lifecycle has unrepeatable, irreversible stages. 

On a related note: years ago I saw a TV special about a mother whose grown daughter had been murdered. The killer was caught and convicted. She was screwing up her courage to confront him in prison.

Her daughter was the apple of her eye. She was countering on having that daughter to comfort her in old age. There was no gluing the pieces back together, for the key piece was missing. Her daughter was the one person she could not afford to lose, yet she lost her anyway. She can't put her daughter's death behind her, for everyday she must face the effect of her death. She was left behind. A present blessing becomes an accursèd absence.

There are people we live for. They aren't just bridges on the journey of life. 

v) Many mourners continue to have social obligations. They can't allow themselves to be paralyzed by grief. They may have dependents. People who need them. 

vi) It's true that we need to "accept" the death of a loved one. They're not coming back. Not physically, at least. (There are credible claims of apparitions, butven that's temporary.) 

But when secularists say that, they mean something more radical. They're referring to the "finality" of death. Whatever you had with that person is now forever in the past. You will never see them again. They aren't waiting for you. All you have are pictures and memories. 

As a result, secularists think you have a duty to "let go" and put that phase of your life behind you. Yearning for the deceased is futile. They are long gone, period. This world is all there is. "Prolonging" the process is pointless. You can never have them back. The prospect of reunion is delusional. 

There's an ineluctable element of cruelty to secular grief-counseling. From their standpoint, that's really merciful, because it's better for you not to cling to false hope. Ultimately, your loved one was just a stepping stone on the journey of life. Don't look back. 

It's a worldview in which everyone is dispensable and disposable. Get used to it.  Machines wear out. You need to be tough-minded and face the facts. 

Clearly the Christian outlook is fundamentally different. In that respect, grief isn't necessarily a process. It's not like putting pictures in a box, putting the box on a shelf in the closet, and making a fresh start. Rather, it's something you may carry around with you, like a picture in a locket, until you rejoin them in the world to come (assuming  both of you are saved).

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