Tag Archives: grief

Society and Death

We have moved into a period in this culture where death is not part of life, nor the every day. Although death continues to happen to young and old, ill and hale, through accidents, disease and murder, still we talk about it in an all-encompassing way but ignore it in the intimate of the every day.

There may be somebody who will say death is not part of life and for the person who dies, life indeed is no more part of them. But for those who know someone who has died, death is very much part of their lives. It used to be that in small communities, such as mining or fishing towns, when someone died they were laid out upon the table in the family home. A table is where people break bread, eat of the earth, communicate and come together, and it is a place big enough to lay a body. Where it will be cleaned and dressed by family members. A place where a person lays in state for people to pay their last respects before being taken to the church and then buried. Funeral parlors weren’t in every small town.

Death now is the last great taboo of the Western world. When someone dies, people have no idea what to say and so say nothing at all. They’re uncomfortable with the concept of death and avoid it like the plague. Veer around the person whose loved one has died, maybe send an innocuous card. A brave soul might say, I’m sorry to hear about your mother/brother/wife.

The griever is expected, after missing a few days of work, to act normal, to show no emotion that may be seen as sad, maudlin, angry, or grief-stricken. Crying is verboten. After all, people will feel edgy and avoid the grieving. So act like it’s life as normal.

The truth is, grief takes time. There is no set limit but it often takes a year to process through a person’s emotions. People who deny their grief and don’t go through the process can actually do physical damage to themselves. The storing up of such emotions, rather than releasing them through a natural process, can also affect the person’s psyche for the rest of their lives. Studies have shown that you can’t put off your grieving for too long, that there is a crucial period when the grieving should take place.

And yet our society tries to make everyone a stoic, free from any emotions except those that are uplifting and bright. By doing this, we cauterize ourselves from the full range of what it means to be human, effectively castrated from all but the most superficial feelings. You cannot have joy without experiencing pain. A constant state of euphoria cannot last and becomes the norm on which a person then judges bad or good, happy or sad. What would normally be sad becomes huge trauma and depression, with no end in sight to it.

I believe it is this unhealthy avoidance attitude that society has to death and negative emotions which have caused an increase in drug use, both recreational and with anti-depressants, to handle what once our bodies could do on their own. We have fewer ways to cope naturally and must go to the drugs. Drug addicts cannot find that constant euphoria so they hunt it in the addiction, afraid to face a life that encompasses happiness and pain.

And death–we can’t avoid it. It will happen. I never knew what to say to anyone when their family member or friend died. We don’t hug our coworkers, we don’t pat them on the shoulders. We maintain distance. We don’t wail at funerals and beat our breasts. And yet we should, for in those acts we express the grief that otherwise builds up in us. We have an outlet that lets us return to a healthy mentality faster.

I regret that when my sister-in-law’s parents died (at different times) that I didn’t know what to say and said nothing at all. How callous. How ignorant. It took the death of a friend for me to experience the grieving process and to understand how people can feel, and just how long it can take to think of that person without crying and feeling as if someone has crushed your heart. I began to understand that a person grieving can feel very cut off and alone, and as if no one cares.

It is almost like being shunned, when someone has to grieve. Letting a person or a community grieve publicly, sharing memories, talking about the person who passed can help. It validates the feelings and a person will recover faster from mourning if they are allowed to express themselves. And yes it can take a year or longer. I have only lost friends and that affected me greatly. I can’t imagine the depth of the pain and loneliness that their spouses felt.

We can all change this debilitating trend by not being so scared of death and the process that we pretend doesn’t exist. The TV show Six Feet Under took a black humor look at death, from the death that opened each episode to the dysfunctional and very real lives of the mortician family that dealt with their own issues and the mourners for the dead. It was an adventuresome show because it touched on death in a very real way that we shy away from. And the show was a hit; witty, tender, irreverent, strange and examining some aspects of life we would rather avoid.

Now, when I know someone who has lost a loved one, I try to let them grieve, to make sure they know it’s all right, to help them and to express my condolences so that they don’t feel isolated. It is the best way to make life more meaningful, by acknowledging the death of friends, family and coworkers.

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Suicide and Depression

Someone I had known for a long time, but did not know well (we were acquaintances, sometimes a the same parties and events) killed himself a week ago. I was surprised as he just didn’t seem the type. Someone said, how selfish of him. Someone else said, that was the choice he made. I’ve written once already about my bouts with depression but this is more general, on how to recognize some factors.

Although he had been a man who could anger many people, who could be abrasive at times, I felt a bit bothered by these comments. Those who knew him better said he had tried to kill himself before but those had been more a cry for help. He had struggled for a long time. It seems he had been on meds but had gone off of them several months before because he couldn’t afford them. I’ve also recently heard he may have suffered a head injury. Probably all of these things contributed to his suicide.

Having suffered deep and enervating depression in the past, I found I have an added perspective; sadness, compassion and fear. I was sad that he felt so alone that he couldn’t ask for help. But this is the way we are in our society. We are expected to do our grieving at a funeral and then act normal from that point on. People don’t grieve in a single day; they grieve over a year or years. Likewise, we are expected, or feel it is expected of us, to not share our bad or sad or woeful emotions. People will say we’re wallowing, that we’re no fun to be around, that we’re self-centered. All of these things may be true but friendships should never be about only the bright sunshiny moments. If they are, they’re not true friendships. As I know from experience, if you try to talk to a person about your feelings, that you think they don’t care, that maybe there is something wrong with your personality, then you are as likely to be greeted in anger, or dismissed, or in silence or not talked to again. People will often invalidate the feelings of their friends without intending to. So a depressed person is not likely to ask for help because they don’t think they’ll get it or no one cares. It’s seen a weak, as needy, as less than what a person should be in this society.

I felt compassion because I have an idea of what this man went through. I felt for the pain he must have suffered. In my deepest darkest year of depression I suffered many things and not all were just thoughts. Depression can cause a person to lose their coping mechanisms. Answering the phone or a simple question can be too much, throwing one into a state of anxiety or anger because they can’t remember. Memory can be affected in different ways. Physical ailments can appear or persist mysteriously. My elbow began to hurt and no amount of physio was curing it. People can get bronchial colds that remain for weeks or months.

When a person is depressed the world becomes black. I have felt trapped, unable to see an end to the situation I was in. If there are stresses in a person’s life (and who doesnt’ have them) such as financial, career, family, love, health, etc. these can all be exacerbated. If something is not going well, it will seem there is no way out, no change in sight, no way to get help. It seems hopeless. Because, as I mentioned above, you’re afraid to ask for help or to lose what friends you have, you see your world as shrinking. There is less light, less joy, fewer friends, and then boredom, despair and futility set in.

People on the outside might just think a person is being difficult, or cranky, or wallowing, or self-pitying or elusive or snobbish. They dismiss or ignore and get angry. This is why I also felt fear, because I have been there and I know how isolated one can feel. We cannot always be vigilant of our friends and family but we can try to be more aware, to recognize the signs when they don’t. There are other signs and not all people exhibit all the same ones. But when one person said, this is the choice he made, remember it wasn’t a choice made with all the options. Depression hides many options and a choice made in such a state is one made when you’re not in your right mind. His selfish choice of suicide might have been seen as his only choice, that he would put his family through less pain if he was out of the picture. He was not seeing clearly.

Because the only thing I wasn’t when clinically depressed was suicidal, it bothered me when more recently I felt I was so lonely I should just die. That was a telltale sign, even to me. I write this to hopefully help others save their friends and family from a health problem that is still greatly misunderstood. Don’t be so quick to judge against a person’s behaviors but look to see if there is a pattern or persistence of such attitudes. Depressed people won’t always get help even if you suggest it. Sometimes it takes constant attention and if you haven’t heard from someone in a while, call them. Don’t wait. Some people are depressed for years but the black abyss of clinical depression is a dangerous place where fear and hopelessness rule.

And if a depressed person comes to you with their concerns, no matter how lopsided, with feelings that you ignored them or don’t care, don’t dismiss them. Don’t say, oh you’ve done this before and walk away. Sometimes the fears are valid and sometimes not. But if you dismiss a depressed person who is still trying to reach out and understand, then you validate their fears and lead them closer to the edge of no return.

Mental health disorders are hard for many people to grasp because the person doesn’t look physically ill in any way. We find it scary or hard to understand how something could change a person’s attitude or personality. But everything in the human body can be affected by an illness and depression is an insidious one. I wasn’t close enough to help this man and it could be that everyone was aware. A person serious about suicide is a lot harder to stop. But in many cases, getting a person to open up and talk about their feelings could be the first step of bringing light back to their lives.

Here is a list of some of the symptoms of depression:
* Persistently sad, anxious, angry, irritable, or “empty” mood
* Feelings of hopelessness, pessimism
* Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
* Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities that were once enjoyed, including sex
* Insomnia, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
* Decreased appetite and/or weight loss, or overeating and/or weight gain
* Fatigue, decreased energy, being “slowed down”
* Crying spells
* Thoughts of death or suicide, suicide attempts
* Restlessness, irritability
* Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
* Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders, and/or chronic pain

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