Death, Dying, Bereavement, Loss, Guilt…
…the list goes on if we acknowledge all the multifaceted aspects of the death of someone close; a parent, a partner, a sibling, a child, a close friend…and again the list continues.
“Bereavement is the objective state of having lost someone or something. Grief refers to the emotions that accompany bereavement. Mourning is the behaviour that social groups expect following bereavement.” (Walter 1999:xv)
This blog post is about the process of bereavement from both a personal and academic perspective. Many years ago, I learnt all about the sociological aspect of death and developed an understanding as to why some people choose to lay flowers for a person unknown who has dies, or participate in widespread grief for again someone they did not know personally. Throughout my studies and contact with others, I learnt about the practices of some funeral directors and the process of registering a death and obtaining probate. The theory was sound but actual experience was lacking…until June 2014 when my Mother died suddenly. Theory had no choice but to become practice; I entered the world of form completion, ensuring that my Father contacted the correct people and filled everything in properly. I learnt how relatives react when you tell them that there will not be a wake, (my Mother’s sister reluctantly spoke with me on the phone at Christmas, the first time since I had told her my Mother had died and she has not spoken since). I also learnt that a nice funeral can be obtained for less than £2K despite what the media have you believe. Oh and I also know all about probate and the valuation of assets. These things I learnt whilst grieving and watching the support my Father was being given by neighbours and relatives whilst I had none – it was expected that I would cope and get things done.
As far as the outside world was concerned, I did cope, function and provided practical support to my Father, yet in reality I resembled the graceful swan paddling frantically to stay afloat. In around November I crashed, though I doubt anyone noticed because, as Erving Goffman described it, I am very good at “presentation of self in everyday life”, I continued to outwardly function. Early 2015 I received an email from a friend who described a similar feeling and then in March I bumped into someone I occasionally see who was going through the same thing. All of us of the age when parental death is to be expected and having a surviving parent to organise/care for/listen to others show concern for. All of us were grieving yet felt alone as ironically we all perfect the art of the graceful swan.
In 1969, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss psychiatrist, published ‘On Death and Dying’ (reprinted by Routledge in 2009), in which she introduced ‘5 Stages of Grief’. These stages form the theoretical aspects of death and dying and whilst useful from an academic perspective and that of the medical profession, I have discovered from experience that they do not necessarily work in reality (no disrespect intended if they have been helpful to you).
Stage 1 – Denial and Isolation
Stage 2 – Anger
Stage 3 – Bargaining
Stage 4 – Depression
Stage 5 – Acceptance
Until attending a recent conference examining the process of death and the criminal corpse (I will discuss this in another blog), I was feeling very frustrated at not neatly fitting in or being obliging to the Kübler-Ross stages; my private trajectory was not compliant. The first keynote speaker, whilst referring to the stages proposed instead GMT, Grief Mean Time. This struck a chord with me, there appeared either, overtly, or covertly a set time- frame for each stage and by now I should be over the death of my Mother. Having considered this expectation I propose an alternative, Grief ME Time – there is no time limit for each stage as every individual is different and recovery is timed on an individual basis (see previous blog for reference to this in respect of health care).
As a child, I looked forward to the annual junior school outing to a local museum. We viewed dead people wrapped in cloth (Egyptian Mummies) and relished (unofficially) counting the fleas on the dead animals! This memory was recalled on a recent visit to the British Museum and their special exhibition of 8 Mummies (Ancient lives and new discoveries). The first, Gebelein Man, was clearly a mummified person without wrappings – he looked just like my Mother resting in the foetal position. It was at this point that I began to make reflective notes or write down my thoughts and feelings about the exhibition. I was a voyeur taking pleasure in the death of another, I was not looking at facsimiles of ‘coffins’ or wrapped bodies but viewing the remains of a human being, abet save from the first, was not clearly identifiable. This felt wrong yet I continued. Perhaps this was meant as some kind of remembrance; the time I spent at the exhibition was symbolic of the time I did not spend with my Mother after she had died.
Death, dying, bereavement, grief….each word is a separate discursive event yet when combined become one. The experience is different but the similar or even the same. The term ‘anticipatory grief’ is often used to describe the process of grieving for a life once lived of someone close who has a terminal diagnose or a life limiting condition. It is as though those left behind are supposed to be relieved and able to live their life again. For some this might well be the case but for others GMT is vitally important. When someone dies suddenly, irrespective of age, it is a shock. If the person was elderly, is it supposed to be ‘a blessing’ and the relatives are expected to get on with things. Well, from my perspective, this is a load of $ollocks – the death of a parent is no more a blessing than that of a child irrespective of prior relationship with the parent.
I miss my Mother, though I do admit that if given the choice I would have preferred it this way with my Father being the surviving parent. I am angry when I go to the GP surgery and the lovely HCA asks me how my Dad is when she is taking MY blood pressure. I struggle to smile nicely at my Dad’s neighbours when they tell me “how well he is doing” yet fail to ask how I am. The person who conducted the funeral has visited him twice yet not once sat down with me.
I am the graceful swan who epitomises Goffman who needs some GMT.
I am not alone but silence and societal expectation separates us.
Goffman – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Z0XS-QLDWM [accessed 27 May 2015]
Kübler-Ross E (2009) On Death and Dying Routledge: Oxon
Walter T (1999) On Bereavement: The Culture of Grief Open University Press: Buckingham