Sunday, July 19, 2009

Suicide, assisted and otherwise - 2. Learning how to grieve

This is another of the articles I wrote, soon after the suicide of my partner, 10 years ago. The issue is, of course, not the people who kill themselves. That is a decision they have made, and they are dead. The issue is how do the people who are left behind cope with that decision.

Obviously there is a huge difference between coping with the death of someone who is terminally ill, or elderly, or who has at least discussed the matter with those whom s/he loved, (or are likely to find the body) - and that of the sudden shock of discovery of someone who gave no sign that they were planning to kill themselves.

This piece was written really about the journey I found myself on - of coming to terms with my partner's shocking, and to me, completely unexpected decision - and learning how to grieve properly.

Learning how to Grieve

There was a time, not so very long ago, before urban sprawl and megacities and afforestation, when it was expected, without very much qualification, for people who had lost someone close to them, to mourn for a fairly extended period of time. When I lived for a time in rural Lesotho, I was extremely interested to see how traditional Basotho dealt with death. If the man in the family had died, for instance, the woman would be placed on a mattress in a room. She would have two or three supporters, who would be with her constantly. She would be required to say nothing and to do nothing at all. She would just sit on the mattress and weep, or not weep, as she felt fit. Wave after wave of sympathisers would be ushered into the room. The story of how the man died, what had happened; who said what; when; how - all the questions would be dealt with and answered in the telling of the story. And the story would be told over and over and over and over gain - for a week!

This is not my culture, of course, but in many ways I wish it were. One of the things I found necessary, when my partner died by hanging himself was this constant re-telling of the story. People who knew Brian needed to hear it. And somehow, the re-telling of it over and over again dis seem to have something of a healing effect. But it was extremely emotionally exhausting and it would have been very nice if there was someone else to do it for me and I could just sit on a mattress somewhere listening or weeping as the case may be.

Then there is the business of how we actually deal with the dead. The woman who worked for me then wanted badly to come to the funeral. She was originally from Malawi. She eventually plucked up enough courage to ask me why I had simply left Brian lying in the crematorium. She found this to be the strangest thing in the world. I explained to her the whole business about cremation and scattering the ashes, but she still looked at me more than a little incredulously. I could see us peering at each other across a very wide cultural gorge. It is not that she didn’t accept what I had done, it was simply that it didn’t in any way comply with the steps she understood to be necessary for the grieving process. “You have to see the person buried”, she said. Who knows, maybe she is right. I hadn’t really given the matter much thought before then.

When I was working as a priest in Manchester many years ago, one of the real difficulties of the job was the extraordinary amount of funerals I was required to do. It verged, sometimes, on 8 or 10 a week! The difficulty was that I very often had no idea of who it was that I was burying. Frequently, it was me, the undertaker and the coffin at the funeral. I often was left to ponder the tragedy of a long life, now over, with no-one to mourn its passing. I was often left to wonder about a society so compartmentalised, so lacking in community, that here could be the lonely sight of a body, a priest and an undertaker with not a single interested soul beyond them. That must be the saddest thing.

But I also frequently had no idea of what the person looked like that I was burying. In Britain, there was never any filing past the open coffin, as is frequently the case here in Africa. I once found myself in a very strange situation. I was informed by the undertaker that a woman, some way up the street where I lived, had died. Now, I lived in a street which was just two very long rows of front doors with windows on either side. It was difficult enough to get onto speaking terms with the next door neighbour, let alone someone down the road. Anyway, this woman had died and she didn’t have any relatives living with her, so it would have been useless to go to the house. I tried to picture where she lived and who she was. Ah yes! I remembered her. I often used to wave at her and sometimes used to exchange pleasantries on my way to work. She was an old lady with callipers who walked with some difficulty and she liked sitting in the sun outside her front door.

So I spoke at the funeral about the difficulties she had faced so bravely. I spoke about her lovely little garden that she seemed to be so proud of - and then rambled on in a very general sort of way about conversations we had had and that sort of thing. You can imagine my surprise, then, when I saw her sitting the next day outside her front door, soaking up the sun! I had buried the wrong person. I have no idea what the family made of what I had to say. In a strange, very British sort of way, it didn’t seem to make very much difference.

To get back to my point, I don’t think we white western types know how to grieve very well at all. It all seems to be tied up with nonsense about stiff upper lips and “just getting on with things” and “pulling oneself together” and “putting the past behind us”. Of course, all of this is true. And it is certainly not that people don’t care or that there is a lack of support. It is just that there is a sense in which we often tend to deal with grief as an inconvenience rather than a necessity. What I have come to see, which I did not see before as clearly as I do now, is that the only grief which does not end, is the grief which has not been fully faced. That can happen in a number of ways: By idealising the deceased person; or by suppressing one’s grief; or, conversely, by hanging onto feelings of sorrow and failing to resume one’s life fully at some point after the death. There will be some who see perpetual sorrow as a testimony to their love. Consequently it is easy to get stuck in time, believing that by holding onto the pain, you are holding onto the memories. What is true, though, is that sadness is a natural part of life, but self-pity immobilises.
The psychological boffins tell us that there are basically three stages to the grieving process and it doesn’t really matter what cultural persuasion one comes from. The first stage is basically shock. The second is a period of suffering and disorganisation. The third is a period of reorganisation. It does not really matter how long it takes to move from the first to the last, but it is critically important that there is movement. After the trauma of the second stage, with its sense of numbness; its preoccupations with last encounters and unfinished business; its feelings of abandonment and guilt and anger and blame, it is important to move on. Or even if one cannot do that immediately, at least it is important to know that this is the direction in which one should be moving.

What I learnt over the few months after the death was that it is crucial to experience all the feelings which the death has brought about for me, but it is equally crucial to say goodbye and to resume my life. That does not mean the end of the love or the memories. It does mean that I did learn to accept the death and in time, the pain and the sorrow lessened as well. And eventually (and this I do believe), in the words of Mother Julian of Norwich, “All things will be well, and all manner of thing will be well”.

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