Shades of Grief: Culture Shapes Our Mourning

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Apple recently developed a screen with a billion different colors and advertised it as an improvement. It may be on iPad, or iMac, or both. But who cares? We already own screens with plenty of colors. We didn’t buy them for the colors. We bought them for data processing, mainly words, and news. News often comes in pictures, but we want the information, not the colors. A little color adds information, and interest, but a little is enough. You think Apple will sell many new screens?

In grief, we want to work through the process and come out the other side. It’s not so important how we do it. Best to keep it simple. Different cultures have different traditions, and they all work. That’s why they became traditional. It’s probably best to use the one you’re most familiar with. Some people seem to think that grief has no other side–that it never ends. But that’s a misconception. Memory never ends–until death, or until dementia is far advanced–but grief ends when you remember the loss without being unduly upset, and can enjoy the memory of the good times and the sadness of the loss at the same time, “such sweet sorrow.” And then go on with you’re business for today.

In the middle of a long tunnel it may seem like it has no end, but if it’s a tunnel it has an end. There will be a light. Keep walking. If it’s not a tunnel, turn around. The only way out is to go back. . . . No, wait, we just stepped across the line into science fiction. We can’t reverse time. It’s a tunnel, keep walking. Remember Churchill, “Never give up . . . .”

Many of us grew up in schools of mainly our own race­, and we aren’t very familiar with traditions of other cultures. The best we may be able to do is to recognize that other cultures influence how the majority of mankind sees the world, and ours in not the only way, and not even the majority. To broaden our education we could read, or better, travel and talk with some of these people, but if we’re well along the road of life, or busy with our work, we may not have time.

One culture believes that the soul enters the body at the child’s first birthday. This would be adaptive in a primitive area with high infant mortality. It would eliminate any social obligation to grieve or pay for a funeral during that first year. It might also reduce emotional attachment to an infant expected not to survive and make the loss less difficult. A substantial number of people in our culture seem to believe that the soul enters the body at conception. But, it’s not easy to understand how a one-celled life can have a soul if the two one-celled lives that united to form it didn’t.

Fortunately, we don’t need to understand when the soul arrives. The intensity of our grief isn’t related to whether or not the one we lost had a soul. It’s not related to the tradition we follow to resolve grief. It’s related to the strength of the emotional bond we had to the person and the importance of that person in our life. Our pain is provoked by our realization that that bond can no longer grow, can’t be exercised, can’t even be maintained, and will wither away. We can resolve grief by converting that bond as it withers, to a fond memory that we can look back on–on a slow day–wherever we live.

In some traditions the family buries the deceased, and then, maybe three years later, when the natural process of decay is complete, they dig up the bones to revere them. Does that sound strange? Wonder how it works? Might it help convert the perception of an active relationship to a fond memory, or interfere with the process?

Introspection into grief is always recommended.

C W Patterson, MD

Copyright©July 18, 2017

Tehachapi, California

 

Charles Patterson

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I was born in Santa Monica, California, earned a BS degree in biochemistry at California State Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo in 1962, and an MD at the University of Louisville School of Medicine in 1966. I completed a psychiatry residency at Rollman Psychiatric Institute in Cincinnati in 1970. My working career consisted of private practice in five locations, six fulltime employed positions, and included eighteen hospital staff memberships, sixteen professional titles, and membership in twelve professional organizations; and unintentionally grew into a nomadic life style. My career goal was to learn as much as possible about normal human nature, in addition to make a living. Now my goal has extended to understanding as much as possible, especially life and death. I wrote a newsletter about psychiatry for the general reader to support my practice in Arizona, and consolidated it into my first book in 1984. From that my interest in writing grew along with interest in horse care that was stimulated by my wife’s interest in endurance riding. We enjoyed the sport together during our thirty years of marriage, until we retired in 2008 to an equestrian community near Tehachapi, California, with three horses, two dogs and four cats, and a plan to rejoin the sport, but without realizing they all had become too old. The subsequent loss of my wife to ovarian cancer in 2010, and much of the animal herd, reawakened my interest in the process of death and the potential for “life after death,” that continues to motivate my writing and study.

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