In the United States, death is often treated with a stoic although sad attitude. We’re conditioned to withhold external displays of emotions, and in particular men are chastised for visible displays of emotion which society deems a “weakness.” For parents, we’re trained to tell a child that a loved one has gone to “a better place” or heaven or has “passed on”. In some situations such as cremation, there is little ceremony or prolonged period of mourning. The focus of this month’s theme is centered around the experience a child goes through of confronting and coping with a death in the family.
Initially, the child experiences a void, an empty feeling that is often filled with fear which can manifest itself later with substance abuse if not properly addressed at this early stage.
As a society, we are conditioned and taught not tell stories about the dead. In other cultures however, such as in the Mexican culture during the Day of the Dead holiday, stories about the dearly departed are seen more positively as bringing back memories, experiences and related truths. These stories also help the living and survivors keep the dead “alive” through remembered moments.
When a family member dies and then “floats” away, or disappears, it leaves behind an empty space such that the child begins to fill in a story that is often fear-based. Children often speak of ghosts in the closet, monsters under the bed and shadows behind the door because they are in fear. In these instances, children want to fill in the emptiness with something and cannot imagine or visualize the actual dead person because that person has “disappeared”. Instead, children invent the personage in the form of a being between worlds - hence the ghost stories and the vague sorrow.
As an alternative, when loss or death of a family member is confronted and experienced as immediate and real and when it is characterized as something we can all face with our loved ones beside us, then the fear and the shadows are gone.
In some cultures, there is an entire ritual surrounding the loss of a family member. The family washes the body, lays out the body in the living room for all to visit and say goodbye to and grieves openly with lavish amounts of tears and many stories. While this ceremonial rite may seem foreign to us in the United States, it is a practice commonly accepted in some cultures as a positive way of coping with the loss in ordinary reality. While we may see some of this practice in the United States, the mourning period is cut short and “life goes on”. We’re told to “toughen up” and go on with our lives.
When death is treated as a topic we should not discuss and spend too much time over, there is a distinct and real correlation between the denial and a certain inability to engage with others and ultimately has a negative impact on intimacy and ability to surrender to love and happiness.
In the end, when it seems an open, full fledged grief over a dead and departed relative would open the flood gates, it actually will relieve fear and give everyone a chance to experience the truth. It is imperative to take a different perspective to treat it as an opportunity to survive so that we, ourselves, in the natural course of things, will continue to thrive.