Do we still know how to celebrate life?

By Victoria Parent

Death does not choose who it will take based on race, age, gender, sex, socioeconomical status or time of year. Death is an inevitable factor of life, which can come at any time. Have you thought about celebrating death, or rather life, alongside the semester’s-end festivities? Will it be a time to celebrate death, or rather, celebrate life of a lost loved one?

We might not be accustomed to death because life expectancy has dramatically increased in the last 100 years. According to Statistics Canada, life expectancy has increased by 20 years from 1920 to 2009 for both men and women. This increase in life expectancy has resulted in our generation being exposed to death less than previous generations.

In North America, there is not an established model of grieving that provides for the realities of human suffering. The negative connotation of death leads to the news of death inciting flabbergasted, awkward or uncomfortable reactions, such as, “Oh, wow . . . I’m sorry for your loss,” or “Err . . . my condolences,” and, “I couldn’t even imagine what you’re going through.” But what else do you respond with? Isn’t it right to not remind people of their pain, because the best way to deal with pain is to avoid it, ignore it or deal with it in private instead of actually experiencing it?

Most individuals box up emotions and bury them through the same symbolic process of death as a funeral. This suppression of emotions interpreted as showcasing weakness — such as crying — stems from self-protection. The mentality of putting on a strong face, which many believe is the most appropriate way to act in public and among peers while grieving, hardly results in an effective way to cope.

Jennifer Mcdonald* , a recent graduate of the U of C, lost her mother to breast cancer at the age of 15. Mcdonald and her family never went to grief counselling, although there was a grief-support group at the Rockyview Hospital related to the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, where her mother was treated.

“It was extremely difficult for me to ask for the help that I needed when I was constantly trying to hide the fact that I was — what I believed — abnormal for someone my age. The trauma I faced at such a young age was unparalleled by my the majority of my fellow classmates, whose greatest dilemmas in life were dating and getting into the right college. I would duck in and out of the counsellor’s office with tear-stained cheeks feeling embarrassed and out of place. Finding friends who were willing to accept me for all of my flaws and heartache made a huge difference in my life. I count myself lucky for finding such honest, mature and real friends in high school. Sharing my loss with my friends made me realize I was not alone in feeling alienated in my sorrow because after all we all suffer great losses in our lifetime, some just sooner than others,” said Mcdonald.

Dr. Alan Wolfelf, recently led a conference for Alberta Health Services workers addressing these “boxed up” and “buried” types of emotions, which he calls grief. Wolfelf emphasized the difference between grief and mourning. Grief is more of a self-derived way to internally process the thoughts and emotions associated with death — a sealed container only accessed from the inside. Mourning, he suggested, is a social process that allows individuals access to their container from the outside, as well as from the inside.

“When families make the choice to not just grieve but also authentically mourn, they muster the courage and confidence to integrate the death into their ongoing lives. By authentic mourning, I mean openly and honestly expressing their thoughts and feelings from the inside to the outside – no pretence, no repression, no inhibitions.

“Somewhere in the collision between the heart, which searches for permanency and connection, and the brain, which acknowledges separation and loss, there is a need for all of us to authentically mourn,” Wolfelf said.

Cross-culturally, there are several celebrations of life that contrast sharply with the celebrations of death witnessed in North America. In the Jewish faith, there are 12 steps of mourning. In Stage I or Shiva, the home is completely re-arranged, including covering of all mirrors. Lori Palatnik, a Jewish educator, writes, “A mirror represents social acceptance through the enhancement of one’s appearance. Covering the mirrors symbolizes this withdrawal from society’s gaze.”

The Day of the Dead celebrated in Mexico also emphasizes the social aspect of grieving. Stanley Brandes of the University of California, Berkeley writes, “Day of the Dead art is designed for living people, not for the deceased . . . the object and artistic representation associated with the Day of the Dead tends to be mostly purchased by and exchanged among the living as a way of reinforcing social relationships.”

Bethany Hansen, a third-year primatology student at the University of Calgary, spends her summers in a jungle studying chimpanzees.

“Observing chimpanzees in the wild reacting to death is uncommon, though we witness infant deaths most often,” she shares. “In Bossou, Guinea, mothers have been seen carrying dead infants for upwards of two months until mummified.

“Chimpanzees react with a mix of fear and curiosity to corpses and may shake, drag, groom, beat or avoid the body. Close relatives of the dead chimpanzee may stay with the body for long times after, even if they get sick. One male stayed in his sleeping nest for days until he too died. We see very similar reactions in chimpanzees as in humans,” said Hansen.

Our current model of grieving does not encourage the social-support aspect of grieving like in these examples.

More recently, our healthcare system has medicalized grief — that is, grief is now classified as a mental illness. Prolonged Grief Disorder (PGD), formally known as Complicated Grief Disorder, was added to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) in 2013. The publication of PGD in the DSM-5 has been long awaited, due to several research studies pressing for this disorder to be formally recognized. One such study, “Bereavement, Complicated Grief and DSM: Part 2: Complicated Grief” stated:

“The challenge is in knowing how to recognize and appropriately treat Complicated Grief. The absence of a DSM diagnosis for Complicated Grief, while safeguarding against stigma, puts certain bereaved individuals at risk by institutionalizing misdiagnoses and discouraging sufferers from obtaining treatment.”

These newly published findings act as a double-edged sword for bereaved persons, clinicians and advocates. While the DSM-5’s recognition of PGD provided the authority of an official diagnosis, it also opened sufferers to controversial biomedical treatment methods. This has sparked great debate among interested parties, as captured by Dr. Allen J. Frances in “DSM-5 Controversy Rages on in the Bereavement Community.”

“[Critics] fear that mental health practitioners will revert to the olden days, when emotional displays were frowned upon and pathologized. They’re concerned that grief will be routinely misdiagnosed and mistreated as a ‘mental disorder,’ ” Frances writes.

According to the Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association (CHPCA), in 2010, more than 252,000 Canadians died. The CHPCA estimates that each death impacts an average of five individuals.

Grieving people should not be treated as ill or somehow different than their former selves — their integrity as individuals should be preserved. Letting the memory of a deceased person die with them by repressing their legacy in public is not the way to grieve. This approach needs to be re-assessed as a toxic model put in place by societal norms, which are ultimately unworkable for the living. Intangible connections to a person are not severed when that person passes.

Imagine the important emotional ties you have with your mother, a cherished gift from a best friend or the song you shared with a girlfriend. They do not need to be forgotten in the process of grieving.

Perhaps the road to healing should start from the response of others towards bereaved individuals. It could be a collective social intervention sparked by others. We should not encourage repressing or forgetting the memory of someone. Instead, grief support should advocate the sharing and acknowledgement of that person’s memory — and the memories of the grieving. For example, instead of delivering a generic “I’m sorry for your loss,” we could ask a grieving person about the person they lost. Brett Collin, 23, lost his mother to cancer when he was in Grade 2. When asked to share his favourite memory about his mother, Collin recalled Christmases with her: “She wore Christmas ornaments as earrings and wore one of those onesie pajamas. You know, the ones with the butt flap.” Collin started to laugh, and I joined in.

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