I discovered this when my wife Evelyn unexpectedly died of a heart attack in her forties. I had never lost anyone close and didn’t know how to grieve.
Death is hidden from us in mainstream America. We seldom see dead people or mourners, and have come to expect that everyone, except for the unfortunate few, will live to a ripe old age. This expectation didn’t use to be the norm.
Our great-grandparents grew up in a world where death was a companion, and families averaged eight children with the hope that half of them would survive childhood. People died from pneumonia, polio, and a host of other diseases and maladies that are successfully treated today. Grief was visible on the streets, and every family knew death. We forget events like the flu pandemic of 1918 that killed thirty million people around the world, and that dead bodies were stacked in streetcars of American cities.
One hundred years ago, mourners wore black clothes or black armbands in public so that people could come up and offer condolences as they did their shopping. Black wreaths were placed on the front doors of homes, so everyone would know that someone had died. Generations still lived under one roof, and children saw the progression of life as grandparents grew into the brittleness of old age and died.
Now we pay strangers to take care of family members who are dying. Deaths happen away from home, in hospitals or nursing facilities, and funeral houses take care of the bodies. We hide our grief from others—the crying and rage, the incoherent ramblings, the depression—worried that people might think we’re not strong or that our faith is weak, especially when our mourning lasts longer than a week.
We don’t pay attention to death until it forces us to. Then the “For Sale” sign goes up in the neighborhood, and we wonder who is moving away. If we check the obituaries, we realize that people are dying all around us, and we have scarcely noticed.
We regard every early death as the result of something going wrong. When a child dies, we think it’s a great injustice. When the evening news reports a fatal car accident, we act as if this were an unusual event. When a woman in her thirties dies from an inoperable brain tumor, we don’t know how this could have happened.
In a study called “Grief Mythology and the Invention of a Modern American Tradition,” Gary Laderman says that at the end of the nineteenth century in Victorian America, people openly showed their sorrow, but when modern medicine developed between the two world wars, perceptions shifted. The clinical view of life took over, and it reasoned that since death was a natural event, people should take a moment for sadness and then move on. Like getting tackled hard in football, you were expected to shake it off and get back in the game, even though you had suffered a concussion and weren’t really sure where you were or what you were supposed to do.
The rapid advances in medicine, like the development of penicillin and the smallpox vaccine, took away many of the causes of early death, like the tetanus that killed Henry David Thoreau’s brother when he cut himself shaving. With each new medical discovery, people lived longer. People who expected to die in their sixties were now lasting into their seventies, then into their eighties, and we began to think there might not be a top limit to human life, and we could almost live forever, swapping out organs and joints as they wore out. Death changed from being an accepted, although sad, part of life to being a failure of medicine. Some doctor wasn’t doing his or her job.
In regards to grief, I thought that if I left it alone, it would heal on its own with time. It didn’t. Grief won’t go away until we deal with it. If we ignore it, it will pull us down into depression. If we fight against it, we will be bitter for the rest of our lives. If we don’t work with grief and let it flow through us like a river, our energy and hope will stagnate into a pool of green-gray slime. Grief helps us make the necessary changes so that we can let go and smile again.
In American communities with northern European backgrounds, like the German-American one I grew up in, death observances tend to be stoic, while those from southern Europe, like Italian-American, tend to be more emotionally expressive. In New Orleans it’s common to have a Dixieland band lead the funeral procession with dancing and celebratory music. In Chinese-American communities in San Francisco, firecrackers and drums are used to scare away malevolent spirits.
When death occurs, the bulk of our attention focuses on the person who died. There is the casket or urn, a service of some sort where the dead is remembered with mostly kind words, and the burial, internment, or scattering of ashes in a beautiful location outdoors. Other than sending a condolence card and flowers, there are few rituals or traditions to help survivors grieve or guide them in rebalancing a suddenly unhinged life. Those who are grieving get compassion’s leftovers.
After the body is in its final resting place, mourners in my Midwestern community gather for a potluck of casseroles and gelatin desserts. They say a few words to the family, then return to their busy lives. At this point the gap between those who grieve and those who do not begins to grow. A few friends will stay close for the first month or two, bringing meals and helping with chores around the house; then they depart, and survivors are left on their own.
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While death hasn’t changed over the centuries, we have forgotten how to deal with it in healthy ways. How well people recover from grief depends on a number of elements, like their belief in an afterlife, the support they receive from their community, and how honestly they are willing to face their sorrow.
Every cultural and religious group has beliefs about what happens when people die, and there are many similarities. Believing that the deceased is in a better place helps lessen the impact of death, no matter what that heaven is envisioned to be like. Some think the afterlife will be a place where they will reunite with all their loved ones, including pets, or that it’s a vast temple with singing going on all the time. Others anticipate a vast intermingling of spirits with a great cosmic awareness. The Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges, imagined that heaven would be an enormous library. This would excite me, but not my wife who is now finding out.
Common elements include: judgment, where the life of the dead is put on trial, and passage into heaven is either allowed or denied; the setting aside of specific days to remember and pray for the deceased; and feeling that one can still communicate with the dead, at least for a short period of time, meaning that our relationships do not end but continue on in a different form.
The focus on making it to the next world may be why some of us don’t take grief seriously. If this world is viewed as a way station, a temporary stop before we arrive at where we really want to be, then whatever we go through here is temporary, including grief and social injustice. This is a theology that works well for those who have money and aren’t suffering.
On top of that, many of the world’s religions encourage their followers to live as people who are dead: “Be in the world like a traveler, and reckon yourself as of the dead.” –Mohammad. “The world is impermanent. One should constantly remember death.” –Sri Ramakrishna. “Zen has no secrets other than seriously thinking about birth and death.” –Takeda Shingen. “Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” –St. Paul. These directions say that suffering in this world is to be expected, so endure them and get back to work.
Tribal societies worked out their systems for dealing with death centuries ago—what to do with the body, how to comfort those who are grieving, and how to provide communal support for the surviving family.
In a paper on the grief traditions of four Native American tribes, Darlene Johnson says the Sioux maintain rituals for the tribe’s public expression of grief, and to make sure that the deceased’s family is taken care of. By custom, the deceased’s possessions are distributed to friends, not the family. The Sioux believe in the afterlife and pray to the grandfathers for guidance.
The Sioux view life as a circle where everything on earth is connected. As buffalo grow up eating the grass of the prairies, and then are eaten by humans for nourishment, so the Sioux feel that humans are part of this. The Sioux wrap the deceased in a robe and put the body in a cottonwood tree where the birds and small animals feed on it. As the body falls apart, it drops to the ground where it nourishes the grass that feeds the buffalo, and the circle of life is completed. These tribal traditions began eroding when elements of Christianity were blended in.
This blending of traditions is one reason why grief has become a forgotten art in America. As community identities were diluted by the desire to fit into life in a modern city, the ethnic, cultural, and social differences were smoothed out, including the rituals that people used to call on to maintain balance during life’s struggles. The result is that people have lost touch with the grief wisdom of their great-grandparents.
Beyond the commonalities, Johnson notes there are variations among Native Americans. Some tribes refuse to mention the deceased’s name, fearful that the person’s spirit will latch on and haunt them, while other tribes speak of the dead with reverence, feeling that the deceased are nearby, listening to what we are saying, and it would be rude to ignore them. The Hopi believe that contact with the dead brings physical pollution, so they ritually purify several people to handle the body. Some tribes cut their hair as a physical sign of mourning.
Practices in world religions vary as well. The Maori of New Zealand hold a public funeral when someone dies, because each person is considered as belonging to the tribe, not to the family, and everyone is expected to wail with grief at the community’s public time of mourning. In Africa, there are tribes that believe that the spirit of a person who dies can be reborn in a descendent.
In Hinduism, ancestors are honored, and the idea of reincarnation weighs heavily. If people live a good life, they go on to the next higher level. If they live a selfish life, they come back as lower beings. Because Evelyn suffered with ailments for years while she took care of others, I think she would go on. But my wishes for her may not be fit criteria for what actually happens.
In many cultures, it’s common for a surviving spouse to die within months of the partner’s death, unable or unwilling to continue on alone, especially after a long marriage. This makes psychological sense, because if two people believe they are made one by marriage, then living without one’s other half is too painful, both emotionally and physically. Doctors say that the stress of living without one’s spouse can weaken the muscles of the heart, and people die of what we lightly toss off as a broken heart. My grandmother had been with grandpa for over sixty years. After he died, she managed to last a full year, but she was stubborn.
The Hindu tradition of Sati takes this marital devotion a step further for a variety of reasons, some social and some financial. In it, a widow commits suicide on her husband’s funeral pyre—reminiscent of what Clytemnestra was supposed to do in Greek mythology. She didn’t because she had plans for revenge for her husband’s murder. Although Sati has been outlawed since 1829, it still happens today.
The Parsis of India, like the Hopi of the American Southwest, consider dead bodies to be impure. They do not bury or cremate the deceased, because to do so would pollute the sacred elements of earth, air, water, fire, and ether. Instead, they take the bodies of their dead to a Tower of Silence that is open to the sky, and vultures come down and dispose of the remains. Sikhs hold special readings for seven or ten-day periods.
Ancient Egypt, taking a different tack, took care to preserve bodies in preparation for what would be needed in the next world. Those who could afford the services were elaborately embalmed, with all the interior organs removed except the heart, which was considered the core of a person. The brain, deemed unimportant, was diced up and pulled out through the nose. The poor were buried in hot, dry sand that naturally embalmed their remains. Egyptians felt that after death, one’s soul was escorted into the hall of judgment for a decision by Osiris. If the person had shown enough compassion, the heart was processed into eternity.
In Buddhism, especially the Tibetan version, there is a forty-nine-day journey between this life and the next, during which time the dead person is presented with three openings to the next life and either recognizes them and goes through, or does not. The journey is called the Bardo of Becoming, and those who get stuck here without making the transition to the new place become ghosts.
Tibetans believe that grievers can help the dead by praying for them during the first twenty-one days after death. The focus of the prayers is two-fold: asking the Bodhisattva of Compassion to help the dead, and encouraging the dead to seek and accept the light. Praying can be done anytime, but it is believed to be particularly effective in the place and on the day of the week that the person died. Like the Parsis and the Sioux, Tibetan Buddhists leave their dead out in the open for recycling, although they first cut the body into smaller pieces.
For the first week, and then on the death date each month, I lit candles each night to guide Evelyn through the darkness to wherever she was going, and to bring me hope.
China has a number of native religions as well as world religions like Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. My brother Kurt witnessed the funeral procession of one tradition where family members wailed loudly until they reached the gravesite. Then the widow ritually tried to throw herself into the grave while other mourners ritually held her back. In another tradition, there was no public display of emotion, just quiet reverence.
In regards to grief, I thought that if I left it alone, it would heal on its own with time. It didn’t. Grief won’t go away until we deal with it. If we ignore it, it will pull us down into depression. If we fight against it, we will be bitter for the rest of our lives. If we don’t work with grief and let it flow through us like a river, our energy and hope will stagnate into a pool of green-gray slime. Grief helps us make the necessary changes so that we can let go and smile again.In the Japanese culture, with its mixture of Buddhist, Shinto, and folk beliefs, the bulk of grief work is focused in the first forty-nine days when the living express their sorrow, and the community provides support. If grieving is not yet finished, as when the death was due to an act of violence, then more time is allowed. Rituals are conducted during this period to help the dead get to their new place. When this period ends, the household altar becomes the place to honor the dead and where the living can talk to the ancestors and receive guidance. Japanese Buddhists hold a monthly Shotsuki memorial service, and each year the summer Bon festival celebrates all who have died.
In Western Christianity, tension exists between feeling joy that the dead person has gone on to heaven, his or her ultimate goal, and feeling sorrow over our loss. Christians believe that each person has an immortal soul that does not end with this life. Roman Catholics say a mass for the deceased to help them get into heaven. They also believe in purgatory, a stopover on the way to heaven where the dead atone for their sins before being allowed in. Protestants do not believe in this.
For mainstream Christian denominations in the Midwest, other than a potluck meal after the funeral service, there isn’t much that is organized for grievers. The exceptions are megachurches that are large enough to have an ongoing fellowship group for grievers and individual congregations that hold quarterly or yearly focus groups for those who have lost loved ones.
Celtic Christians have traditionally used wakes to: celebrate the dead person, give a good sendoff to the next life, and help the living accept what has happened. Elderly women of the neighborhood would come in, wash the body, and lay it in a room for mourners to offer a prayer and say a few words of condolence to the family. In another room the deceased’s life was remembered through stories, song, and drink. The Celts also believe in cross-world communication with the dead, especially during Samhain at the end of October, when the barrier between this world and the next world thins to a veil and people can see and hear each other.
Communal Christian groups that have sustained their cultures, like the Amish and Old World Mennonites, have done better at maintaining their grief rituals. In the Amish community, grieving families are seldom left alone for the first two or three weeks, according to Steven Nolt of Goshen College, writing in the Indianapolis Star after the shooting at an Amish schoolhouse in 2006. During these weeks there are daily visitors, as well as visits every Sunday for the next year.
The Amish know that events happen in life they can’t control, but they trust God to watch over them. This belief allows them to accept death when it comes and to forgive people who have caused the death of their loved ones, even the deaths of children, instead of feeling anger or having thoughts of revenge. After this tragedy, one father said of the shooters that they must have been suffering terribly to do something this horrific.
Muslims observe communal mourning for three days, bringing food, reading verses from the Qur’an, and staying overnight so that the surviving spouse is not alone. The family often wears clothing of mourning for forty days. In some traditions the mourning color is black, and in others it is white. Shiite Muslims mourn their dead on the third, seventh, and fortieth days. In Egypt the day of condolence is forty days after death. Public expressions of grief for women include wailing, scratching the face, and hitting oneself. In some traditions these outward displays are discouraged. Some Muslim men will not shave for forty days.
Muslims and Christians believe that God either allows or causes everything to happen for a purpose, so people should be happy, even if loved ones die, because they have been chosen to be part of God’s plan. I don’t believe that Evelyn’s death served any purpose. She just died. If anything, it took compassion out of the world because Evelyn was taking care of children who were learning challenged and helping people deal with grief.
In Judaism there isn’t much discussion about the afterlife because the focus is on taking care of matters in this world, not the next. In the twelfth century, the great Jewish theologian, Maimonides, addressed this. He said that while there was an afterlife, its details were best left alone: “As to the blissful state of the soul in the World to come, there is no way on earth in which we can comprehend or know it.”
In the Jewish tradition, from the moment of death until the end of the funeral, survivors honor the dead in a time called aninut—the “hollow days,” an apt term because that’s how this time felt to me. They tear a piece of clothing, symbolic of their everyday life being torn. After the funeral, they observe shiva, covering mirrors and sitting with their grief for seven days while others take care of their basic needs. They also receive well-wishers during this time when I figure they’re numb to everything, and the words of grief from others do not deepen their own. This also gives the community the chance to acknowledge its sorrow over the death. Then survivors mourn for thirty days, shloshim, after which time they rejoin the daily life of the world, believing that God will provide what they need. After twelve months, and on the anniversary of the death each year after, the yahrzeit, the dead person is remembered by lighting a memorial candle.
Discovering the Jewish traditions helped me realize that grief was going to last much longer than I anticipated, and its rites gave me a time structure for my journey.
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Elizabeth Kubler-Ross spoke of five stages of grief, and while they are helpful for sketching out the general territory that grievers have to traverse, it should be noted that people do not go through all of the stages, or in the same order, or with the same intensity. A person may also go through the same stage several times; anger will run rampant, go away, pop back in, and go away again. Gradually, the stages fade into the background as people make peace with grief.
In addition to the support they receive from others, survivors need to do grief work on their own. They need to take risks and try new things. They need to figure out what they are feeling and share this with others on an ongoing basis so that they can release these emotions before they turn toxic. They can also create their own rituals to honor their dead. Besides lighting candles, they can create altars of memories to acknowledge the continued presence of the loved one in their lives. Donations can be made to organizations that the deceased supported as a way of continuing their compassion in the world.
In recent years, grief support groups in the community have been set up that one can attend, organized either by how the person died (cancer, heart attack, drunk driver, and so on), or by the griever’s situation (widow, widower, single parent, teenager, child). These groups provide a valuable forum for sharing one’s struggles with people who understand your fears, doubts, and the behaviors that you think may be weird or unstable. Here you find out that others are also doing things like setting a place at the dinner table for the deceased each night or leaving the TV on all day so there are other voices in the home. Support groups let members know they are still a valued part of a community and are not alone in what they are going through.
Books are another resource I consulted, although most were written about someone dying, and not about grief. Their words helped me to understand the full dimensions of sorrow and connect with my emotions, and inspired me to go deeper into my struggles. They also put grief into the larger context of human existence. The poets of the T’ang Dynasty in eighth century China were particularly attuned to grief. There have been a few recent books about death and grief that are notable, like Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye, Kate Braestrup’s Here If You Need Me, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, and Kathleen Dean Moore’s Wild Comfort.
Helping others who are in need can help us realize that we haven’t cornered the market on suffering. By helping them, we feel better about ourselves.
After Ev’s death, knowing how quickly any of our lives could end, I wanted to grab life by the horns like my rock-climbing friends in Yosemite who take risks. As they work their way up the side of a mountain, they understand that they can be seriously injured or die, but they also know how alive they feel when they are climbing. And when they die, whether it’s later this afternoon or in fifty years, they want to be sure that they have lived life to the fullest. People, then, will not mourn a life cut short, but celebrate a life well lived.
The turn in grief recovery comes when we can celebrate our deceased. By celebrating them, we honor who they were and what they did. In a short paper called “A Buddhist’s Perspective on Grieving,” Joan Halifax said that when she was finally able to do this, her mother moved from being a source of sorrow to being an ancestor who now lived as a healthy part of her.
Spending time outdoors is helpful for many who grieve, because the awe and beauty of natural landscapes draw them outside of lives that have been closed in by grief. In nature, I saw that death was accepted as part of a natural cycle and noticed that areas of massive destruction were growing into scenes of new beauty. Being outdoors and looking up at the stars moving in constellations through the sky, hiking through forests and across mountains, and listening to birds sing helped me realize that I was part of something much larger than my own individual life.
The year after Evelyn’s passing, I hiked eight miles to the top of El Capitan in Yosemite and held a memorial service for her at 7,500 feet. In a place that she was never physically able to reach, I made a pile of white granite rocks and added a purple Scottish thistle to honor her and her heritage. I sat and talked with Ev, pointing out the sights before us: Three Brothers to our left, Bridalveil Fall and Glacier Point across the valley, and Half Dome, Clouds Rest, and the snow-covered mountains of the Sierra Nevada crest in the distance rising three miles into the blue sky.
In one sense, we are still sitting there on top of El Capitan in the warm afternoon sun, with a cool breeze coming up from the valley floor, and celebrating the beauty of the natural world. Moments of life like this stay with us.
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If I hide from grief, it will come back, whack me behind the knees, and take me down like a sack of potatoes. Those who grieve know that the long battle is both physical and mental. At times, my journey of grief has felt like rafting down a wild river with turbulent rapids and cascades that threw me out of the boat. At other times, it felt like long stretches of calm water when nothing seemed to be happening, yet the shoreline continued to go by. In both cases, I was healing in unseen ways.
It is not surprising that we run from grief. It’s not a happy event. It deals with something traumatic, and it forces us to change our lives in significant ways. What is surprising is that, in the midst of all the emotional chaos, people are willing to show up on our doorsteps and listen to us talk about grief, knowing that they cannot take the pain away, but believing that they can lessen our burden if grief is shared.
Life is suffering, as world religions like to remind us, but it’s also celebration, as the Celts believed. When we can hold grief in one hand, joy in the other, and still dance, then we have found the balance that enables us to live full lives.
While there is much that I still do not understand about grief, I know that I am on a journey that is restoring me to life.