Am I Right?

How to live ethically

What Really Helps at Time of Death

Most helpful is being with others who can share in the grief

Wendy was four years old. About a month after her mother died, Wendy complained that no one loved her. In order to reassure her, Wendy's father explained that there were many people who loved her and made a list of the people who did. Wendy still wasn't satisfied. "But when Mommy wasn't dead," she said, "I didn't need so many people. I just needed one."

No person can ever be replaced. Each individual is unique and at the various stages of our lives we find one person who assumes a central place in our hearts. When that person dies, other people cannot fill the emptiness. Activities and distractions don't help. Wendy's mother wasn't interchangeable with other relatives. Even if her father remarried, her new mother wouldn't be the same not that she might love her less but simply that no two people are alike and Wendy would always, in some way, remain loyal to her mother.

Wendy's father was right in one regard: having people love us helps us to recover from the wounds of separation. Understanding and support facilitate the mourning process so that life can be lived once again.

The ability to remain open includes seeing the deceased honestly rather than in an idealized manner. Eulogies that present the departed as saints and visitors who gloss over the flaws of friends do not help mourners. Instead, these attempts at kindness may inadvertently add to the guilt the survivor may already feel.

Soon after her father's death, a woman began seeing a therapist, not because of her grief but because she was literally tearing her hair out. She plucked hair from her head. She couldn't control or understand her behavior. During the course of therapy, she talked about her father. As therapy progressed, it became evident that he had been an exacting parent who held up high standards for his daughter, impossible standards which she could not meet. All her life she felt as though her father looked disapprovingly over her shoulder. Only when she was able to admit that there were parts of her father that she hated did she realize that by pulling her hair she was symbolically continuing her relationship with him. Finally, acknowledging that her feelings towards him were mixed that there were both love and hate her neurotic behavior ceased.

To be able to admit both the good and troubled aspects of a relationship is vital to recovery. While honoring the dead means assuming some of their best qualities and enacting them, this can be done only if it is also acknowledged that the person was not perfect.

Idealization does not help; speculation will not speed recovery; avoidance only makes matters worse. What then will help, what are the sources of comfort?

Mainly, it is being with others who can share in the grief. It is a condolence letter received, a visit, a phone call. It is feeling cared for by others who understand, who accept and forgive. It is a sense of solidarity, silence and touch. These small but genuine gestures allow the mourner room and privacy to eventually face life transformed but whole.

 

Arthur Dobrin, D.S.W., teaches applied ethics at Hofstra University. He is the author, coauthor, and editor of more than twenty books.

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