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Cross-Cultural Psychology

The Importance of Goodbye

Are we a culture of televised mourning?

Maxwell Hamilton/Flickr
Kensington, Flowers for Princess Diana's Funeral, 5 feet deep (1997)
Source: Maxwell Hamilton/Flickr

People mourn and metabolize the loss of another in myriad ways. These losses also assail us differently, whether by a sudden blow or in creeping increments as with terminal illness. As psychoanalyst Adrienne Harris comments, they vary in the degree of their social recognition, too: does anyone send a letter of condolence for divorce?

Often intense guilt and shame infuse the loss of someone beloved. A child who has had a parent die sometimes feel they have failed in some fundamental way. The beloved’s departure is perceived as the child’s own deficiency and unworthiness of being. Somehow one should have been able to keep the parent alive. Yet such emotions defend against overwhelming helplessness, Harris writes. One thinks, If I had only done this instead, things would have happened differently. The wish for omnipotence seduces the psyche away from vulnerability to self-reproaches of blame and culpability.

In the sudden and unexpected death of someone beloved, one is robbed of goodbye, left without an ending, and compelled to find his or her own sense of closure—a suitable container for what Jane Tillman and Anne Carter call “good-enough grieving.” An unforeseen death impairs the experience of mutual separation and individuation. It may lead to fears of dependency in relationships, or confusion and inhibition surrounding it. Dianna Elise, a psychoanalyst, elaborates on the importance of goodbyes, an ongoing process that characterizes a person’s entire lifespan. A person’s existence may be thought of as a series of leave-taking.

We live in a society that resists acts of communal mourning. Rarely in Western culture do we “revisit the evolving meaning of earlier losses that only become apparent over significant passage of years,” states Elise. Television shows documenting the deaths of iconic figures or celebrities garner the public’s widespread attention and provide a rare forum for communal reflection on historic losses, both personal and shared.

2.5 billion people worldwide watched the televised funeral of Princess Diana, making her coffin’s journey from Kensington to St. James Palace one of the most watched events ever (by comparison, only 750 million globally viewed her televised wedding). But tube spectators experienced the funeral procession through an electronic and two-dimensional medium, its audience dispersed over enormous geographic distances and asynchronous time zones. This is long-distance mourning where the vast majority of others in grief are anonymous and there is curtailed personal and affective investment in the individual who has ceased to be.

As Americans, we are forward-thinking and progressive. We value the power of positive thinking and the imperative to “get over it” and “move on.” Elise suggests our resistance against lamentation “leads to a poverty of extended communal mourning in our culture.”



Deutsch, Robin A., (Ed.). (2014). Traumatic Ruptures: Abandonment and Betrayal in the Analytic Relationship, New York and London: Routledge.


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