|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
14 - 20 March 2002
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
No shame in cryingAfter a string of tragic accidents struck the nation in recent weeks, Yasmine El-Rashidi asks how those left behind could ease the process of dealing with loss
Dying, I imagine, is not an easy thing. Neither, however, is dealing with the death of another. Or the loss -- physical, or emotional -- of a loved one.
Black has been the cultural colour of death in the Middle East. Psychologists say it does little to aid the mourning process. In India, for example, people wear white.
In the space of three weeks, the nation has witnessed a mass slaughtering; over two thousand lives lost between two train accidents and the collapse of four buildings. Then there is the slew of plane crashes that has struck the world in recent years, not to mention car accidents in indescribable numbers. And then of course, there is the day the world allegedly changed: 11 September.
But it would be wrong to assume and imply that the seeming global surge in deaths is technology-driven. People are also experiencing prolonged deaths as a consequence of chronic, progressive diseases. But it walks in tandem with development; generally, globally, in seeming parallel concurrence.
The concern amidst these tragic events is the lack of human understanding and exploration. We spend much time contemplating, researching, and exploring pregnancy, birth, and the psychological effects of both; what they mean, bring on, and how to cope. We do little, however, to explore, not death, but grief, loss, and how to mourn and move on. It seems timely in the face of recent events, and in light of recent years, for not only have communities mourned, but so too have entire nations -- the United States with 11 September, India with the passing away of Mother Teresa, and the United Kingdom with the death of Princess Diana. Each, it came to light, proving soul- wrenching in its own particular way.
What then, can one do to ease the process of mourning? Or furthermore, what exactly should mourning comprise?
"Mourning is a process," says Lilli Dinesen, clinical psychologist at Community Services Association (CSA). "In the case of sudden deaths, it includes four stages," she continues. "You can prepare yourself intellectually for a person's death -- in the case of a long illness -- but never emotionally. To properly grieve, you need to go through all four stages, regardless of whether they take a month or a year."
The four stages represent the life of a loss -- be it a death, or as Dinesen points out, a rejection.
"You have to remember," she says, "that rejection or abandonment is a form of loss. Then, too, one mourns."
Denial, appropriately, represents stage one; the protective period during which you protect yourself from the potentially overwhelming feelings by emotionally numbing yourself.
"It can last anywhere from hours to days to months," Dinesen, trained extensively in grievance therapy, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "It depends on an individual's personality and their relationship with the deceased, or loved one."
Eventually, of course, reality, the cliché goes, bites.
"Grief starts to surface," Dinesen says of stage two. "You begin to feel the feelings and express the pain. You begin to talk."
Talking, she says, is critical to a proper mourning process.
"Talking over and over about it -- about the details of the person's death, the relationship you shared, the pains and joys, and how you're feeling about everything -- facilitates the grieving process," she says. "It's only when a person really talks things out, that they can begin to move on to stage three: adjustment."
Adjustment, she explains, to life without the deceased.
"The first step is envisioning life without them," she elaborates. "Then you actually have to go out there and live it. That's the final stage: being ready to re-invent your life without that person."
Sounds straight-forward enough, but the human mind, of course, is a complicated thing.
"You pass through the four stages smoothly only if your relationship with the person was uncomplicated," Dinesen explains. "Meaning that there was no deep ambivalence, like in the case of a relationship in which both feelings of love and hate are present. That really complicates things."
Complicates because if one cannot deal with the essence of the relationship, and the feelings towards the person, then how do they expect to be able to deal with them once they are gone.
"You find this towards parents in many cases," she says. "A mother, for example, that cared for you in the physical sense, but never managed to feed you emotionally."
That person, in essence, that you need, but cannot quite give you exactly what you require. Or desire.
"In cases like this, you can find a person stuck in stages one and two -- fluctuating endlessly between them," she says. "It really complicates things," she continues. "As do two other main elements which cause the grieving process to go wrong."
Too much reaction, or too little, Dinesen says.
"The person is either threatened by too intense an emotional reaction, or they experience total numbness. In both cases, the grieving process never begins," she says. "Falling into these two areas is dependent on your personality structure and how you deal with change."
Narcissistic personalities have great trouble dealing with death given their inability to separate themselves from the deceased. "The deceased is seen as an extension of the self, and so there is denial at the death," she says. "To acknowledge, accept and grieve, would mean to accept that a part of you has died. That's hard to deal with."
Indeed. Impossible, almost, it seems.
"A dependent personality -- especially in a relationship with a strong character -- also has an exceptionally hard time. You see yourself in the partner, and so through them you see yourself as strong," she explains. "Once the person is gone, there is no mirror to mirror yourself in, and therefore you lose your identity. Hence the denial."
It is a shield of denial, which like all else man made, eventually reveals a flaw; a crack out of which some emotions leak out, occasionally, here and there, in seeming inappropriateness - in response to dramatic movies, sad novels, or tragic memoirs.
"The defense system stays in place, until a cue in the environment, or from people, throws you off balance," she says. Makes you stumble, and in some cases, fall. "That's why you see some people deal very well for weeks, or months, then collapse."
It's okay, she stresses, it's normal.
"We're human after all, we have feelings and we need people. Losing someone is something that takes time to fully get over. At least a year, in some cases more."
What about rejection as loss?
"In some ways it's harder," she says. "But at least you have the option of reaching a compromise. The relationship may not be all you would like it to be, but at least you still have the person."
And eventually, of course, you adjust.
Sitting in her softly lit office, somehow soothing in its arrangement of ornaments, books and wall hangings, Dinesen leans slightly forward in her armchair.
"It's crucial to involve the children in the mourning process too," she says, citing the shocking train accident. "The accident left many mothers and children without their income providers -- their source of support. They need to talk about it. How was it to say good-bye? or go home for the holidays? You need to facilitate for a person to talk. And don't forget," she says again, "the children."
The problem with the West, Dinesen, Danish by birth, explains, is that they somewhat failed to involve children in the mourning process.
"They need to see parents cry. If not, how do they learn to mourn?" she asks. "Children need to be able to tell you how they feel. They don't have the capacity to mourn for long periods, so they will do it between bursts of playing and joy. When they come inside and are withdrawn, you know they are going through their own mourning process."
The key though, is to share.
"Not telling a child, or spouse, that a loved one died is a huge mistake," she emphasizes. "It's deception. The person usually ends up believing that they did something wrong. You assume you were at fault."
Luckily, she says of the Middle Eastern culture, it is one of family and sharing, of laughter and crying.
"It's okay to cry here," she says. "That makes things easier. When I lived in Iran, you could hire women to come and cry. That facilitates healing tears in a grieving person. There was the same thing in India and Sri Lanka. That's the thing about this part of the world. It's not shameful to cry."
It is not shameful to cry, and it is not shameful to talk. And unlike in other parts of the world, the Middle East is blessed with a social structure which almost dictates social gathering and social togetherness.
"You have a social setting which enables people to reinforce one another. You are blessed in that sense."
Blessed with society, and blessed, one must remember, to have had that cherished person, in one's life.
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