Getting Over It: the Loss of Mourning
At aged 18 I experienced a young exposure to grief. One grey autumn afternoon I received a phone call informing me that my boyfriend had died in his sleep. The phone call marked a point. My life was abruptly cut in to two halves, as a person I was irreversibly altered. The passing of time now existed as two people, whose faces resembled my own, facing each other from opposite banks of a mist-covered river, one never fully comprehending the face of the other. I remember thinking that this must be what purgatory was like – this was a kind of death in life. For at least two years I was adrift in this sea of grief, cut off from my previously inhabited world.
People who have experienced this kind of incomprehensible grief, and it is almost impossible to be exempt from this category, remain in a state of shock for an immeasurable period of time. It is a devastatingly lonely experience: you can be surrounded by friends but still feel utterly lost at sea, cruelly buffeted by the waves. We all understand that death is a part of life, but to think of this prospect everyday is impractical and certainly not deemed socially acceptable. Yet this is the reality for people in mourning: they have a profound and constantly troubling relationship with death. With the loss of a loved one comes the arrival of the shadowy and foreboding figure of death in one’s life; suddenly the philosophical question of death comes to directly affect you. This seems especially true of the turmoil that follows a sudden and unexpected loss. The bereaved person is filled with dread and anxiety over, what feels like, the impending threat of death. And so you find yourself stranded indefinitely on that lonely bank of the river, calling in to the wind: who else is going to die? Will I die? How could I have stopped the death of this person that I loved?
In westernised culture, there exists an unspoken agreement about the appropriate length of time a period of mourning should last. There are established stages of grief that one should pass through in order to free oneself from the state of mourning, or to continue my previous metaphor: to get back to that person on the other side of the river. This desire to neatly curtail profound moments in our lives is not exclusive to mourning; it is portioned off in the same way as parental leave, with little room allowed for variation of experience. By the time I had begun to deal with my grief, the people around me no longer saw it as immediately relevant to my behaviour. A number of weeks after the death I felt obliged to see a bereavement counsellor, a stern elderly woman who I couldn’t face talking to and whose sessions I mostly skipped to spend in the pub with friends who weren’t going to make me discuss my grief. Mostly, I’m sure, because they felt emotionally unable to overcome the awkwardness that came with it. About a year after the death I visited a doctor. I’d gotten into the habit of buttoning my winter coat all the way to the top, so that even in warm weather, which I didn’t particularly notice, I would be barricaded in this way. This practice had begun on the day of the funeral and continued since then. A person does not need to be an expert in symbolism to analyse this behaviour.
Observing the profound anxiety and depression I displayed on my visit to the doctor, they prescribed a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy provided by the NHS. By its nature, CBT is about correcting a person’s behaviour: a developed behaviour that most likely is affecting their ability to conduct themselves in daily life. To be offered CBT as the most suitable treatment only a year after experiencing a major bereavement is something that would make psychoanalyst Darian Leader balk with disapproval.
In his book, The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia and Depression, Leader analyses the failings of our contemporary mourning rituals, or lack of. He proposes that sometime in the last century the differentiation between mourning, melancholia and depression became confused. Our grasp on mourning has slipped, as depression becomes the popular blanket diagnosis. The act of mourning is not something that can be assumed; grief is an inevitability following a loss, but mourning is not. ‘If we lose someone we love, be it through death or separation, mourning is never an automatic process. For many people, in fact, it never happens’ (Leader, 8). Grief is the strong, immediate feeling we experience after the death or loss of a loved one – mourning is the process we move into after this, during which a person might be traditionally expected to withdraw from society for a time and dress in black clothing. Psychoanalysis suggests that melancholia happens when mourning is unsuccessful. A key part of mourning for psychoanalysists, first noted by Freud, is that the mourning process needs other people: being left in isolation to mourn is not a helpful strategy.
Modern society, for Leader, is full of repressed mourning. He uses the well-known reaction to the death of Princess Diana as an example; the disproportionate amount of grief her death produced in members of the public baffled critics, but Leader sees this as an outpouring of personal loss that found an outlet in this public form of mourning. As our culture becomes more private and less community based, we become less comfortable with displays of emotion, such as grief. Stoicism is admirable and the public wailing once associated with death is downright embarrassing. When I broke down during the funeral, I felt ashamed at such a public display of emotion. Writing about her sister’s death in the Guardian, Emma Dawson described the daily fear of breaking down in public when ‘the gargantuan freight trains’ of grief ‘rams into your very soul’. The words ‘breaking down’ themselves have a definite sense of personal failure.
Leader blames a certain amount of repressed mourning on the disintegration of public mourning rituals in our society - death is no longer a part of life. He refers to ancient tribes who interpret death with elaborate ceremonies, for instance Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival. We have amazing access to knowledge that fuels our quest to answer all questions; there is no longer as much space for superstition or religion and a lot of people cannot see the relevance of traditional institutions in their lives. Yet for all the faults that may be inherent within religion, in the past it has provided the structure and certainties that a person in mourning needs. Phillipe Ariès believes we now have a fear of involving death in our lives: we have developed ‘a new sentiment characteristic of modernity: one must avoid – no longer for the sake of the dying person, but for society’s sake[…]the disturbance and the overly strong and unbearable emotion caused by the ugliness of dying and the very presence of death in the midst of a happy life, for it is henceforth given that life is always happy or should always seem so’ (Ariès, 87). Death has become a taboo subject.
In writing this article I have felt acutely aware of the discomfort associated with conversations about death and grieving in society. Leader isn’t suggesting a return to the Victorian obsession with death but rather the development of a new language to help us through the mourning process that is meaningful within our modern lifestyles. There has developed a paradoxical situation in which we are confronted by death almost daily, whether it be in reporting of mass scale death on the news or images of violent death in TV programmes and films, yet without ‘the symbolic support of mourning rites, images of death simply proliferate to the point of meaninglessness’(74). Individually as well as at the point of the larger society, this means that we have actually evolved to be less capable of dealing with death than our ancestors. This denial of death and the failure to allocate a space for grief in society makes the mourning process more challenging, more isolated, and more likely to be stunted or repressed.
Leader, of course, views this issue through the lens of psychoanalysis and believes that there should be an emphasis on talking therapies over ‘quick fixes’ such as CBT which will merely alter behaviour, leaving the root of the problem to fester in the background and continue to resurface over one’s lifetime. Throughout the book, Leader returns to the idea of enabling catharsis through engagement with our own creativity; that ‘the place of the arts in a culture takes on a new sense: as a set of instruments to help us mourn’(86). Leader leaves this idea open at the conclusion to his book, planted as a seed of suggestion rather than a rigid set of instructions. Yet perhaps this is what we need, the door left open to forge new mourning rituals that most help us. It took me a number of years to figure out how to process my own grief – for me it was writing poetry - but what helped me would not help everyone; mourning, after all, is an individual process and this is why we do ourselves a disservice by putting its symptoms into such clinical terms. Returning to the earlier sentiment of ‘getting over’ a loss, Leader believes that ‘bereaved people and those that have experienced tragic losses know full well that it is less a question of getting over a loss and on with one’s life, than finding a way to make that loss a part of one’s life’ (99). It took me a long time to realise that I was never going to return to being the person on the other side of the river, but that I must forge something new out of the devastation. So, even years later, this article will become part of a complex tapestry of mourning that I continue to process.
Mariana Howell is currently studying for her PhD at university of Southampton with a thesis entitled 'Motherhood and Madness in Contemporary Literature'. Her academic interests are feminism, psychoanalysis, and anything that considers the human experience. On the side she dabbles in portraiture and attempts to hula hoop.
Ariès, Phillippe. Western Attitudes toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present. London: John Hopkins University Press, 1976.
Leader, Darian. The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia and Depression. London: Penguin Books, 2008.