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Monday, 8 December 2008

good grief

Grief is one of the strongest emotions that we can feel, a force that can overwhelm all thoughts and render life completely meaningless in a instant. Surely such an elemental force is ubiquitous to all mankind, so basic a response is it to death.

And yet it is not so. I make no value judgements about the rights and the wrongs here, nor accuse any person of lacking feeling. I would not condemn Mersault for failing to cry at his mother's funeral.

Take for example, Japan (from the Encyclopaedia of Death and Dying and an essay entitled 'GRIEF AND MOURNING IN CROSS-CULTURAL PERSPECTIVE'):
"There is no equivalent to the term grief in some other languages; indeed, in some cultures, as in Japan, the concept of emotions that are only in the individual seems foreign. For the Japanese, individual identity is a function of social harmony. Emotions are part of family or community membership, sensed among the members so as to create a harmonized atmosphere. The term mourning does have a Japanese equivalent, mo, which refers both to the ritual responses to death and the emotions—commonly defined in the West as "grief"—that attend them. Hitan, the Japanese word that comes closest to the English word grief, means "sadness and sorrow," but the word does not imply that the emotions were brought about by death or loss. Hitan cannot be used in a way that refers to a self-evident inner reality. One translation into Japanese of the English phrase "She was in grief" might be "Kanojyo-ha hitan no naka ni iru," ("she grief of inside being there"), but that is not a complete sentence. A complete sentence might be "Kanojyo-ha hitan ni sizundeiru." (She grief to sinking.) An infinitive like "to sink" is needed because in Japanese Hitan cannot be a complete state on its own."

This does not mean the Japanese do not feel sadness and great sorrow at the death of a loved one. But we should be careful of prescribing a model of behaviour and a response to it that may not be appropriate for someone from that culture.

Another example from the same source:
"Anthropologist Unni Wikan, for example, compared the rules in Egypt and Bali, both Islamic cultures. She found that in that in Bali, women were strongly discouraged from crying, while in Egypt women were considered abnormal if they did not incapacitate themselves in demonstrative weeping."

So our internal and our external responses can vary across cultures, even with the same religion. Who would be a fool to condemn one as behaving inappropriately?

If one can respond in different ways emotionally to death, which cultures (at which time in history) can be said to have dealt well with death?

We in the West have become terrified of death. Many atheists and agnostics fear the non-existence and even believers in a hereafter do not go gently into that good night. And yet it is inevitable. Surely then, it behooves us to learn about grief and death with fortitude and without hysteria to give the Reaper his proper respect.

5 comments:

Branwen said...

I’ve seen a lot of death in my work and to be honest most elderly people seem to welcome it in the end.
Personally I fear pain and the prospect of losing a loved one more so than fearing the end of my own existence.

scot in exile said...

it sound sound odd that i agree with you about most elderly people not fearing death given what i wrote.

i think society as a whole fears death, from the refusal to grant assisted suicide to our obsession with youth and plastic surgery.

That the old welcome the end seems almost like a secret they bear, and not shared with society as a whole because it cares not to listen.

Branwen said...

I am for assisted suicide are you???

scot in exile said...

yes me too.

Branwen said...

Hey, see there is a programme on tonight about assisted suicide on Sky real lives at 9pm. Just encase your interested :)