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How we grapple with grief

March 12, 2006|Sandra M. Gilbert | SANDRA M. GILBERT is a professor emeritus of English at UC Davis and the author, most recently, of "Death's Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve."

'The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips," declared Octavio Paz in 1950 in "The Labyrinth of Solitude," adding that by contrast, the Mexican "is familiar with death." Was Paz right? Is he still right?

More than 2,000 American soldiers have died in Iraq, along with literally countless Iraqi civilians, but the president of the United States has yet to attend a funeral , nor have we as a nation joined in any communal ceremonies of mourning. Joan Didion's recent memoir, "The Year of Magical Thinking," soared to the top of the bestseller list accompanied by glowing reviews -- but also by a letter in the New York Times Book Review that urged "O, St. Joan of Didion, stop ye whining and complaining.... Want to mourn? Have the dignity of doing it in private. Enough!"

Our cultural ambivalence about death and grief gets played out on the political scene and on the literary scene. On the one hand, we need and yearn to mourn; on the other hand, we're "uncomfortable" -- to put it mildly -- with dying and mourning. We're simultaneously a death-denying society and a society enthralled not just by morbid comedies ("Pulp Fiction" and "Six Feet Under," for example) but by true stories of mortality.

For decades now, in an era shadowed by conflicting religious beliefs (and unbeliefs) along with the massive trauma of what one historian calls "death events" (World War I, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and on and on), we've struggled to slam death's door. Exactly half a century ago, the sociologist Geoffrey Gorer commented that "rational men and women" are supposed to "keep their mourning under complete control by strength of will or character," expressing grief "if at all, in private, as furtively as if it were an analogue of masturbation."

And a few years later, in 1961, C.S. Lewis supported this point in his classic memoir "A Grief Observed" with a startling confession: "An odd byproduct of my loss is that I'm aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet.... Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers."

Such embarrassment and anxiety may explain why even after the AIDS pandemic and the catastrophe of 9/11 forced us to look through death's open doorway, deep social bewilderment has continued to shape a number of sometimes contradictory modes of encountering loss. Grief "therapy" -- most of it designed to ensure that the bereaved will healthily "recover" and achieve what pop psychologists call closure -- is now so widely practiced that it's become a lucrative industry. More-mystical counseling seeks to cheer mourners by arguing that the dead are really alive and well: Dying "can be the most wonderful experience of your life," claimed the late Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, because "death is simply [a] transition to a higher state of consciousness where you continue to perceive, to understand, to laugh, and to be able to grow."

Predicated either on the tenets of grief therapy or more radical alternatives, peculiarly cheerful do-it-yourself memorial services focus on "celebrations of the life" of the "departed" rather than the pain that his departure caused, while "New Age" activities, from channeling to past-life therapy, retool Victorian spiritualism with 21st century technology. Among the thousands of websites devoted to these activities, for instance, welcomes Internet users interested in hypnotherapy with a glamorous homepage titled "Phoenix Rising," and offers "Spiritual Connection: a Path to Love and Light." Numerous virtual cemeteries give casual surfers and serious mourners chances to leave imaginary "flowers" at electronic graves. To make matters more bewildering, for much of the last century, film and video have let us see the dead in movies, on TV and even, more recently, on computer screens, iPods and cellphones, as if long-gone celebrities -- and our lost loved ones -- are alive and well.

No wonder some of us desperately yearn for what we have come to define as closure, and others try to handle grief through technologies even more bizarre than spiritualist websites and Internet cemeteries. In 2001, the New York Times reported that a grief-stricken mother and father planned to clone their dead 10-month-old boy with the help of a "science-loving, alien-fixated sect called the Raelians," who describe themselves online as "the world's largest atheist, non-profit UFO-related organization."

And in 2002, the Washington Post described the project of a Chicago company named LifeGem, which has undertaken to transform "the ashes of your loved one" into "a synthetic diamond." In this company's view, diamonds -- not tears -- are a mourner's best friend.

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