Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Mourning Mother

Gana holding her dead baby in Muenster

In a small zoo in Muenster, Western Germany, Gana, a gorilla is "refusing to let go of her dead baby's body" even after several days postmortem (Associated Press, 2008). Gana's baby died from unknown causes.  Despite the newly born male's death, his mother, nearly ritualistically, carries his body everywhere she goes. Zoo officials note that this behavior is not uncommon to gorillas.

According to them, Gana "is mourning and must say goodbye."   The baby was named Claudio. Indeed, sometimes even animals understand love better than humans.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Qui tacet consentit

Language is a very powerful tool with which to sway public opinion.

Politicians use euphemistic language and outright propaganda to influence perception- cleverly crafted labels such as "the PATRIOT Act" or the "Protect America Act" are intended to shape opinions and to shift the starting points for debate about politically or socially charged issues. With deliberate enthymematic strategy, sociopolitical issues are cloaked with pleasantries in order to manipulate meaning. These narrative structures are then used to advance often-clandestine social or political agendas. In an environment where torture is merely an enhanced interrogation technique, where collateral damage replaces the deaths of innocent civilians and children, and earmarks and pork barrel spending are magically transmogrified into legislatively directed appropriations, it can become well nigh impossible to disentangle reality from deliberately distorted and carefully constructed perceptions. We assemble assent and tolerance for the unthinkable.

It should therefore come as no surprise that we often use language to perpetuate the attitudinal avoidance of death. Flowery phrases dress Death up so we can sit next to Him politely at funerary processions where loved ones pass on, go to a better place, and are no longer with us. Euphemisms make others more comfortable around the discomforting. But in particular, it's how externally codified language is used to manipulate and control and to perpetuate the institutionally approved messages that I find particularly disconcerting; and how, for the most part, this messaging targets an unconscious place, whereby people are wholly unaware that their thoughts are being influenced, even at times controlled.

Another example:  The death of a baby to stillbirth is social, personal, and political. I am personally profoundly offended by use of the vernacular pregnancy loss to describe the reality of stillbirth. I worked with a mother last week whose ten pound baby boy died during birth: He was stillborn. The mom was in her 42nd week of pregnancy. If this isn't the death of a baby, I don't know what is. In dissecting that term - pregnancy loss - there is an inference that a baby or child, in fact, did not die: there is an implication that no life was lost; that only a transient condition was changed. By failing to recognize the death of the baby, we implicitly deny the baby's individualism, while simultaneously inferring that merely a pregnancy was lost.  

For many women, categorizing their baby's death as a pregnancy loss decries and derogates their reality. Historically, euphemisms are used to sanctify and cleanse the unpalatable. Yet, if we do not call it what it is, frankly, the birth of a dead baby, mothers will continue to be condemned to the closet of shame about their very real and traumatic losses when a baby dies as a result of stillbirth. These losses will continue to be marginalized, disenfranchised, and misunderstood as something other than what they really are.

In working with bereaved parents, I allow them to socially construct their own language with which they can speak of the unspeakable, and I adopt those words and phrases they have accepted, congruent with their experiences. It is, after all, their reality, not mine. If a father wants to say his child passed on, then those are the words which I will use in working with him. If a mother calls her 42-year-old dead son her baby, then he is her baby

Ask the tortured if they have been so, not the interrogators or policymakers.

In more than 13 years of working with bereaved families, I have never had a parent of a stillborn baby say, "I am so sad that I lost my pregnancy" or "I'm grieving over my pregnancy loss."  That is not, most often, their reality. They say simply, "My baby died, I lost my beloved child." 

And so it is...time for a linguistic coupe d'etat where torture is called torture, the "d" word is not a linguistic outcast, and stillbirth is recognized as the death of a baby. It is time to embrace language that is congruent with reality, and not dictated by the narrow agendas of the dominant political Goliaths.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Time Machines

if i believe
in death be sure
of this
it is
because you have loved me,
moon and sunset
stars and flowers
gold creshendo and silver muting
of seatides
i trusted not,
one night
when in my fingers
drooped your shining body
when my heart
sang between your perfect
darkness and beauty of stars
was on my mouth petals danced
against my eyes
and down
the singing reaches of
my soul
the green--
greeting pale
departing irrevocable
i knew thee death.
and when
i have offered up each fragrant
night,when all my days
shall have before a certain
face become
from the ashes
thou wilt rise and thou
wilt come to her and brush
the mischief from her eyes and fold
mouth the new
flower with
thy unimaginable
wings,where dwells the breath
of all persisting stars

e.e. cummings

The Industrial Revolution and Information Ages have aided in extending and enhancing our lives in many ways. In fact, the mortality rate in London for children younger than age five decreased from 75% in 1730 - 1749 to 32% in 1810 - 1829.

Yet, during the time when early deaths were more prevalent, death-related rituals were often less austere and forbidding. Western institutionalization has gradually swallowed death into it's economy with ritualization evolving into part of the orchestrated establishment of the funerary (and other) industry and where mourning practices are often strictly proscribed. In addition, today's funeral, on average, costs around $7000.00.

In many places, including the Cook Islands and Samoa, the dead are cared for in the homes by family members and then they are buried in the front yards of the family homeland. The homeland is never sold; rather, it is passed down from one generation to the next. Many of the tombs are above ground and family death is integrated into life in a way very different from Western culture.

Interestingly, the home funeral movement is emerging in the United States; a sort of grassroots time machine to the distant past.  Death doulas are being trained to assist those seeking home funerals for their loved ones- including babies and children who die.  Beth Knox knew intuitively that it was what she wanted when her seven-year-old, beautiful daughter, Alison Sanders, died in 1995.

Knox speaks of her experience and says,

"We're required by law to care for our children," she said. "But at the last hour, we're told that their body doesn't belong to us anymore. That makes no sense."

Knox found a funeral director willing to bring Alison's body home, where family members, friends and neighbors joined in a three-day vigil. By the time the funeral director returned to take Alison's body to her funeral and then to the crematory, Knox was, she said, ready to let her go.

Having imagined, as most parents do, that she could never endure the catastrophe of a child's death, Knox found that "when it actually happened, my senses were so highly attuned to the sense of love, I had a very precise presence of mind, very clear sense of direction." There is, she said, "a lot of comfort in being able to perform acts of love in these unbearable situation

In most states, 45 to be precise, it is legal to care for one's own dead in the home. Oddly, many do not think to ask if they are permitted by the State to take their beloved one home; rather, it is assumed that the funeral home will whisk away the dead. So the men in gray suits are summoned and the 'body' is cleanly lifted off, out of sight, to a sterile room of foreign mortar and unfamiliar melodies harkening back three decades. And then the 'body', now recently unfamiliar to us, is taken to a cemetery two or twenty miles from home. It just feels so detached from the reality of death- and natural loving instinct. So many still do not understand their own rights with regard to their dead - the very dead to whom they still belong.

I wish I would have thought to ask 'permission' for a home funeral when Chey died. I wish I had my own piece of family land where I could bury her sacred remains. I believe I'd have chosen this if I had supportive others - like death midwives- guiding me.  It is certainly not something that all would choose; but still the choice should be offered for this uniquely antediluvian ritualization of the dead.  

If only time machines really did exist...

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Beware of Strangers

To love means to open ourselves to the negative as well as the positive-- to grief, sorrow, and disappointment as well as to joy, fulfillment, and thus an intensity of consciousness that before we did not know was possible.
Rollo May

Throughout human history, there has been a tendency to fear the unknown. On a macro level, this fear has fueled oppression such as religious intolerance where, for example, during the Dark Ages, countless women were drowned or burned at the state as "witches." Fear of the unknown has incited wars between tribes, hatred between countries, and violence between groups. 

But fear is not merely a societal sarcoma that may manifest in subjugation and massacre; rather, evolutionarily speaking, it is a the most primal and visceral- and necessary- of human emotions. Fear keeps us safe from predators and protects us from endangering our lives. 

If there is a knock on the door, I ask, "Who is it?" in an attempt to familiarize myself so that I feel secure, to ameliorate my fears and keep myself safe from potential harm. The focus of some neophobias is on people, while others fear new experiences, places, or even driving a different path to work. But fear can also hinder social creatures like humans. Fearing people can incite stereotyping and prejudice. The fear of traveling to new places can stunt ethnological appreciation and wisdom. Even driving the same path to the workplace everyday can be inhibitive: What more interesting landmarks might you notice by taking a different path? So, what do we miss by our fears and subsequent evasions of the unfamililar?  

Grief was, at one time, an unfamiliar stranger. My primal response to him was terror and crippling fear. He controlled my thoughts, and I saw the world through his eyes, not my own. Panicked, I could not look this intruder in the eyes. I was paralyzed. I was certain that if my gaze met his, the abyss would, as Nietzsche said, stare back at me and overtake me. Like an ominous stranger at my door, I did not want to invite grief inside my home. I wanted to leave him out in the cold darkness of night where he belonged. 

What I didn't realize then was that this stranger was a part of me now, inexplicably linked by experience. By leaving him outside in the darkness, he became the monster in my dark closet that would haunt me when my mind was still. And unwittingly, I made a decision in 1995 to surrender to that which I most feared. Part of that psychological relinquishment required that I accept grief out of the darkness and into my home.  We sat down together and sipped tea. We walked together. We sat on the back swing and watched the sunset.  I came to know and understand this part of me that felt so foreign, and I began to slowly see the value in the unfamiliar that he brought into my life.  He became more predictable and I feared him less. His roar softened and he did not need to yell for my attention any longer. We gazed into one another's eyes and I survived the facing. 

I can honestly say that now grief, mostly, is my friend and an accepted, not feared, part of me. Now, I trust him to lead me into those places where, as May said, I can truly experience the pain, believing that beauty will soon follow, and knowing that I will experience the intensity of consciousness that far transcends the merely ordinary.


The soul still sings in the darkness telling of the beauty she found there; and daring us not to think that because she passed through such tortures of anguish, doubt, dread, and horror, as has been said, she ran any the more danger of being lost in the night. Nay, in the darkness did she, rather, find herself.

--St. John, Dark Night of the Soul

Follow me on Facebook