Grief and closure
This was a terrible time last year, the COVID-19 death toll climbing since its start early in 2020, and peaking, in the Philippines, around the month of September with the deadly Delta strain.
COVID-19 raised a new consciousness about death and the suffering that stalks the living left behind. Mass media, much more so in the US and Europe, I notice, has been featuring more and more articles about grief, painful yet elusive.
COVID-19 deaths were more challenging because of the way they separated people. Patients with serious COVID-19 infections were isolated from loved ones, sometimes with relatives not kept informed on what was happening.
Stories about COVID-19 deaths and dying often centered on the respirator; once attached to a patient, it was considered ominous, even an act of finality. An American researcher who interviewed families who lost loved ones to COVID-19, with a respirator involved toward the end, and found several resorted to spirit mediums to contact the deceased, so abruptly cut off from the living by COVID-19.
Reading that made me wonder if something similar’s been happening in the Philippines, where many believe it is possible to communicate with the dead.
All over the world, cultures have modified their death rituals in response to COVID-19. In the early weeks of the pandemic, the fear of contagion by the dead was exaggerated, but resulted in severe restrictions on wakes and funerals.
Later, it became clear the risks of contagion were more real for the living because the virus was airborne. This still meant wakes and funerals had to be limited and for the Philippines, this was very problematic given our penchant for extended rituals with as many people attending as possible.
Online rituals became the norm, and this was what I wrote about last year, appreciating its value but also warning that the extremely prolonged rituals (imagine the nine consecutive online novenas, each lasting three or four hours) could be draining for relatives and others attending.
The big question here: do these modified rituals, especially online ones, bring “closure”?
I doubt it, and at the eulogies that I was asked to deliver, especially for deaths among fellow educators, I always remind people that we can still have a memorial service in better times, knowing that the online services just don’t make it in terms of closure.
The need for closure was often tied to a five-stage theory proposed around grieving (and also for cancer): denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.
But if you go through the internet, you’ll find there are more and more studies now questioning this assumption that we need “closure” around death and which goes to the basics of challenging the five-stage theory.
Nancy Berns wrote in The Conversation that the need for “closure” after death was created by the funeral industry to sell its products and that the increasing pressure to have people feel closure leads to further isolation of the bereaved.
Her advice is to let people embrace a full range of emotions instead of pushing them to “be happy” and to “move forward.” Listen more as people express those emotions. People respond to grief differently, sometimes because of individual personality differences and sometimes because of the way culture “teaches” us to grieve. The Japanese, for example, are known to suppress grief much more, considering it shameful to express grief publicly. We Filipinos, on the other hand, are more prone to almost hysterical displays of grief.
What is being questioned are not the names of the five stages in grieving but the idea that they are linear, one leading to the next, until you achieve acceptance (and closure).
Not everyone will go through all the stages, and certainly not in a particular order. The kind of relationship we had with the deceased, the circumstances of the death, and the circumstances of our own lives—they are all important, too.
We move on, with or without closure and, along the way, might find the grieving has returned, only to leave again. Certainly, we feel that on All Saints’ Day, as we do on death anniversaries, and birthdays. Grief need not be feared; consider it a necessary companion of joy, gratitude, and other powerful emotions.
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