Sounding on Death, Loss, Mourning, for February 26, 2010

Now that you’re all excited, here are the links:

I was shocked out of my moment-to-moment autopilot routine last night when I read Peter Watts’ eulogy for (apparently) a family member from who he appears estranged.  It was a gorgeous meditation on individuality, death, continuity, and acceptance, whether he intended those responses from me or not.  I’m actually going to read it in the beginning of my class on introducing Buddhism in an hour (dealing with the whole anatman/anatta issue, which brings up the problem of what does exist if we don’t. Here’s an excerpt, but go read the whole (short) thing:

The physical death of that organism, all this time later, is purely theoretical to me. It has no mass or inertia, no charge positive or negative. Everything’s already cancelled out. Sow; Reap; Finis. And yet by all accounts this should be a momentous occasion, should provoke some kind of spontaneous visceral or emotional response. It doesn’t. So I’ve experimented with alternate perspectives to see if I can stir something up — and I think I’ve found a viewpoint I can sort of get behind.

If you can’t respect the government, respect the people. If the Queen is corrupt, at least find something to admire in her soldiers.

The heart, for example. A muscle that beat nonstop every second of every day since 1920, almost a century’s relentless rearguard against entropy itself. Three billion beats in that time; four supertankers filled to the brim; two battleships lifted clear of the ocean. Or the eyes: miracles of incompetent design, photoreceptors straining for light through a tangle of cabling laid on top of them, not tucked away behind as any more-than-half-witted designer would have done. Sight is mechanical, did you know that? No digital electronics: pure clockwork, that far down. The visual pigment is a kind of spring-lever affair; the photon hits it and the pigment passes that impact upstream with all the elegance of a game of whack-a-mole.

Nine decades of parsing the world through those haphazard bits and pieces is nothing to sneeze at either.

And from Vaughan at Mindhacks, this lovely reference to a nice piece by ABC Radio National with psychologist Karen Redfield Jamison on Love and Loss, including the transformation of grief into a diagnosis of mental illness, when it goes on ‘too long.’ (apparently, more than six months).


Kübler-Ross and Dying in the New Yorker

This short, elegiac piece in the New Yorker covers about 150 years of social theory about death, wound ’round the pathos-laden story of “Miss Death.”

Then mourning rituals in the West began to disappear, for reasons that are not entirely evident. The British anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer, the author of “Death, Grief, and Mourning” (1965), conjectures that the First World War was one cause in Britain: communities were so overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of dead that they dropped the practice of mourning for the individual. Certainly, there does seem to be an intuitive economy of grief: during war, plague, and disaster, elaborate mourning is often simplified or dispensed with, as we now see in Haiti. But many more Americans died during the Civil War than during the First World War; it seems, then, that broader changes in the culture hastened the shift.

Even before the war, according to Emily Post, mourning clothes were already becoming optional for any but the closest of kin. More people, including women, began working outside the home; in the absence of caretakers, death increasingly took place in the protective, and isolating, swaddling of the hospital. With the rise of psychoanalysis came a shift in attention from the communal to the individual experience. Only two years after Émile Durkheim wrote about mourning as an essential social process, Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” defined it as something fundamentally private and individual. In a stroke, the work of mourning had become internalized. As Ariès says, within a few generations grief had undergone a fundamental change: death and mourning had been largely removed from the public realm. In 1973, Ernest Becker argued, in “The Denial of Death,” that avoidance of death is built into the human mind; instead of confronting our own mortality, we create symbolic “hero-systems,” conceptualizing an immortal self that, through imagination, allows us to transcend our physical transience. (“In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die,” the young Nick Adams thinks in the last line of Ernest Hemingway’s “Indian Camp.”) Gorer himself had diagnosed an over-all silencing of the mourner: “Today it would seem to be believed, quite sincerely, that sensible, rational men and women can keep their mourning under complete control by strength of will and character, so that it need be given no public expression, and indulged, if at all, in private, as furtively as . . . masturbation.” Ariès added that this silence was “not due to the frivolity of survivors, but to a merciless coercion applied by society.”

via Finding a better way to grieve : The New Yorker.


Neuroscience, Grief, and Ghosts

Vaughan, over at the great Mind Hacks blog, recently had an article published in Scientific American’s Mind Matters section. It’s a touching piece about the commonality of a supposedly rare occurrence: confronting the dead. It’s really worth reading, which you can do here. For a teaser, see below:

The dead stay with us, that much is clear. They remain in our hearts and minds, of course, but for many people they also linger in our senses—as sights, sounds, smells, touches or presences. Grief hallucinations are a normal reaction to bereavement but are rarely discussed, because people fear they might be considered insane or mentally destabilised by their loss. As a society we tend to associate hallucinations with things like drugs and mental illness, but we now know that hallucinations are common in sober healthy people and that they are more likely during times of stress.

A Common Hallucination
Mourning seems to be a time when hallucinations are particularly common, to the point where feeling the presence of the deceased is the norm rather than the exception. One study, by the researcher Agneta Grimby at the University of Goteborg, found that over 80 percent of elderly people experience hallucinations associated with their dead partner one month after bereavement, as if their perception had yet to catch up with the knowledge of their beloved’s passing. As a marker of how vivid such visions can seem, almost a third of the people reported that they spoke in response to their experiences. In other words, these weren’t just peripheral illusions: they could evoke the very essence of the deceased.


Grieving Those You Never Knew – The Internet's Dead

The apostrophe in the title is not a contraction of the verb ‘to be,’ but indicates a possessive. Now that we have straightened that out…

I’m grateful to Alison Carter, whose archaeology blog provides wonderful postings on the life of an active archaeologist in Cambodia, for directing me to this odd little piece from Wired magazine, about the death last week of Randy Pausch. I’d never heard of Professor Pausch until he died, at which point my rss feeds and newsgroups started clogging with references to him, and his video – which you can see here – was reposted damned near everywhere.

I’ve been interested for a long while in the phenomenon of grieving over those we have never known. When a poor black woman in Minnesota stands on a street corner, weeping for the death of Ronald Reagan, who demonized an entire generation of poor black women with his spurious ‘welfare queen‘ speech, you know something’s up. Similarly with the outpouring of grief that followed Princess Diana’s death.

Undoubtedly each of these people genuinely touched strangers (get your mind out of the gutter) in real ways, whether via the modern media, or through their policies and actions. But the cathection – the investment of personal ego and emotion – in these strangers remains puzzling to me.

Any thoughts? In the meantime, here’s a snippet from the Wired Article.

I had the sad task of writing one of the many obituaries for Pausch. Within minutes, comments started to come in with a curious grammar like this one from Colleen:

I am real sorry for your loss Jai. Your husband have [sic] inspired me to be a better version of myself. After I heard about Randy’s passing, I couldn’t help but cry. The whole world is mourning with you.

These comments weren’t about Pausch’s death. They were addressed to him and his kin, as if would convey this message to them. It’s as if the internet has joined the angels in our collective imagination of heaven, the CAT-5 winding into the clouds like a beanstalk.

This was strange.


"Mourning is thus submissive self-assertion"

I’m reading in preparation for a presentation I’ll be making at the International Association of Buddhist Studies conference in Atlanta at the end of June. The presentation is on “Mourning and Memory in Contemporary Cambodian Buddhism.” I might post something of the presentation here when I’m finished (though I’ve promised to do so with the paper I presented at the recent AAS over a month ago and have yet to get around to that, so take with a shaker of salt). But in the meantime, and partly as a note to myself, here’s a lovely quote on mourning and gender from James Redfield, reviewing a book by Loring Danforth on The Death Rituals of Rural Greece:

Grief is a feeling; mourning is a performance of this feeling. It takes place before an audience and engrosses resources that would otherwise be at the disposal of the living. It seems that such behavior, and therefore such feelings, are encouraged more in some persons and communities than in others. This variation could be examined in terms of differential evaluations of the obligatory and the useful; and this, in turn, could lead to an examination of the utility of mourning. It seems that these women lay claim to a space where for a time their grief becomes the most important thing in the world – and at the same time they enact their utter dependence on the departed. Mourning is thus submissive self-assertion. (Redfield, James M. 1984. Review [untitled]: The death rituals of rural Greece by Loring M. Danforth. American Ethnologist, 11.3: 618.).