How We Grieve

A PILL, A PATH, a yoga pose or a trance; I looked for these and more to avoid the gutting anguish that set in after my daughter Charlotte, a green-eyed, blond six-year-old who loved wearing sparkly pink shoes in the rain and pushing the limits of her Barbie Jeep, died suddenly in 2004.

In the last decade I’ve worked to get my head and heart around the seismic shifts that accompany loss. I’ve traveled the world to learn about different ways of grieving, interviewed countless people about their own experience, written a book on my journey entitled The Angel in My Pocket: A Story of Love, Loss, and Life After Death, and spoken to groups around the country on the topic of choosing to embrace life despite an unthinkable loss. I’ve become an expert on a subject on which I would gladly have chosen to remain ignorant and yet here I am, re-engaged in life and fully transformed by the experience all parents want nothing to do with, and it actually feels like a gift to be able to share some of this hard won wisdom and knowledge.

Mourning and grief are important in the process of coming to terms with loss, but in my mind, they are slightly different processes. Mourning is the act of ritual and behavior prescribed by tradition, faith and cultural expectations such as tearing at clothing, wearing black or covering all the mirrors in the house. These actions allow us to help integrate loss into our own lives and those of our community. Mourning is an outward expression of grief and can be shared. Grief itself, on the other hand, is highly personal and emotions based. It is subjective, affecting both the body and the mind, and its expression varies enormously by individual. Some describe grief as a big black hole, which has the power to consume one’s every thought and ability to function for protracted periods of time. While mourning is finite, there is no timeline for when one is through grief.

When the shadow of death inevitably darkens our doorway, if we are without the rituals designed to ease us into our grief we are handicapped at a time when we most need to be guided. I was raised with a deep reverence for nature but little to no religion. When my daughter Charlotte died I was ill equipped for the journey of grieving that lay ahead.

I’ve learned there is comfort in the consistency of a cultural norm or tradition. Our darkest moments are often illuminated when we find our way back to the lap of our heritage. Or perhaps even another’s heritage. According to the Pew Research Center, 38 percent of the population in the U.S. who identify their religion as “nothing in particular” also state that religion is either “very important” or “somewhat important” in their lives (Religious Landscape Study 2014). For those of us who come from no faith or perhaps have left our childhood faith behind, bereavement provides an opportunity to pull from the traditions of other cultures in our efforts to find comfort.

Rituals of Mourning

While I learned about rituals that ranged from quietly floating candles down a river on a raft to exhuming a body years later to dance with it to boisterous processions led by jazz marching bands, the ritual bathing of the body of the deceased by loved ones is encouraged in varying forms in most faiths.

The highly choreographed process specifies position of the body and movements of the attendants. Touch is a potent expression of love whose final physical connection can serve to subtly connect the bathers with the reality of the death. Oils, flowers and special prayers are offered. The body is then wrapped in a simple shroud or blanket with small tokens of affection or money to take to the afterlife. In recent years this ritual has been often left to the undertakers, thereby taking away a powerful opportunity for final connection with the physical body for loved ones.

Prior to Charlotte’s death I was of the opinion that subcontracting out most of these tasks was an appropriate choice. In fact, when faced with the prospect of bathing her in the hospital one last time, I am ashamed to admit, I was too fearful the experience might overwhelm me and render me unable to function for my surviving children. However, having had a decade to reflect on the immediate crippling numbness that overtook me in those hazy early days, and after meeting people who bravely handled this task on their own, I know that being more directly involved would almost certainly have allowed the reality of that loss to set in more effectively and allowed me some final intimacy with my daughter. I will forever regret having missed that chance to lovingly tend to her one last time.

Maria Grayson-Metaxas is one individual who considered the importance of ritual and worked it into her final wishes. Four years ago, when Grayson-Metaxas was in the final days of her struggle with cancer, she designed her own multi-faith mourning ritual. I learned about her through one of her friends, Leslye Robbins, a local psychotherapist. Grayson-Metaxas was inspired by what she had learned from a rabbi friend and requested the friend lead a small group of her loved ones in performing the Jewish ritual bathing of her body. An avid surfer, she requested that she be laid out on her surfboard. Her friends bathed and tended to her as they chanted and sang. When they were finished and with her body wrapped, they blanketed her with flowers from each of their gardens.

Robbins was one of the friends who participated in the bathing. “I’d never touched a dead body before and I was fearful. A friend clipped the nails of Maria’s left hand. As I watched I thought of my own small children and cutting their nails. I was able to then pick up her right hand and begin clipping. Once engaged in the process I felt an exquisite closeness with Maria that made it easier for me to say good-bye. I did not want to stop touching her,” Robbins says. “It remains one of the singular most powerful expressions of simultaneous love and sorrow in my life. The intimacy and privilege of being in that moment with the other women who held her so dear was one I will never forget and a compassionate and clear way for us to begin to absorb the loss of our dear friend.”

Each culture and faith has a way of paying tribute to the departed, specific steps taken at intervals for up to a year and beyond. Some are performed by and for the intimates of the deceased and others are community based. All serve the purpose of focus on and respect for the process of bereavement. They shepherd in the grief.

This year at Burning Man I found myself in the midst of a procession led by the actress Susan Sarandon to deposit some of Timothy Leary’s ashes inside artist Mike Garlington’s temple called Totem of Confessions. It seemed fitting that the godfather of the LSD movement would have some of his ashes laid to final rest accompanied by a swarm of naked revelers on acid. Kazoos and fiddlers accompanied the march. Once we were inside, the ashes were set in an alcove and the makeshift attendees broke into an a cappella version of “Amazing Grace” followed by “Silent Night,” then random folk songs. An unclothed man in the thrall of LSD stood directing people outside the temple, and many shared Leary memories from personal encounters and public accounts. To this serendipitous participant, the roll-your-own tribute seemed entirely fitting for both Leary and his devotees.

As for the viewing of a body of a loved one who has passed, most faiths do not include anyone but the most intimate family members in this custom. Christians and Catholics host a wake prior to the clergy-led funeral service where visitors can pay their respects. Music, alcohol and a generally elevated mood are expected, as these events are intended to celebrate the deceased. Protestants have a memorial service with eulogies offered along with songs, prayers and readings from standard scriptures. For some Chinese, a hybrid of Taoist, Buddhist and Christian traditions informs the viewing service. Those attending, in addition to offering condolences, are expected to contribute money. The mourning family at a Chinese wake wail at a volume that increases with each donation. The larger the contribution, the greater the wailing. The cultural variations on public volume and intensity of expressions of grief surprised me. Raised in a stoic Yankee household, I found the thought of wailing for any reason inconceivable, and yet for some it is a given and is likely cathartic: the full-body tension release that follows a physical act such as wailing probably promotes some degree of relief.

In Jewish households, for seven days following the funeral, mourners sit on or low to the ground in a contemplative state (shiva). One is expected to reflect on one’s own grief and the meaning of the deceased’s life during this time. Native Americans also gather in a circle on the ground for a period of days after a ceremonial burial. Traditionally Muslims, Jews and Buddhists cover mirrors in the household; the varying reasons include a concern the soul will see its reflection and be confused as to which direction it should travel.

Grief Is Personal

Expressions of grief vary widely, in individuals and in cultures. Upon receiving the news a loved one has passed, a Jewish person may tear at his clothes and openly weep or even wail. In many Native American tribes wailing is also encouraged. In Buddhism, however, such overt expressions of sorrow are thought to hold the soul back from making its full journey to the “far shore.”

In order to fully express grief there must also be mourning. Cultural, religious and societal expectations help us with this expression. Going through the motions can elevate grief to the surface when one is emotionally stuck or numb. For some, grief and mourning are akin to the relationship between heart and head. Culturally, some choose to focus more on the outward community experience of mourning than on the personal feelings of grief in their bereavement.

If you break down the personal realm of grief, you see that your physical body plays a big role: you have a heart, you have a brain, and more recently scientists have even added the gut onto the list of organs involved in the chemistry of emotions. Each of these can be affected physiologically by loss. For some, using pharmaceutical agents to soften the depression, anxiety and sleeplessness that often attend grief is a helpful option. It is known that the physiological response to grief can wreak havoc on the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. Antidepressants and antianxiety medications as well as sleep aids have been beneficial for many, particularly in the acute phases of loss. Although medicating in such instances is controversial, as some believe drugs prevent grief from attaining its full expression, this palliative is generally accepted and widespread.

Whether we rely upon the cultural and faith-based mourning rituals we were raised with or create our own, the attention we bring to the process is an opportunity to gently and organically begin our journey through loss to a state of acceptance, comfort and even transformation.

It is important during this period to remember what Buddha said: “All that is born dies. All those who gather are eventually separated. All is impermanent. Nothing lives forever. This is the Natural Law. Embrace it and flourish; resist it and suffer even more.”

The Bottom Line

No matter how you grieve and mourn, one question must be addressed: what to do with the body?

The national median cost for a funeral in 2012 was $7,045. Burial rates have been on a steady decline since the 1980s and as of 2012 were at 48.7 percent versus cremation rates of 46.7 percent. It is projected that by 2030, cremation rates will surpass burial rates at more than 70 percent (according to the U.S. Census Bureau and National Funeral Directors Association). Although some mortuaries and funeral homes are religion specific, many cater to diverse segments of the population.

Mill Valley’s Fernwood Funeral Home focuses on combining burial rituals with land restoration. It’s a full-service funeral home and crematory that welcomes “people from all religions and spiritual traditions, including one entirely your own.” But Fernwood is not alone in encouraging people to craft their own traditions.

BJ Miller, executive director of Zen Hospice in San Francisco and a longtime Marin County resident, is a strong advocate for intention and creativity in the experience of dying and grieving. The hospice has developed a ritual of pausing in the garden when wheeling a body out of the gate after death. Anyone who wishes can share a story, a song, or perhaps even a bit of silence while flower petals from the garden are sprinkled over the body. Miller believes this brief ceremony creates a sweet, simple parting image to usher in grief and warmth rather than repugnance. He observes that the drivers hired to transport the bodies to the mortuary have also started to participate in this ritual.

“In short, I don’t think in the U.S. we honor grief well,” Miller says. “We don’t see its vital relationship to love. We don’t give it space. Grief smells like depression, and depression isn’t OK. The ‘get back on the horse’ mentality is rewarded here in the U.S. Not sitting quietly petting the horse with tears running down your face. It’s a shame, because there is a lot of beauty and respect in the latter.”