The grammar of grief

Grief, I believe, is universal; and arguably unique to humans
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First Published: Sat, Jun 29 2013. 12 48 AM IST
A couple console each other after being evacuated from Uttarakhand. Photo: AP
A couple console each other after being evacuated from Uttarakhand. Photo: AP
Updated: Sun, Jun 30 2013. 02 18 PM IST
Last week, I attended the funeral service of my friend, Yvonne. It was beautiful with touching eulogies, soaring music from the choir and a certain quiet dignity. This is different from the Hindu funerals that I have attended, with overt crying and other expressions of grief. Among the fishing villages in Tamil Nadu, there are (or used to be) professional wailers who are paid to weep and sing the folk song called oppari. These come to the home of the departed, beat their breasts and sing improvised songs. A typical one begins Kathirikai engaluku, Kailasam ungalukku, which means, “We eat brinjal. You go to Mount Kailash.” The alliteration works better in Tamil. I tried researching other death rituals that are not religious but couldn’t come up with any.
How do you grieve? It is a question that confronts us all at some point in our lives; and certainly one that hangs over the recent tragedy in the state of Uttarakhand. Perhaps the most famous quotation about response to death comes from William Shakespeare. “Life’s but a walking shadow,” said Hamlet. “…a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more.”
This then is the paradox of life. You go for health check-ups; you do the right thing; you plan and go on a pilgrimage; and then suddenly or gradually, a person you cherish is snatched away either through illness, accident or disaster. Google’s Person Finder has a page titled “2013 Uttarakhand Floods”, with two simple headings: “I am looking for someone” and “I have information about someone”. Online “virtual memorials” allow the living to remember the dead by creating a page dedicated to their loved one and inviting friends and family to write on the guestbook. Grief counsellors can help draw out the pain through therapy and techniques.
In her pioneering book, On Death And Dying, Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross described the five stages of grief that afflict terminally ill patients and their families. When death visits you, grief is not far behind. The five stages are denial (“He cannot have died in Kedarnath. He was so young; and fit and strong”), anger (“Why me? I tried to be good and do good all my life. Why did this happen when he went on a pilgrimage? It is so unfair.”), bargaining (“If you find my brother, I will offer a diamond crown in Tirupati. If the illness is cured, I will donate all my wealth. I will stop smoking.”), depression (“Why should I even try to get better? What’s the use? My life is over.”), and finally, acceptance (“This is how it is going to be from now on. I might as well get used to it.”)
There are several books that help with grief. When Bad Things Happen to Good People, by rabbi Harold Kushner, is a classic that helps loved ones cope with illness, cancer and other “bad things”. It attempts to answer the question, “Why God? Why did it happen to her/him?” Rabbi Kushner wrote the book after his son died of a prematurely ageing disease called progeria. It is perhaps most useful for those grieving for a loved one’s untimely death.
Joan Didion’s elegant and spare memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, describes her grief after her beloved husband died. It is unsparing in description and does not attempt to prescribe how to cope. Instead, it mulls on marriage and union. “Marriage is not only time: it is also, paradoxically, the denial of time,” says Didion. “For 40 years I saw myself through John’s eyes. I did not age.” This could well apply to many a partnership.
Leo Tolstoy began his epic Anna Karenina with the phrase, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This is both true and untrue. Grief, I believe, is universal; and arguably unique to humans. It is how we make sense of our destiny. We grieve because we must; because we don’t have a better model; and because it is the only way that we know how to move on.
Psychologist and professor Susan Berger identifies five ways that people grieve. When faced with tragedy, people react by becoming nomads, memorialists, activists, normalizers or seekers, she says. These descriptions make sense. Nomads wander the world in search of a coping mechanism when they lose something or someone. Memorialists erect monuments, both real and virtual, to preserve the memory of their loved ones. Activists seek to change the status quo. They help to influence policy or policing, particularly after losing loved ones to guns or terrorism. Normalizers play ostrich. They act, and pretend, that things are normal; that life goes on. The seekers go on spiritual voyages to try and make sense of what happened.
How do you grieve?
Shoba Narayan is looking for organizations such as Goonj.org that are working in Uttarakhand.
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First Published: Sat, Jun 29 2013. 12 48 AM IST
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