When a person is born, we rejoice, and
when they're married, we jubilate,
but when they die, we try to pretend that nothing happened.
Odd as it sounds, there can be little question that some deaths are better than others. People cross-culturally have always made invidious distinctions between good deaths and bad. Compare, for instance, crooner Bing Crosby's sudden death following eighteen rounds of his beloved golf with the slow motion, painful expiration of an eighty-year-old diabetic. Bedridden following the amputation of his leg, the old man eventually began slipping in and out of consciousness. This continues over a period of years, exhausting the emotional, physical. and financial resources of his family. The essence of a "good death" thus involves the needs of the dying (such as coming at the end of full and completed lives, and when death is preferred to continued existence) as well as those of their survivors and the broader society.
Whereas the prevalence of unanticipated and premature deaths led to preindustrial cultures to focus death fears on individuals' postmortem fates, the death fears of modern cultures are more likely to focus on the processes of dying. Thus contemporary fears of dying involve the anxieties of dying within institutional settings, where often life is structured for the convenience of staff and where residents suffer both physical and psychological pain in their depersonalization. They also involve fears of being victims of advanced Alzheimer's Disease: being socially dead and yet biologically alive. In sum, the dreaded liminality between the worlds of the living and the dead have historically shifted from the period after death to the period preceding it.
Cultural coping mechanisms have not kept pace with the dramatic changes in when and how we die. With a generation or two (rates varying by social class, religion, etc.) having died within institutionalized isolation, Americans are forgetting about how to learn to focus on dying as a human process, how to include the dying in their dialogues, and how to learn the lessons of their existence. Instead, the dying process now too often features silence or diversion.
However, not surprisingly in our service-oriented economy, there are challenges to this medicalized, depersonalizing cultural route toward life's conclusion. For instance, there is the rise of hospice and such programs as Paradigm.
Like those at the dawn of human species, young children understand neither the inevitability of their own mortality nor its finality. Death fears must be learned. Paralleling the attempts of anthropologists and historians to map the death ethos of Western culture over time, there is a sizable research tradition in psychology and psychiatry on exactly how children's concepts of death unfold developmentally. As social scientists have studied the long-term social and cultural consequences of mass epidemics or total war, psychiatrists attempt to gauge how early firsthand death encounters later affect the motivations, psychoses, and fears of adulthood.
And what lessons are learned in childhood about death? Consider the Saturday morning catechism. The lessons begin with the selection of breakfast cereals. Consider the products to the right, featuring flawed but immortal creatures (Frankenstein, a creature created from body parts, and Dracula, who subsists on the blood of the living). While eating their immortality flakes, children may watch their favorite cartoon: "The Roadrunner." The story line never varies: a coyote employs a number of strategies to kill (we assume to eat) the bird, only to have each attempt lethally backfire before he is once again resurrected to resume the hunt. This cartoon is followed by others bearing similar messages of violence, death, and indestructibility.
Since 1985, I have surveyed my students (n=678) about their death socializations and beliefs. The following is the breakdown of their responses to the question "When you were a child, how was death talked about in your family?"
|With some sense
|Only when necessary
and then with an attempt
to exclude the children
|As though it were a taboo
|Never recall any discussion||26%|
For nearly one-half of these students the first personal
involvement with death was the loss of a grandparent; for one out of five,
it was the death of a pet. Consider how different these lessons received
by children of America's upper-middle class vary from those from the lower
rungs of society's stratification order. For the former, death typically
comes to the old--to those who have lived full and completed lives. For
the latter, death too often comes prematurely due to violence or accident.
Consider, for instance, the following table derived from the 1988-90
NORC General Social Surveys (n=4194), summarizing Americans' responses
to the question "Within the past 12 months, how many people have you
known personally who were victims of homicide?"
PERCENT OF AMERICANS KNOWING ONE OR MORE HOMICIDE VICTIMS
|AGE||WHITE AMERICANS||AFRICAN AMERICANS|
In addition to individuals' social class, death socializations also vary across the lifespan. Late adolescence and early adulthood are periods when individuals are drunk with future time. Senses of immortality are lost during the middle years, when those of one's parents' generation routinely die (and one realizes that one is next up to bat with the Grim Reaper) and when the first of one's friendship circle dies of "natural causes." In old age, individuals' futurity dissolves as their time runs out.
Is there a life-cycle pattern of death fears? To find out, consider the responses to the statement "Thinking about dying doesn't bother me much," which was asked to 1,201 randomly-selected Americans in the 1994 AARP "Images of Aging in America" survey. In total, 31 percent of Americans disagreed somewhat or strongly, females (33%) more than males (27%). Those 18-34 were most likely to disagree (38%) while those 65- 74 disagreed the least (23%). Click here to see how death fears vary by age and sex.
Some resources for explaining death: secular lessons:
Dying is a very dull, dreary affair. And my advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it.
--Last words of British author Somerset Maugham
Pain is a more terrible lord of mankind than even death itself.
In his posthumous Autobiography of Dying, Archie Hanlan wrote "Death seems easy, but dying sometimes seems impossible. Death is oblivion and dying is an intense, unrelenting awareness. You are about to leave everything you love, to interrupt whatever you are doing, to give up all you hoped for."
All too frequently death has come to affect members of my death and dying class. The following was submitted over a decade ago by a first-year student shortly after she received her death sentence.
It was a regular Monday evening. I was feeling a bit weak. I blamed it on being out in the sun for too long a period of time. It was about seven o'clock when the phone rang. It was my doctor and life-time confidante, Rick. Rick just didn't seem himself that night; he was groggy and seemed troubled. I asked him jokingly why he called and then stated several jokes about dying of some rare disease. It was at this point that I knew that something was wrong. Rick then proceeded to tell me my brief and boring medical history. By this point I was eager to hear what he had to say. Finally, he laid it on me. I had cancer and it was terminal. Talk about a mouthful!
The days that immediately followed were difficult ones. The reactions varied from person to person. Dad told me to be strong and reassured me that he was there for me. Mom decided not to believe the doctors, and still doesn't believe the cause of my "little weakness" spells. Joe, by boyfriend, was shocked. He didn't know what to say, which hurt me even more. I felt ostracized from my family and friends. Everyone said that they were concerned, but didn't have the slightest clue what to do. I didn't, and still don't, know what to do. I know I need some answers, fast!
I began to rationalize. I thought things like, "oh it can't be so bad," or, "God, I'm glad that at least I was informed." Can it really be "not that bad" or can I be happy to know my approximate, if you will pardon the expression, "deadline"? Through my long walks and periods of silence, I came to the point where it was necessary to acknowledge the realistic nature of the cancer, and the final outcome it presented, I was to die. In my mind I knew that dealing with death was a very necessary factor, but my "gut" feeling was, "Heather, you still have faith and hope to hold on to." I knew through my Death and Dying course what I could to help myself, I had to deal with it. In helping myself, I was, to a point, admitting defeat. I don't lose easily, ask anyone that I have had the chance to compete with. I'm a sore loser in both a game in basketball and the unending game of life.
Physical changes started to occur in my life as a result of that phone call. I began to take large doses of medicine three times daily, just to keep me going. My favorite hobbies, basketball and racquetball, were "put out to pasture." For the first time in my independent life, I was not calling the shots. I lived according to regulations, I ate according to regulations, and I cried and cursed against regulations. The phone became my number one escape. I called old boyfriends, renewed old friendships, and talked about anything under the sun with one very large exception, death and any aspects it involved. I can remember my old girl friend Lisa joking about her boyfriend and saying, in so many words, that he deserved to be shot. I flew off the handle, rattled off a quick good-bye, and got right off that phone. If she knew about me would she feel the same way about life, anybody's life? Life seems so precious to me now. In a way I am thankful that I finally got my priorities straightened out. Designer jeans, fast cars, and cute guys are nice to have and to look at but fulfillment, for me, doesn't come by reaching perfect measurements, a 4.0, or lots of friends. Fulfillment, for me, is making the best of the situation, accepting it, and loving every precious moment that I am given. All that glitters can never make me truly happy. To me, money provides a comfortable way of living, but I minimize my spending. Sure, Mom and Dad can send me to Hawaii, but until they realize all I want is love, none of us will be happy. As the song goes, "I don't care too much for money, money can't buy me love."
When Americans do think about their dying, what do they worry most about? What kind of comforts do they hope they will have as the end draws near? In 1997, the George H. Gallup International Institute posed such questions to a random sample of 1,212 adults in a study commissioned by the Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Fetzer Institute. Click here for summaries of "Spiritual Beliefs and the Dying Process".
As developed elsewhere, endings demand summations. In the case of the ending of a human biography, a certain veracity and insight has historically been attributed to individuals' deathbed utterances.
Dying and death are dyadic events involving both the dying/dead and the survivors-to-be/bereaved. The quality of death, for instance, affects the quality of grief. Here let us focus on the experiences of the survivors and survivors-to-be. Three key concepts thanatologists employ to understand those affected by the death of others are: bereavement, grief, and mourning. Bereavement is the social status allocated to those experiencing legitimate grief--a status of diminished expectations toward one's role performances much like the "sick role." Grief entails the emotions triggered by the death of other. In American culture there is the expectation that these emotions feature extreme sadness and even depression as other's death is understood to be a personal "loss" (as opposed to, say, a "gain," as in cultures where parental death might mean one's entry into full adulthood). Mourning refers to the "grief work" that one must do to emancipate himself enough from bonds with the deceased to return to one's normal social responsibilities.
Society does not grant the bereavement status to all experiencing the loss of a significant social bond, even though these may be every bit as profound and grief-inducing for the survivor. Examples include the surviving member of a homosexual couple or a close friend of the deceased, neither of whom would be given the time off from work that would be given to those losing a parent or spouse. Though a son- or daughter-in-law may have a closer relationship with their mother-in-law than with their own mother, at funerals their loss is often not acknowledged as all condolences are given to spouses and offspring. Such absence of social recognition of one's loss can compound the void of grief, hence the rise of support groups even for those having lost a pet (more links here).
The grief associated with bereavement is one of the most profound of all human emotions--and one of the most lethal. According to the General Social Surveys, more than 14 percent of Americans 18 and older--or about 36 million-- have experience the death of either a parent, spouse, sibling or child each year. Studies show that such losses disrupt life patterns for up to three years. According to the National Academy of Science, of the approximately 800,000 Americans widowed each year, up to 160,000 are thought to suffer a pathological grief.
Certainly contributing to the challenges of individuals' "grief work" is the privatization of grief, the underinstitutionalization of the bereavement role, the fading of the consoling role, and the dramatic shrinkage of the acceptable duration for mourning over the past century. In Time Wars, Jeremy Rifkin notes how Emily Post in 1927 reported that a widow's formal mourning period was three years. Twenty-three years later, this period had declined to six months. And by 1972, Amy Vanderbilt advised the bereaved to "pursue, or try to pursue, a usual social course within a week or so after a funeral." While over 90 percent of American companies grant official time off for bereavement, most have established three days as the formal bereavement period.
Also contributing to the challenges of "grief work" are its unique facets. Note the increasingly specialized nature of support groups here on the Web: they are determined not only on attributes of the griever--such as on the basis of their age (groups exist for teenagers, the middle- aged, and older persons) and sex--but also on the nature of their relationship with the deceased (whether spouse, lover, grandparent, parent, or sibling) and the cause of death, such as death by suicide or cancer or in the line of military service. Some of these are even further refined, such as the parent grief groups. These include support systems for those parents experiencing the neonatal, SIDS, or homicide deaths of their children, or, in the case of In Loving Memory, for those parents coping with death of their only or last surviving child. Click here for further thoughts on the deaths of family members.
Finally, and not surprisingly given the commodification of so many aspects of life, we note the commodification of bereavement.
As the limelighted boomers enter middle age we'll be hearing much more about the meaning of parental death (i.e., Jane Brooks' Midlife Orphan). Every year eleven million American adults lose a parent; by age 62, roughly three-quarters have lost both. Unlike earlier generations, however, their "orphan" status typically occurs much later in life; Boomers will have had their parents longer than any other generation.
Mary Gordon, in her recently published
The Shadow Man: A
Daughter's Search for Her Father, writes that her father's death (when she was
seven years of age) was the defining event of her life. George Pollock, director of the Chicago
Institute for Psychoanalysis, has identified hundreds of writers, artists, philosophers, for whom
mourning over a parent's death was an adaptation that tapped creative energy. For Franklin D.
Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Lenin, Darwin, and Tolstoy, the death of a parent seemed to spur
them on to greatness.
Certainly the quality and form of one's death experiences reacts with the quality and form
of one's moral, emotional, and intellectual development. Death can spawn depression and
social withdrawal, or it can invigorate, stimulating individuals to pursue new heights to
their social performances.
Newsweek's Final Farewells-- "Millions of baby boomers face one of life's saddest rites of passage: watching parents die."
Widowhood is not only a label assigned to surviving spouses, but is a social status as well--and female status at that, given that 85% of wives outlive their husbands. Unlike other bereavement-based statuses, this one is permanent. And as is the case with all social statuses, there are normative patterns to its timing and behavioral expectations. For instance, in American society, widows are frowned upon if they begin dating a week after the funeral or remarry a few months thereafter.
In our death-denying and couple-based culture, there is a certain stigma to being widowed, which is amplified by the fact that it is a status typically occupied by females. Few married women escape the status. One facet of sexism is the general pattern of older males marrying younger females. Not only does this often imply greater male power in the relationship but, because of the females' eight or more years of life expectancy advantage, it often guarantees that it is the woman who must cope with the dying and death of a spouse, with the spectrum of emotions associated with grief, and with singleness in a world of couples. In fact, widows often find themselves neither in the world of singles or of marrieds.
Return to Kearl's Death Index