Introduction Chapter 1: In Praise of Maria: a memoir


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Commenting on the Book of Job, Kushner says that Job’s comforters did two things right: they came and they listened for several days. After Job was finished ranting, they should have said: “Yes, it’s really awful.” Their mistake was in thinking that when Job said “Why is God doing this to me,” Job was asking a question and that they should try to explain God’s ways to him.cxli

The words at funerals and in periods of mourning come close to what Bronislaw Malinowski called “phatic speech.” This is ‘a type of speech in which ties of union are created by a mere exchange of words.”cxlii We need this form of “social cement” when the community is bereft with sorrow and when whatever can be said is hopelessly inadequate to the sufferer’s agony. Poetry and art are to be cherished if they are available. Most of us are stuck with saying “I”m sorry” or some other inane-sounding phrase. But the mourner who has tried to comfort in other situations readily understands the words that come with the presence of the person.

The Process of Bereavement

Contemporary culture finds it difficult to accept that there is no substitute for time when it comes to mourning. The saying that “time heals all wounds” is demonstrably false but nonetheless time is an indispensable factor if wounds are to heal. “Every cell of the body has to be informed of what has been lost.” (Proust). The closer the person was, the more intense is the body’s reaction. This closeness includes someone who was not necessarily loved but who nonetheless had an intimate bond with the survivor. A son or daughter, who has been estranged from a parent or who constantly fought with a parent, will often be surprised at how intensely they feel the loss.

Confucius said “if a man ever reveals his true self, it is when he is mourning his parents.”cxliii What is unusual about the death of parents today is that we are among the first generations who are likely to have one or both parents alive when we are middle-aged. That is certainly better than losing one’s parents when one is a child – a situation that has returned in much of southern Africa.

Having one’s parents alive until one’s forties or fifties might seem to make it easier to let go, but that is not what happens. Middle-aged people whose parents die are inevitably surprised that the word which comes forcefully to mind is “orphan.” It is embarrassing to admit feeling like an orphan at the age of fifty-five. Always there had been a generation in front. The death of the parents means moving to the front pew at funerals.

The novelist Saul Bellow wrote to his biographer: “When my father died I was for a long time sunk.”cxliv One tries to come up for air and then coast along with the current. Many people insist after a few days that they have their feet back on the ground. The truth may be that they have postponed the reaction which is sure to be more severe a month, six months, or a year later. Most of the policies that allow leave from work provide three days to mourn one’s parents. Then one is expected to “get on with your life.”cxlv

In some work settings, co-workers can be very helpful in providing a stable environment, but returning to work immediately after the death of a parent, spouse, or close relative can be an evasion of the time needed for mourning. The arrival of insurance agents, real estate brokers, and tax accountants the day after the funeral is not the kind of interaction that one needs.

The death of one’s child is almost a different species of grief.cxlvi The sense of loss at a parent’s death is balanced by the recognition that life has its natural cycles; after fullness of life there is inevitable decline and death. The death of a child is a screaming denial of what we assume are the ways of God or nature. Unless the parents can find a way to mourn together, the child’s death will put a terrible strain upon the marriage. The parents need to talk and to talk to each other, something that the situation makes nearly impossible. The sudden death of a child raises the mortality rate of the bereaved parents five times above the average.cxlvii

Can one draw up any fixed rules about the process of bereavement? Does everyone go through “predictable stages of development”? There is strong resistance to the idea that the nature and length of a process of mourning can be universally charted. Certainly, anthropology has made us aware of the cultural variations surrounding death, disposal of the body, and mourning. More important, however, is anthropology’s finding that every culture does have rituals for the funeral and a period of mourning. We are the odd ones in dissolving almost all the trappings of a bereavement process. Perhaps that represents progress but the medical and psychiatric toll suggests otherwise.

The claim in contemporary culture is that each of us is unique and must therefore deal with mourning in our own unique way. But human uniqueness is not about having nothing in common with others. On the contrary, it refers to an openness to learn from all sources, human and nonhuman. Human beings throughout the centuries have mourned their dead; some other animals also appear to mourn. What is uniquely human for an individual bears resemblance and comparison to the other mourners on earth. It would be rash to reject help from any source, even though “predictable stages” contain a nearly limitless range of particular details.

It is surprising that stages of mourning have not been studied more extensively. People often refer to Kübler-Ross’ stages as stages of grief. But her study was entirely focused on stages of dying. The assumption that the two processes can be equated makes some sense, but there are some obvious differences. Mourning starts where dying leaves off (or possibly a little earlier). The end of the two processes also differs. “Acceptance” might apply to mourning as well as to dying but the connotations of the word in the two situations are not the same.

Mourning has been studied as one example of what are called “rites of passage.” Arnold van Gennep coined the phrase in the early twentieth century to describe puberty rites and experiences that have a similar structure.cxlviii Birth, marriage ceremonies, and funeral rituals are characterized by a journey of withdrawal, seclusion and re-entry. The boy dies to being a child and, after a period of testing and transition, re-emerges as an adult. The engaged couple enter the ritual of the marriage ceremony and after a honeymoon transition take up life as a married couple.

The funeral ceremony is integral to the mourning process but it can be examined as a rite of passage on its own. There can be confusion here as to whether the funeral is designed for the dead person or for the survivors. The confusion is covered over by assuming that a parallel exists between the transitions undergone by the living and by the dead.cxlix Someone who has died is thought to need time before coming to a final rest. No one can be certain of that transition, but the relatives and friends of the deceased clearly need time before returning to ordinary life.

In many cultures there are two funerals or a funeral in two The first funeral directly signifies the dying of the individual and the disintegration of the community. After some weeks or months, a second funeral is held; it moves the remains to a final resting place. Order has thereby been reestablished both for the community and for the dead person who has been reintegrated into life.

In the second funeral, men and women traditionally have distinctly different roles and the ceremony includes sexual imagery. There is nothing shocking in the close association of sex and death. The struggle of life to overcome death is represented by the mixing of young men and young women. From ancient Greece down to the modern Irish wake and African burial rites, funerals have always been a choice time for finding a sexual partner.

Modern cultures do not have two funerals. Sometimes, however, the body is quickly disposed of and a memorial service is held later. Friends and relatives, for whom travel to the funeral was impossible, can plan ahead for the memorial service. The mood of the second gathering is still somber but the life of the dead person is now celebrated along with his or her death being mourned. Favorite stories about the dead person are recalled by each of the living participants. Speaking appreciatively of the dead person is the meaning of eulogy.

For many people, of course, this second part of the funeral follows immediately on the first. The sadness at the cemetery gives way to a robust meal and sometimes overly robust drinking. The juxtaposition can seem incongruous, but, like sex, eating and drinking are the human challenge to death’s finality. The drawback in the modern practice is the impatient attempt to settle everything in a few hours rather than letting time have its place.

Many communities are attentive to the widow having a prepared meal after the funeral. The test is whether there is concern for the eating patterns of the widow (and even more so, the widower) six months after the funeral. Failure to eat properly is a major problem during the time of mourning. “Why should I bother to cook for one” is a standard line among widows.

The funeral should be the beginning of the bereavement process. A dinner party after the burial can falsely imply that the mourning period is over. That is one reason why celebration and upbeat speeches would better be placed some time later. The funeral is mainly a time for absorbing a body blow. All the euphemisms for dying – passed away, expired, deceased – do not hide the absence. The person is gone; a gaping hole exists where there has always been a loved person.

I noted earlier, in reinterpreting Kübler-Ross’ stages of dying, that she found a three part sequence: a no to death which is a yes to life, a yes to death which is a no to life, and then a yes to life which includes dying. The third is not really a stage so much as the synthesis of the two stages that have preceded. The two stages can be repeated any number of times. Kübler-Ross documented four stages plus acceptance, but she implies that there could be six, eight or any even number. The final synthesis, which is acceptance, can be reached only after the dialectic of yes and no has moved the elements toward each other.

The stages of mourning have this same structure. If anything, the stages are more obvious in the case of mourning than in that of dying. One criticism of Kübler-Ross’ stages of dying was that not everyone has a lengthy period in which to think about their fatal disease. Kübler-Ross acknowledged the point in granting that people reach acceptance only if they have sufficient time.cli For the experience of mourning, a lack of time is not the problem. Indeed, the problem here is finding a place to stop. Some people are still mourning the death of a child fifty years later.

For many people today the period of mourning begins before death. When a patient is on a life-support system for years, the family is likely to mourn the loss long before the system is discontinued. The experience of the survivors is that the organism is still living but the person has departed. A similar and sometimes more agonizing experience occurs with dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease. The person is still there but living in a different world. African tribal religions have a time between life and death where the person is “living-dead”; modern medicine seems to have created this state in the nursing home or the intensive care unit of the hospital.clii

Kübler-Ross called the immediate preparation for death “anticipatory depression.” So also, survivors who begin mourning before a death can experience “anticipatory grief.” By anticipating grief, the blow is softened and a protective attitude is called forth. Occasionally, people start this process when they fear the death of a loved one. If the person does not die, a great strain is placed upon the reunion.

Erich Lindemann, who did one of the first systematic studies of grief and mourning, coined the phrase “anticipatory grief.” Part of his study included soldiers who returned from war and found their wives no longer loved them and wanted a divorce. “The grief work had been done so effectively that the patient has emancipated herself and the readjustment must now be directed towards new interaction.”cliii

Stages of dying are most evident in long, drawn-out instances of dying. It is difficult to imagine anything called phases or stages occurring in automobile crashes or shootings. Stages of mourning, in contrast, are most evident in sudden and unexpected deaths. The survivor is plunged into one emotion and sometime quickly reacts in an opposite direction. In such cases, when someone is informed that his or her spouse or child or close friend has died, the person reacts in the same way that a person does when informed that he or she has a terminal illness: “This cannot be true; there must be some mistake; I don’t believe it.”

Such denial is likely to persist until the dead body is seen. It is amazing what extraordinary efforts are made to recover dead bodies. It may seem pointless to search at length for the bodies of people killed by drowning, in plane crashes, or in collapsed buildings. Recovery of the body is followed by disposal of the body; the drowning victim may be buried at sea or the victim of a building collapse may be buried in the earth.

Part of the reason for the search is the respect and reverence that humans usually have toward the human remains. Part of the reason is that the survivor can begin the slow process of acceptance. One horrible aspect of the World Trade Center bombing was that survivors were deprived of both the life and the death of the loved one. The ash that covered southern Manhattan was composed in part of human bodies; the buildings had become crematoria.

Funerals are peculiar mixtures of denial and acceptance. The “viewing of the body” is customary among some groups. At the same time the dead body is made up to look as close to alive as possible. The whole production may seem ridiculous or worse to outsiders.cliv The funeral industry has undoubtedly exploited people’s grief, selling the mourner unnecessary products. But one should hesitate to judge how people cope with death. If mourners really wish to spend their money in elaborate funeral practices, who can say it is not a good investment in their sanity. Everyone begins by denying what has happened. The greater concern should be for people who seem to act reasonably and appear to go on as if nothing has happened.

As in stages of dying, denial is a healthy first reaction at the beginning of mourning. Mark Twain’s daughter, Sally, was killed at the age of twenty-four. Twain described his reaction this way: “The intellect is stunned by the shock and but gropingly gathers the meaning of the words. The power to realize their full import is mercifully wanting. The mind has a dumb sense of loss – that is all.”clv The mind’s inability to quickly comprehend what has happened is a blessing of human nature.

As with the denial of dying, denial in grieving is a good thing that can go bad if persisted in too long. When the dead body has not been seen, the denial might go on for years despite overwhelming evidence of the death. Each time the door opens, the unrealistic expectation of the dead person’s appearance is renewed. Children who have been lied to about a parent’s death, which often happens in cases of suicide, are especially prone to living in denial for years. Mommy is away on a trip but she will come home some day.

There is one form of denial that applies to mourning though not to grief. When people have a relation that lacks social approval, the death of one of the partners is liable to cause “disenfranchised grief.” The mistress of a married man or the partner in a homosexual union may not be able to express their grief. Colleagues at work will be puzzled by any display of emotion. “He was only a friend; it is not as if it was family.” The grief is not denied but it does not have a healthy outlet in a ritual of mourning or a period of bereavement.

The attempt to deny mourning indefinitely is likely to have repercussions. Grief is a burden that the body carries; the grief needs to be shared so as to be lightened. Erich Lindemann was among the first to document that some diseases commonly occur when either mourning is delayed or when denial is followed by an exaggerated reaction of grief.

Lindemann’s essay is somewhat confusing because he describes the reactions of “normal,” but acute grief and then he lists the physical and mental problems of “morbid grief.” Some of the same symptoms, such as respiratory problems, lack of strength, and digestive problems, appear in both parts of the study. The normal but acute reactions to grief are relatively mild and can be readily treated. What he describes as morbid grief can have life-threatening effects. He mentions as typical diseases ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis, and asthma, as well as complete disruption of the social order in one’s life.

The danger in studies of mourning is that mourning itself may be seen as a sickness whereas mourning is actually the cure, to the extent that cure is possible. More than sixty years after Lindemann’s study the American Psychiatric Association still seems uneasy about how to relate mourning and “normality.” A proposed change in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for 2013 is to remove the “bereavement exclusion” from “major depressive disorder.” The change would go perilously close to making all mourning a depressive disorder.clvi

The experience of being somewhat depressed for a period of time is not a sickness. Whereas denial is a no to death, withdrawal is a yes to death, or at least a partial acceptance of death. Denial insists on affirming life. In contrast, withdrawal is a refusal of life, an unwillingness or an incapacity to take part in the affairs of ordinary life. Withdrawal is for healing, for letting the land lie fallow.

All of the major religions recognize bereavement as an essential element in human life. Details for the observance of bereavement vary but they typically refer to how people dress, how they are addressed, what they eat, where they travel, who visits. Weeping is a usual way to express sorrow but religions provide a framework lest the wailing be excessive.clvii It may seem silly or even cruel that the widow had to wear black and did not go out in public for months. However, the practices did provide space in which the mourner quite literally learned to breathe again.

If one has stepped out of ordinary life there is a risk of not returning. To mourn permanently is to be one of the dead among the living. Religious traditions avoid this result by supplying a series of markers, at the third day, the seventh day, a month, a year. A period of bereavement is not a wandering in the desert; it is territory charted by hundreds of thousands of ancestors. At each marker along the way, a cloud of witnesses, a gathering of the community past and present, encourages a cherishing of memory in the context of a renewal of life.clviii

The final step in mourning is not a stage but a reintegration of the mourner into ordinary life. The mourner comes to a place where life wins out over depression and despair. One does not return to the same old things; instead one finds a new life with a new dimension. One will never again see life with the same eyes. The mourner now becomes capable of giving comfort to other mourners.

One paradoxical way of reintegration happens with the death of the mourner. There are numerous cases where the death of one spouse is soon followed by the death of the other.clix Sometimes the second death seems to come from depression; the widow or widower dies of a broken heart. Sometimes widows or widowers go through a period of mourning, after which they show that they are capable of resuming ordinary life, but then they die shortly afterward. Reintegration in such cases is with the departed spouse. The bond with the dead is stronger than any bond with the living.

How long should the period of bereavement be? People vary in their needs but that does not mean some markers should not exist.clx Religious traditions give weight to a year’s anniversary. That is a longer period than secular culture’s observance of mourning but secular culture has taken over the idea of observing anniversary remembrances. The practice of observing a year’s passing has its arbitrary side but the sense of anniversary is deeply rooted in human nature.clxi

Six months to a year would seem an appropriate time of bereavement for most people in most situations, presuming that the mourning was not delayed. The objection raised these days might be that a year is not enough time. While allowing that that may indeed be true, I think the objection is due to blurring two realities that need distinguishing. The end of a period of mourning – bereavement – is not the end of sorrow and grief. For parents of a dead child or for a surviving spouse in a long-term marriage, the sorrow is unlikely to ever go away. Life will never return to what it was before the death.

“Acceptance,” if the term belongs here, does not mean reaching an end point where a death is acknowledged as a fact. It means accepting that the death of someone who was loved has become a permanent part of life. Not a yes to life and a no to death, but a yes to life that includes the death of someone who will be forever loved.


A question in modern times is whether Christian beliefs about death and an afterlife are credible. Secular thinkers today tend to dismiss the question as not worth pursuing. It is simply assumed that Christian belief has been outgrown by an enlightened world. This chapter is not an attempt to establish the truth of these Christian beliefs. Rather, it starts from the premise that something cannot be rejected unless it is understood. The Christian outlook on death is a complicated story that employs its own logic and a wealth of metaphors. It invites intellectual inquiry. At the least, Christianity should be recognized as continuing to shape much of the present world. The beliefs of hundreds of millions of people deserve some respect.

The Christian religion emerged from ancient Jewish religion and can never sever its connection to the original plant. In a different metaphor, Christianity and Judaism have rightly been called siblings, two developments from the mother religion embodied in the Hebrew Bible or what Christians call the Old Testament.clxii But, as the impossibility of even having the same name for their originating scriptures suggests, Christianity and Judaism are siblings that have had a stormy relation from the beginning. The conflict has sometimes been not only verbal but bloody.

Jews and Christians share many of the same words but the words often have different meanings. This confusing relation is not so unusual in the history of religions. Reformers who attempt to give a new direction to the religion use the terms that are familiar to both speaker and listener. The words continue while their meanings shift. Most religious reforms aim at two related results: an interiorized, simpler practice of the religion that in turn can lead to a wider practice of the religion.

A widespread religious reform is, if not anti-ritual, skeptical of complicated codes and rites. The highly developed rituals surrounding death and mourning are a primary target for religious reformers. Not surprisingly, the Protestant Reformation set off from the issue of selling indulgences that were supposed to release souls from purgatory. One major division in Christianity is between Catholic and Protestant branches; but one must also distinguish Eastern and Western Catholic Churches, as well as a great variety of Protestant denominations. A claim to present the Christian view of death must therefore be a little suspect.

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