A new, creative kind of grieving process…
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Most all religions have rituals for funerals and the immediate period after death to recognize this major event and help with the beginning of the grieving process. Outside of formal religions, individuals sometimes set up their own unique personal and family processing. New grieving processes have been becoming more public, seeming fueled by the pandemic, social media, and Zoom. The latest I heard of was composting, where the bodily remnants are mixed with organic mulch to potentially become part of nature, as in the comment after one: “he’s there in the garden.”
My wife and I just went to something quite new for ourselves, a celebration of life to honor our dear friend and her family matriarch, led by the adult children. I had heard some about a growing new practice called Celebrations of Life. They tended to occur before a beloved one had passed away and tended to be joyous. Often there were sharing of pictures, stories, and memories.
The one we attended occurred about 6 months after the death. My wife and I had been fortunate to be able to drive and come see her the day before she died, right after the family told us of the likelihood. That was in the midst of a snowy winter. The family knew few would be able to come from any distance, so they were able to take the time to not only process their grief, but also set up a memorial day of celebration right before the summer solstice. It was 84 degrees outside.
The dining hall in a Unitarian Universalist Church was filled. With a suggested dress code of dressy casual, I wore a sport jacket depicting fireworks. While waiting, I glanced through some of the literature and found an article about a map to measure spiritual growth. In the meanwhile, my wife, one of her closest friends, was rehearsing the song she was to sing. A slideshow played through the arrivals, program, and reception afterwards. It seemed like 70 to 80 attendees came.
The master of ceremonies was the second eldest son. Though always composed when I had seen him before, tears welled up off and on this time. Overall though, tears and crying seemed much less than at a usual funeral. There was no religious eulogy, but creative and heartfelt remembrances from some of the children, grandchildren, and other loved ones of the family. Clapping occurred after each.
Some of the special and new memories for me included:
-She read books starting randomly somewhere in the middle, and then going backwards and forward until finishing.
-Her advance directive included something like: “There are no strangers, only friends in the waiting.”
-She loved butterflies and their transformation, so one daughter brought butterfly stickers and seeds to take home.
My wife did sing her song near the end, accompanied by a family member partner and Broadway pianist. I had suggested the song, though somewhat worried it would be too triggering. It was “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Some of the words were in the program next to a picture of our friend among tree blossoms:
“I’ll be seeing you
In every lovely summer’s day
In everything that’s light and gay
I’ll always think of you that way
I’ll find you in the morning sun
And when the night is new
I’ll be looking at the moon
But I’ll be seeing you.”
My wife got through it like a pro, and as if she was singing directly to her friend. Maybe she was. I tearfully watched the spouse, who had tears rolling down a smiling face. This was an affirmation of a life, lives, and living. I daresay it was therapeutic and so spiritually meaningful.
Knowing how difficult grieving can be from a professional standpoint, this celebration offered a creative, new grieving process alternative. After all, about 10% of those grieving a significant loss end up in the new DSM-5 classification of prolonged grief disorder. Usually at about 6 months after a major loss like this one, grieving is thought to be about over, but it is usually not. It is sort of like recovery after a societal disaster. Caring and concern readily roll out immediately and acutely, but then life sort of settles in quietly.
This kind of celebration seemed to me to be like a learning and educational process that evolves into an integration of the identity of the deceased, a fuller picture of who the person was in life. It allows attendees to internalize some new aspects of the beloved one. The community comes even closer together.
Though research on these before or after celebrations of life are minimal, most report they are a healing process. Personally and professionally, if asked, I would prescribe such delayed-after-death celebrations like this one where practical planning can put something like this together mid-grieving, some weeks or months after the loss. With celebrations of life, we can gain something back from the loss.
Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times.