By Dr Bill Webster
It is always nice to be asked for your opinion, but it is getting ridiculous!
I am referring to all the “forums” from various sources like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and the like. Every day, someone has another issue they want to talk about, inviting me (and everyone else of course) to weigh in with views on various subjects.
Here are just a few of the topics from this week:
“Does religion still have a foothold on funeral services, or are people opting for more personalised services?”
“Why We Shouldn’t Use Facebook to Memorialize Our Loved Ones?” (“Would YOU want to be remembered by those embarrassing photos or negative, snarky remarks?” was my favorite response)
But the topic that evoked the strongest reaction from me was from The Guardian newspaper blog entitled “Why death is not the end of your social media life” It reported on a new app that will keep your friends and family updated on your Twitter and Facebook pages, even after you have passed away, claiming that “social media is already bridging the gap between the living and the dead.”
The service, by its own description, “uses Twitter bots powered by algorithms that analyze your online behavior and how you speak, so it can keep on posting the sort of links you like, creating a personal digital afterlife.” As the tagline explains, “When your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting.”
The concept may be novel, but my concern is the message that such things send regarding the grief process. Frankly I don’t want a computer programme sending ongoing communications from beyond, because I don’t want my loved ones to be confused by them. I will be GONE. Or maybe we should start a discussion about “Is there tweeting in (or from) Heaven?” I think the possibility of misuse of such technology for negative purposes cannot be overlooked.
Why is “saying goodbye” so difficult in our modern world? Why do we incessantly seek to discover to all sorts of ways to extend relationships after death and avoid the painful reality of a final farewell?
There are some funerals that perpetrate this disturbing trend. We have all heard that funerals are for the living, not for the dead. In practice, a funeral should help those who are personally shocked and socially disoriented by a bereavement to reorient themselves to a new reality, namely a world in which the deceased person is no longer present.
The primary purpose of a funeral is to help people say goodbye to someone they loved in a meaningful way appropriate to them. But many things contradict that seemingly obvious fact. Here is what one person wrote about their loss:
“Throw them a party. Hire circus people to juggle things and invite all your close friends and family. Don’t say goodbye at all. Keep the relationship going and going and going. I will never say goodbye, because saying goodbye means accepting you’re gone…and I can’t.”
There it is! This is the ultimate denial. Not only are we saying that we can’t believe that the person has gone (which is a natural reaction to any loss); not only are we saying that we don’t WANT to say goodbye, and that we don’t LIKE what has happened (which again is a perfectly understandable response); but now we seem to be saying “don’t worry. If we REFUSE to accept that the person has gone, they will actually stay with us.”
We do not serve people well when funeral practices and rituals contribute to perpetrating this myth. I am all for having a celebration of life, but only if it is in the context of also commemorating the fact that someone has died, which, unless someone has made a remarkable discovery that I somehow overlooked, means that the person is GONE.
I remember years ago taking my boys to Disney World in Florida. There was a story that circulated after Walt Disney’s passing in 1966 that, thanks to cryonics, he was somewhere in a frozen state of suspended animation waiting to be resuscitated in the future. I thought it might be interesting to find out where Mr. Disney’s cryonic chamber might be exhibited. (I feel embarrassed now by the unmitigated nerve of my enquiry!)
I finally met a Disney manager who in response to my question told me bluntly, “Walt’s gone, sir!” The cryonics story was a myth, because Mr. Disney was cremated immediately after his death. But even though he had died YEARS before, the reality that he was actually gone hit me hard. I guess I somehow thought he of all people would be able to come back.
Sometimes, the most painful goodbyes are the ones that never get said.
Why is it when a circumstance that we do not like actually happens, we fight so hard against what life is actually showing us? I think it is because of what might often be described as “desirous attachment.” After all we are told in this modern society that we can have anything we want … indeed we are encouraged by market advertising that we should get it … and they make it sound easy for us to achieve that desirable goal.
Let me suggest that people have unconsciously applied “desirous attachment” strategies to the experience of death. We don’t want to lose our loved ones … so why not hang on to them? Why should we say goodbye when we don’t want to think how we will manage without them? Why should we make the adjustments to life without the person when we can keep them alive by including ongoing tweets and cremation urns in our daily conversations and activities?
And six months or more after the funeral, when the “tweets from beyond” and activities with cremated remains (“Dancing with Urns” as comedian Joan Rivers puts it) become less satisfying, or when the reality of the person’s absence has finally hit home, people seek out costly counselling to help them deal with what really should have been made obvious at the time of the funeral, namely that “Walt’s gone.”
Admittedly, many people have become dissatisfied with many traditional funeral rituals and some of these criticisms may have validity. But whether people prefer religious, secular or humanist celebrations, when someone dies we need to “do something”. At its simplest, a ritual is defined as “something to do when you don’t know what to do.”
My argument is that we need to help people find more meaningful ways of ritualizing and personalizing their grief; rituals that symbolize the finality of death and the need to say goodbye; and to make that process as easy and manageable as possible for grieving people in their confused state of mind.
But I hasten to ADD to that last point that we need to ensure that every ritual conveys an honest message. We need to ask ourselves as funeral facilitators, “What significance does this particular ritualistic action convey to the bereaved. Is it perpetrating a myth or expressing a fact?” “Party on, dudes” seems to me to fall far short of that goal.
It has been my observation in my grief support work that where there has not been a funeral, or where the rituals around the event of death have not been meaningful or satisfactory or have not gone well, the grieving process is often complicated and more intense, and in many cases, delayed. And the implications for unresolved grief several months down the road are well documented.
We say goodbye when there’s no longer a reason to say hello. Nobody “owns” another person. Marriage at its longest is “till death do us part.” Even possessions are only for a season, and then we leave them behind, usually to someone else. In this life, we say goodbye a lot of things.
You never leave someone behind; you take a part of them with you and leave a part of yourself behind. But if we encourage people to hold on when we should assist them to say goodbye, we are actually hindering them from redefining who they are now in the light of their loss. If what we are holding on to is holding us back, we need to let it go.
Any bereavement invites us to re-create an entire new life for ourselves. It is vital that people realize they are not saying goodbye to the love they feel; they are merely saying goodbye to the old circumstances in which that other person was present. Every beginning is the beginning of the end; but every ending is also a new beginning.
While it may not be possible in some difficult situations, I believe that what we need to ritualize in a meaningful funeral, expressing the sentiment: “How lucky I am to have known someone who was so hard to say goodbye to.”
Follow me on Twitter @drbillwebster. (This is only for my lifetime, though!)