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The timing of grief

| Wednesday, December 4, 2019

On Monday, I recited the Mourner’s Kaddish, a Jewish prayer in memory of the dead. Exactly one year ago, I recited the same prayer after I had a lost a loved one that I held dear to my heart. For personal reasons, I will not delve too far, but I should note that this woman’s role in my life was instrumental to my character, success and virtue. She taught me compassion and humility, forgiveness and joy and the ability to see the good in all people. 

As I laid awake remembering her memory, I contemplated the mystifying concept humanity will never satisfy its curiosity for: death. This is not to say I was depressed, nor was I joyful. I was mourning, and that does not have a definitive spot on the spectrum of emotions. Death is simply such a complex topic because we know nothing about it. For some, this lack of knowledge produces great fear. I do not share that fear. My Jewish faith teaches me to focus on the present and my current efforts at living a good life. Even for those who are not Jewish or religious, the sentiment of living in the moment speaks to the innate human tendency to work towards something greater. As humans, we focus on improving ourselves and building a better world. Worrying about death precludes the opportunity to analyze one’s character and ability to do good in the world. If we continually fear that which we do not know, we cannot enjoy what we do know, and that is life. Plato, one of my favorite philosophers, articulates this further when Socrates says, “To fear death, gentlemen, is nothing other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know.” Fear requires knowledge of that which we fear. Because we do not know death, fearing death is irrational. We should not allow a fear of death to control our lives; rather, we should continue to live in the moment and work towards being good people. 

However, I do fear grief. Grieving and mourning is a personal reaction to death and serves as a grim reminder of what we have lost. It reminds us of everything we miss about our loved ones, the time that is lost, experiences we will never have with them, and the struggle to remember our memories with them. The mourning process is supposed to help us move on, but it embodies everything that is gone and we yearn to gain back. We try to summon the presence of our loved ones through memories and photographs, and that does bring comfort. But it does not bring closure. 

Now, we should grieve and mourn our losses. It is important to remember our loved ones. However, my worry is that we get lost in the comfort of our sweet memories and refuse to move on, even if it seems like we have. Worse, we possibly move on too quickly and fool ourselves into closure, only to reopen the untouched feelings sometime later. How should we mourn? How do we know our loved ones hear us grieve? Does that matter? When do we know we have moved on? The question of grief perplexes me. In a world driven by productivity and efficiency, always moving onto the next project, we are pressured to view mourning as a time period that can be opened and closed at will. It is the few days after death, the funeral and the memorial. Then it is back to one’s normal life. But that is not right. You cannot package memories and the life of a person; it can only be expressed through life itself. Yet, sometimes I still wonder if I should be angry at the world for moving too quickly or thankful for the excuse of life, so I do not have to approach my emotions. 

Mourning is beyond the timeline of a funeral, wake and memorial. Now, these practices are important in recognizing the wonderful lives of our loved ones. However, they do not mark the end of the mourning process. The constant reminders of our loved ones in daily life months after their death, followed by sadness or grief in these moments, are indicative of this. Rather, just as the lessons of our teachers follow us beyond the classroom, the memories of our loved ones go beyond ceremonies. Mourning rituals should be accompanied by a living component, where we live through the inspiration of our loved ones. Do not leave them in the casket. Remember their lives while practicing their teachings and celebrating their memory. Reflect on a loved one’s values and character, searching for ways to continue to act through her teachings. Acts of charity, kindness or simply talking about our loved ones can all honor their memory. When remembering a loved one, even small acts like eating her favorite food or watching her favorite movie display her impact on one’s life. Part of mourning is allowing our loved ones to live through us by being the good people they encouraged us to become. It is this act of living that enables the dead to live on. 

To be clear, I still advocate for the use of ceremonies as acts of mourning. My concern lies in our tendency to end mourning early and refuse to recognize its continued presence after the service. We feel grief and sadness but act as though it is normal and “time will heal.” But that will never happen until we accept that mourning is a normal part of life. We should remember our loved ones through memorials and how we live. They are not separate; instead, they are both necessary components of the mourning process. 

I hope my reflections serve some purpose beyond my way of coping with loss. I hope people see it is normal to take time in mourning. Mourning is a gradual process. In Judaism, it spans months with a variety of prayers, actions and guidelines to memorialize a loved one. This time provides comfort and reflection, enabling closure on this significant event. In a world of fast-paced living and 24-hour news cycles, we neglect to have conversations on grief. We should feel comfortable to have this dialogue because death is something everyone encounters in life. We should be encouraged to mourn and grieve, but we should also be encouraged to remember our loved ones by living.

Blake Ziegler is a freshman at Notre Dame from New Orleans, Louisiana, with double majors in political science and philosophy. He hopes his writing encourages others to take an interest in politics and government. For inquiries, he can be reached at [email protected] or @NewsWithZig on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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