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I'm a sixth generation funeral director. I have a grad degree in Missional Theology and a Certification in Thanatology.
And I like to read and write.
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Posts by Caleb Wilde
Today’s guest post is written by Chad Harris:
Ask most people what they know about grief, and they will likely mention that it’s made up of 5 stages:
Makes it all sound neat, tidy, and orderly, doesn’t it?
Problem is, grief is messy!
Kubler-Ross did not originally intend for her model to be widely accepted as a model of grief and loss – in fact, her stage theory came out of her work with those who were actively dying, not those who were grieving the death of a loved one. Yet, the medical establishment and the general public embraced this model, in no small part because it seemed intuitive and orderly. However, classifying them as stages diminishes the fact that people may not move through these thoughts, feelings, or actions in order. In fact, they may skip ahead, work through them out of order, go backwards between stages, or even repeat stages. Perhaps most troubling, such a model makes those around the griever more likely to think they know what the person is going through – and that they can helpfully tell the person what to expect next.
Did I mention that this is rarely the case since grief is messy?
In the years since Kubler-Ross’s work started gaining ground in the late 1960s, a number of alternate theories have been proposed, and while there is no one grand unified theory of grief – and no one theory can explain everyone’s grief (since it’s messy!), one that has gained much traction and that helps provide meaning to the rituals of mourning through which we express our grief is found in the work of psychologist Dr. J. William Worden.
In his 1982 book “Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy”, Worden proposed that when we are faced with grief, we make sense of that grief (as much as is possible) and find our way back to some semblance of daily functioning through the act of mourning – our public “face” of grieving a death.
Worden proposed that each grieving person undertakes four tasks in order to process the death of someone meaningful, and by doing so, a griever comes closer to finding their way to their new normal.
Worden’s Four Tasks of Mourning
- Accept the reality of the loss.
- Work through the pain of grief.
- Adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing.
- Find a way to form an enduring connection with the deceased while embarking on a new life.
Accepting the reality of the loss is vital. In order to heal, we must first understand that we’re hurting and that something is not the same. Sadly, growth and change is often spurred by discomfort. While there are a number of ways to begin to either accept the reality ourselves or to help others, among the most effective are funerals/memorial services and using words that aren’t cloaked in platitudes or euphemisms. The loved one in question didn’t get lost, nor did he or she expire like a carton of milk. He or she died. People die. It’s part of the human life cycle, and it’s important to embrace this fact.
Working through the pain enables us to not feel stuck and to begin to find some level of healing. It keeps us active, engaged, and moving ahead, helping to keep us from feeling stuck. Will we feel stuck sometimes? Of course! As long as we remain open and honest, though, we will make our way forward in our own time and in a way that makes sense to us.
Adjusting to an environment in which the deceased is missing does not mean forgetting the person existed. It merely means understanding that our worldview has been irrevocably changed, and though the person is no longer physically present, our memories will keep them with us.
Finding a way to create an enduring connection means honoring the person through our actions and carrying them with us in our hearts. Pictures, favorite books, or even volunteer activities that you do in their memory can help create this lasting, meaningful connection. As long as we hold the person close to us and honor that connection, they are not lost to us, even if they may not be physically present.
Worden’s tasks allow grievers to move ahead at their own pace. Yes, they are placed in some semblance of order, but they are tasks, and not merely things that happen to us or thoughts, feelings, or emotions we are carried through in a passive manner – which is how a reliance on the Kubler-Ross model can often make people feel. Worden’s tasks are active. Worden’s tasks empower grievers, giving a greater sense of control than models like Kubler-Ross’s.
Worden’s model isn’t perfect, of course. It appears quite linear and it may also seem as though there is no room for sliding backwards amid the tasks. After all, grief is messy, and a griever may often feel waylaid by what Dr. Therese Rando calls “sudden, temporary upsurges of grief”, or STUGs. No matter how long it has been since our loved one has died, we are going to have moments when we are a complete mess and miss the person even more than we thought we could – and we may feel like all of our progress to this point has been for naught.
It’s important to remember, though, that on any journey, no matter the model we subscribe to, we stumble – and that’s especially likely on a journey like the one through grief that is never-ending. Whether we’re grieving or supporting someone who is, it is important to remember that we will stumble and struggle. These are not failures…they’re simply realities that happen. We may have moments of sadness, even though we feel as though we’ve moved far beyond that point – or we may have moments of joy when we feel as though it’s not appropriate. Never judge nor apologize for what you or someone else is feeling. That’s our subjective reality in the moment, and everyone is entitled to those feelings.
About the author: Chad Harris is a graduate student at Hood College in Maryland, where he is pursuing a master’s degree in thanatology, as well as coursework in gerontology. He also holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Central Arkansas, as well as a master’s degree in social work from Case Western Reserve University. He is currently researching the role of mass media in shaping people’s perceptions of death and the impact of media coverage on grief and mourning, with the hopes of helping promote more responsible coverage of tragic events.
Mental_floss wrote an article documenting the premature burial of four individuals. This one is especially interesting:
… 19-year-old Frenchman Angelo Hays “probably the most remarkable twentieth-century instance of alleged premature burial.” In 1937, Hays wrecked his motorcycle, with the impact throwing the young man from his machine headfirst into a brick wall. Hays’ face was so disfigured that his parents weren’t allowed to view the body. After locating no pulse, the doctors declared Hays dead, and three days later, he was buried. But because of an investigation helmed by a local insurance company, his body was exhumed two days after the funeral.
Much to those at the forensic institute’s surprise, Hays was still warm. He had been in a deep coma and his body’s diminished need for oxygen had kept him alive. After numerous surgeries and some rehabilitation, Hays recovered completely. In fact, he became a French celebrity: People traveled from afar to speak with him, and in the 1970s he went on tour with a (very souped-up) security coffin he invented featuring thick upholstery, a food locker, toilet, and even a library.
To read the remainder of the article, click HERE.
There’s been three necrophilia cases that have made the national news in the past month. The following story is perhaps the most disturbing because — unlike the other two — it involves a “mortuary employee.”
First the story, and then I’ll provide some rather strong commentary:
An employee at a mortuary in Ghana has told how he had sex with dead women “many, many times” – claiming necrophilia is part of the job training.
The man claimed he worked in a morgue at Korle Bu Teaching Hospital, where he says he had sex with the corpses, reported .
Sharkur Lucas revealed that he was unable to get women to go out with him because of his ‘morbid’ job – so he had sex with the dead instead.
“I wanted to marry but the girl says I am a mortuary man,” he told Ghana television station Adom TV.
Since his interview, Lucas has been sacked by his employers and admits he is now being hunted by police – although he fails to see what he has done wrong.
But when the interviewer raised the question of mental health problems, Lucas dismissed the claims.
“I am OK, I am OK sir,” he insisted. via Mirror
I’m not a psychologist nor a psychiatrist and have a very superficial understanding of mental health. I also have little background in the academic spheres of human behavior. With that said, I think we can all agree that such acts are both incredibly sick and unspeakably wrong and undeniably illegal.
Before the thought enters your mind, this is NOT something even remotely normal among “death workers.” Most everyone (you and me) have encountered dead bodies at funerals, or perhaps hospitals, and I think we can all agree that our reactions to the deceased is always some mixture of fear, bordering awe, bordering honor. Honor is how I always view a dead body, and I think funeral directors, mortuary works and the like agree.
Mr. Sharkur Lucas is the extreme outlier and I expect he’s not fit to work with either the dead or the living.
Full disclosure: This is a book review of The Day the Angels Fell. The author, Shawn Smucker, is my good friend. We’ve shared a number of early morning breakfasts and a couple kayaking trips. Shawn is a better person than I am. He’s kinder and more courageous than I’ll ever be. But that’s not entirely why I’m reviewing (and yes, promoting) Shawn’s book. I read Shawn’s book and I’m promoting it because I’m genuinely interested in its subject matter and I value its death message.
The Day the Angels Fell is a novel that explores an alternative narrative about death … a narrative that we rarely think about in America.
The common narrative that we’ve been told is that death is THE enemy. That death is so horrible we should do everything we can to shield ourselves (and especially our children) from its specter. That our mortality should be hidden away so that the rest of us don’t have to think about it.
The Day the Angels Fell explores the idea that death can be a gift. And not only does it explore that alternative narrative, but it does so with the intended audience being children (middle school on up to adult).
On some levels, The Day the Angels Fell compares with C.S. Lewis’ popular The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. That book – more so than the other Narnia tales – provides a way to help children understand and tackle big ideas like betrayal, sacrifice and forgiveness. The Day the Angels Fell tackles the big idea of death through a fantasy narrative that’s intended for children, but – like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – still resonates with adults.
The story revolves around twelve year old Sam and his friend Abra. After Sam loses his mother, he and Abra set out on a quest to bring her back. As he pursues a source of resurrection for his mother, he has to ponder the moral question: “If I find a way to bring her back, should I do it?”
It’s hard to talk to our children about death (hell, it’s hard to talk to adults about death). It’s even harder to do so without using flowery euphemisms and warm fuzzy answers. Perhaps the best way to do it is through a really good story. Shawn’s a storyteller (he’s written well over five books), and in this story, he finds a way to tell an alternative narrative about death for children and adults that isn’t wrapped in overused clichés.
Right now Shawn dropped the Kindle edition price to $3.99 just for our Confessions of a Funeral Director community. It’s well worth the price of the purchase and the time to read it. You can find the paperback version HERE.
(As per all my posts, details of this story have been changed to respect the privacy of those involved.)
I picked up the phone with my rehearsed, “Hello. This is the Wilde Funeral Home. Caleb speaking.” The voice on the other end says abruptly, “I have a problem … my son-in-law was killed in a motorcycle accident yesterday.”
Now that I know the nature of her call, the next five or six sentences are as rehearsed as the first.
“I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you” she says.
I pause … waiting to see if the silence elicits any farther response; and, at the same time I’m contemplating if I should deviate from the script and ask her about details of the death.
Keeping with the script, I continue on, inquiring about the hospital he’s at, the name of her daughter, her daughter’s phone number and then the hardest question of them all:
“Do you know if you want embalming or cremation?” I say with hesitation.
And what proceeded was her only scripted response.
“It depends on the condition of his body. The coroner told us he slammed into a tree without his helmet on, but they wouldn’t tell us anymore. If he’s bad … cremation. If he’s okay … embalming.”
We went over the plan of action, which consists of me calling the hospital to see if her son-in-law’s released, calling the coroner to inquire about the condition of the body and then calling her back to let her know a time she could come in to the funeral home and make arrangements.
I called the coroner’s office.
Got the release from the hospital.
And an hour later I was standing in the morgue unzipping the body bag to see if the body of this 40 year old man was viewable. It was the back of the head that hit the tree … something we could fix for his wife and four young children (ages 5 to 13), so they could see their husband and daddy one last time.
15 hours of restoration. He still didn’t look right. Dead people never look right. We’re so used to seeing them alive that dead is never accurate … but this was different. This was a motorcycle accident that threw a man into a tree.
We gave the wife the choice to continue on with the public viewing or close the lid and she chose to keep it open, sharing the reality and source of her pain in all its distortion … sharing it even with her four young children and all their schoolmates that came out in support, many of whom saw unperfected death for the very first time.
The scheduled end of the viewing came and went but people kept coming to view.
Finally the last person filed past the casket and the family knew the time to say their last good-bye had approached.
The viewing was held in a church, with the casket positioned at the front of a totally full sanctuary. As a way to provide privacy to the family, we turned the open casket around so that the lid blocked the view from the pews … creating a private space where tears could be shed in all their honest shock.
The sanctuary echoed with the cries of four children and their mother.
And the sanctuary echoed with the cries of four weeping children and their mother … making time stand silent.
The grandfather came up to the casket, wrapped his arms around the children and said, “This is hard for you to understand.” The tear soaked porcelain skin cheeks. The last look of their father’s physical body save the memories their young minds have stored.
In those moments as the sanctuary resounded with the cries produced by an inexplicable death, there wasn’t a person in the room who understood.
Yet all tried to understand. All grasped for an explanation.
In these moments — as we watched these young children — we all became like them. With all the well intended cliches emptied of meaning, we allowed our minds to reconcile with what our hearts were telling us: we simply can’t understand something that doesn’t make sense.