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Consolation and Grief

Chapter 9 discusses consolation literature: grieving manuals, poetry, and letters. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a medical doctor and psychiatrist, has written extensively on death and the grieving process, contributing many classic works to the genre of consolation literature. These works are written from both a medical (psychiatric) and humanitarian point of view. Kubler-Ross’ On Children and Death is a manual not only for parents and siblings grieving a child’s death, it is also provides information on how friends of the bereaved can help. The book also offers commentary on ways in which modern urban culture, particularly in the United States, does not facilitate the grieving process.2

One of the realities of a child’s death from terminal illness that few people discuss is the high cost of dying—often between one hundred to two hundred thousand dollars, even with excellent insurance. Despite this financial burden, cash strapped parents will often overindulge a dying child, perhaps neglecting the emotional needs of his or her siblings. Kubler-Ross suggests that parents discuss the financial aspects of the illness with the children of the family by asking them to help find ways to save money. She also suggests that siblings help care for the sick child. When the child ultimately dies, siblings should, if they desire, be allowed to touch the body and bring gifts, notes, and perhaps a comfy pillow or beloved stuffed animal to inter with their brother or sister. Adolescents and children may want to help plan a funeral to some degree. It is not unheard of for classmates and considerate teachers to also join in the planning of a memorial.

When a child dies, whether unexpectedly or after a long illness, parents should be able to rock their child, hold them, kiss them, and sing to them. Even a stillborn baby should be given to the parents to hold, touch, and accept as a member of the family. One sensitive and knowledgeable funeral director’s approach to removing a child’s body from the home is to have the parents wash and dress the child, carry him or her to the car, and transport him or her (if possible) to the mortuary or funeral. When Kubler-Ross published her book in 1983, she noted that the process described above was followed by very few funeral directors. Now that so much more research is available to the profession, some funeral directors not only follow the above protocol, but offer other resources to help in grieving (such as bibliographies of books on mourning, prayers, and referrals to counseling services). Conversely, parents of children who have died during the commission of a crime must often identify their children in the sterile rooms in which bodies are laid out on a metal stretcher. The unnatural appearance of the child and the cold, formal environment is upsetting, painful, and impersonal.

Laura Smart notes that there are two contradictory views of grief: one view is that the bereaved must grieve in a particular way and that grief work should restore the bereaved to pre-bereavement state. The other view, generally accepted by the grieving and non-psychologists, is that grief should be over as soon as possible.3 It is better to “move through the pain” than to avoid it by forgetting the death and its attendant rituals. It is essential to healthy grieving to acknowledge death, and having final moments with the deceased allows survivors (whether siblings, parents, or young friends) to mature and deal with other deaths. Making a shrine out of the child’s room or having a “replacement” child before grieving has been processed is not conducive to a healthy life.4

Kubler-Ross, who has worked with the dying in most countries of the world, observes the change in culture in urban, and even suburban, communities in well-developed nations. Technology, prevalent transportation, and the move away from spirituality contribute to our inability to mourn in a healthy manner. Similarly, Suzuki notes the depersonalization of modern Japanese funerals, called McFunerals, which have become notable for their efficiency, depersonalization, and predictability, particularly with respect to mass-marketing of funeral services. In a McFuneral ceremonies last only one hour, and bodies are washed by professionals instead of loved ones. Mourners in some faiths or communities believe that the body of the deceased should not be left unattended. In McFunerals, however, in order to accommodate busy staff, it has been deemed acceptable for someone to just be “in the building”. More recently, in response to these types of funerals new ceremonies have been established which are more personalized.5

In some parts of the world where children are abundant, there is always someone to care for them. In these regions children are seen as assets who will reciprocate that care for the elderly, eventually. Communities are no longer involved in birthing or welcoming children, nor are they involved when they die. Conversely, in well-established communities, where old customs are followed, in rural areas in particular, the community may help bury a child. Neighbors, and even children, might help dig the grave. A grandfather or other family member might build a coffin. By participating in the mortuary rituals, the community and family is permitted to grieve by doing something useful and meaningful. She notes that “death can be as simple and as uncomplicated as life is- if we don’t make it a nightmare”. Because of the fear of death, enabled by our present culture, parents who have lost a child might be reticent to have more children. Having children after the death of a child is a complicated reaction, discussed in depth in Chapter 8.6

Presently, there are support groups, such as “Compassionate Friends”, to help parents grieve their children. For families and friends dealing with the particularly cruel aspects of losing a child who was murdered, there are support groups such as “Parents of Murdered Children”. In these support groups, parents share stories of their children’s lives, the circumstances of their deaths, and their own grieving. The stories from many parents include a discussion of clues their children left behind—many seemed to have a supernatural knowledge of their impending death (even if accidental). Notes, poems, drawings, and greeting cards appear to say goodbye, indicate knowledge of life beyond death—including visions of Jesus, white lights, and bucolic scenes. Parents lament not just the absence of the child but all that came with him; his friends, his mess and sarcasm. There are many “if onlies.” as parents wonder what they could have done to prevent death or to at least make their child’s last days and months more loving.7

It is important when performing mortuary rituals that religious and cultural practice be respected, as funeral rites often have significant and symbolic meanings for the bereaved. For example, long ago the dead were buried under dirt and stone, the deeper the burial the more respected and feared the deceased. In a similar tradition, pebbles are placed on gravestones during Jewish funerals, presumably to weigh down the deceased.

Funerals are an opportunity to not grieve alone, and to share memories of the deceased. It is important to view the body, express emotions, and avoid seda- tives—it will only delay grief. Mortuary rituals, particularly in the modern world, are not for the deceased; healthy expressions of grief are essential to the well-being of survivors. For divorced families, where the non-custodial parent may not be present at the death, he or she may also miss out on memory-sharing and a support network. Someone must make it their job to allow that parent to grieve by receiving the benefit of support and time with the body.8

As noted throughout the preceding chapters, funerals have always been costly. Kubler-Ross shares the conversations that she has had with poor, young girls who must bury a stillborn baby and want to know how to they will be able to pay for a funeral. While they might be directed to associations that will assist them, they are also reminded that “the body is cocoon”. These girls are then relieved of their guilt of not being able to afford a real funeral.

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