Monday, November 21, 2011

what I'm reading: hiding death and grief from Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking

Something that struck me as I read Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking was how attitudes to dying and grief have changed. Death once happened at home and touched every household, and every adult was expected to know how to deal with it; now it happens in hospitals, away from public view, and grief is something to be hidden. Joan Didion writes,

Philippe Aries...noted that beginning about 1930 there had been in most Western countries and particularly in the United States a revolution in accepted attitudes towardes death. "Death," he wrote, "so omnipresent in the past that it was familiar, would be effaced, would disappear. It would become shameful and forbidden."

The English social anthropologist Geoffrey Goer, in his 1965 Death, Grief and Mourning, had described this rejection of public mourning as a result of the increasing pressure of a new “ethical duty to enjoy oneself”, a novel “imperative to do nothing which might diminish the enjoyment of others.” In England and the United States, he observed, the contemporary trend was “to treat mourning as a morbid self-indulgence", and to give social admiration to the bereaved who "hide their grief so fully that no one would guess anything had happened.”

One way in which grief gets hidden is that death now occurs largely offstage. In the earlier tradition...the act of dying had not yet been professionalized. It did not typically involve hospitals. Women died in childbirth. Children died of fevers. Cancer was untreatable...The average adult was expected to deal competently, and also sensitively, with its aftermath. When someone dies, I was taught growing up, you bake a ham. You drop it at the house. You go to the funeral.
image is by José Goulão at flickr


Vanessa Murphy said...

I just wanted to thank you for posting twice recently on this difficult topic. I know no-one else has commented, but I've found it really useful. I held my son as he died 3 years ago and I was with my mother as she died earlier this year and I feel as if I've experienced something very unusual and there's no-one to discuss it with, because it is not discussed. Death is a part of life.

Jean said...

I'm so sorry, Vanessa. My heart goes out to you. I hope and pray you find people who you can talk about your grief with, and that God is very near.