A woman was killed in a violent terrorist attack in El Paso, Texas where she went shopping in a mall decorated with back-to-school sales, families with kids and hope in the air. The air would soon fill with the acrid smell of a military weapon discharge, spraying the crowds. The killer looked for victims of Hispanic heritage, but his bullets found targets of every nationality. Bullets have no mission other than to maim and kill, and they did their job with dreadful accuracy.
The killer would, hours later, peacefully surrender, thinking himself a victor and leaving death in his wake. Such an irony that the term “wake” could have a meaning far divorced from a peaceful ride on a body of water. This metaphoric wake would wash over not only El Paso, but the world.
After the sirens, the police, the running for cover and the ambulances racing to hospitals to save lives there would be things left to do; burying the dead, the mourning and the wake.
Antonio Basco had no relatives in the area and worried that his wife, in her casket, would have no one but him to grieve her loss. Unexpectedly, he asked the funeral home to place a notice in the local paper indicating that all were welcome to her viewing.
As he waited for the day of the funeral, he made it his mission to purchase floral bouquets each day, which he took to a memorial for the victims of the mass shooting in El Paso. The bouquets were memorials.
The funeral home, which had never received a request for mourners who were not related or neighbors of the deceased, was inundated with 10,000 messages and 900 floral bouquets. The flowers and the messages came not only from towns, the state, the United States but the world. The world saw his loss and the loss of the others as a loss for all of us. The famous John Donne poem struck a note in the hearts of those who understood its meaning:
For Whom the Bell Tolls
By John Donne
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
The love of Mr. Basco’s life would not go alone into that good night. A community of strangers would go with her to her grave; strangers who reached out in a show of community few have seen before.
Honoring the Notable Dead
Flowers are a traditional way to honor the dead and to show respect for life. The sudden loss of life that has sent a note around the world. Two funerals stand out in dramatic contrast to the thousands of others where people mourn in unknown towns for unknown places. How many die alone each day; we don’t know.
No flowers were sent to the funeral of President John F Kennedy who was assassinated in the United States in 1963. But the mourning and its effects were seen by all. Famed newsman Walter Cronkite wiped his eyes on the camera, people hugged each other in the street and for a weekend New York City was in mourning. Over 250,00 people would view that closed casket in the D.C. Capitol Rotunda where military guards stood watch and two small children said their good-byes in public view.
Tens of thousands of sympathy cards arrived at Jacqueline Kennedy’s home. She, holding to tradition, sent notes to each of those who had expressed their grief for her loss.
“Historian Ellen Fitzpatrick whittled the collection (of condolence) down to 240 for her book Letters to Jackie: Condolences From a Grieving Nation, released in the U.S. last week.
“What was really striking was the diversity of the letter writers,” she said in an interview. “[They] range in age from a seven-year-old to a 99-year-old man who had lived through the assassinations of all three presidents,” she said, referring to Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley.
“Boxes of letters from people from other nations, including Canadians, still sit in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, she says, but these were not included in the book.”
When Princess Diana of England was killed suddenly in a car crash in Paris in 1997, the shock reverberated around the world, too. Singer Elton John was moved to change his “Candle in the Wind” (a tribute to Marilyn Monroe) into “Goodbye, England’s Rose” for the princess. The record sold 33 million copies.
The gates of Princess Diana’s home began to swell with thousands of flowers brought by mourners. They were touched by the woman who went into the fields where there were landmines, held sick babies in her arms and expressed concern for the health of the children. The televised burial was no less traumatizing than that of President Kennedy.
How We Mourn
Flowers always come to mind for memorials to the dead, but not all mourning is left to floral arrangements as the final tribute. For some, funerals are a celebration of life. The writer Hunter Thompson intended that he would make a splash with his ashes shot from a canon.
Traditional funerals in New Orleans and elsewhere are events combining music, song, food, and stories of the person’s life whether of their good or not-so-good deeds. It is a going away or “going home” celebration.
In Ireland, it was traditional to hold a fun-filled wake, often with the corpse in attendance, and where paid mourners would wail (keen). “Women were paid — not much, often not even money, just a glass of whiskey, say, or some snuff or dinner — for doing keening.” The practice was frowned on by religious officials as well as those who wished to rid themselves of out-of-date traditions that weren’t “modern” enough and keening died off.
One of the native tribes of the United States, the Lakota, have a funeral tradition involving practiced rituals. The anthropologist, Kathleen Ratteree, who studied their customs when she lived among the Oglala Lakota, also known as the Sioux. “In general, during the time of mourning, grief is expressed through crying, singing, wailing, cutting of hair, and cutting one’s body. In all ceremonies, drugs and alcohol are strictly forbidden. Menstruating or “mooning” women are also prohibited from the ceremonial grounds and sweat lodges.”
Bowlby’s Four Stages of Grief
Grief is a normal response to the loss of something or someone who has special meaning and for whom we have a feeling of love. It is also our way of relieving ourselves of some of the stress associated with our loss. There are those who will say that there is a time for grief and mourning, and then it must end. But this shouldn’t be the case.
Mourning and grieving are a personal choice. However, it is not anticipated that it will last for one’s entire lifetime. When I was a child, we lived in an ethnically diverse neighborhood. When a woman’s husband died, she was expected to wear only black for the rest of her life to signal to all that she was in mourning. For her, grief was for the rest of her life, but that’s not as it should be for us. Lives are to be lived and death is a part of that life.
Psychologists want to quantify and set things into discrete patterns. The British psychologist John Bowlby (who died in 1990), originally studied attachment in children and how they were affected when that attachment was severed in any way or was of a type considered to be abnormal. Wishing to provide some guidance regarding the mourning and grieving process, Bowlby came up with four phases of grief theory.
The phases, as he envisioned them, were:
Phase 1: Shock and Numbness, where there is a sense of loss and great difficulty in accepting that loss. The person may undergo several physical and mental changes when hit with this shock, and they may respond with depression or anxiety, primarily.
Phase 2: Yearning and Searching the future seems almost impossible without that person at our side, supporting us and providing the love we crave. The void is apparent and, in a sense, it feels as though we will never be able to fill it. We are preoccupied with them, and this is the time when we may wish to make that phone call that is no longer possible. Dialing the number will do no good because they are no longer there and never will be. Reminders may be all around us, and memories are sparked by the things that we see that connect to them. This stage must be one of progression or, Bowlby indicated, we will remain a victim of that void. He didn’t use the word “victim,” but I believe we can think of it in terms of self-victimization if we subscribe to Bowlby’s theory.
Phase 3: Despair and Disorganization where there is an acceptance that what was will no longer be and there is a sense of hopelessness, despair and anxiety with questioning. Who hasn’t questioned why something such as death has taken place? No doubt all, if not most of us, have experienced that when someone we loved died. Didn’t Kubler-Ross tell us there were stages of death and dying? The stages, however, are highly controversial and not everyone believes her research was as robust or ethical as she claimed.
Phase 4: Reorganization and Recovery was a recovery period where the individual will attempt to reconstruct their life in terms of their goals and what they do in their everyday activities. Bowlby indicated this is a time when trust; however, he categorized that, is restored. However, grief that was felt is still there although he contended that it was not always evident even to the grieving person. In this regard, he retained some of the Freudian theory of the unconscious.
Life and Death, Heaven & Hell
The lifecycle is not a journey down the “Yellow Brick Road” but one where the road will turn unexpectedly, boulders will be placed in our way. If you are a religious person, you will ask for guidance and understanding.
It is interesting to note that in one of her books, Elaine Pagels talks of the utility of religion, the death of her son and how the devil was created as a real or imagined creature of evil with which we must contend.
Religion or religious study for Pagels opened her life to recovery after the death of her son. Her study of the ancient languages indicated that there might have been a misinterpretation of one of the ancient languages and “devil” was meant to be an impediment. If we think of it in this way, the future will have the barriers of death and loss, and we will find ways around them, even if we cannot move some of them.
Living life is ours, and remembering those who have gone is also ours. Use your time wisely, remember wisely, and you will be fine.