Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Beyond the good and the bad

On the pilot episode of Six Feet Under, the Fisher family's patriarch is killed on Christmas Eve in a car accident on his way to the airport to pick up his oldest son, Nate, who has come home for Christmas from Seattle for the first time in 5 years. This begins the trajectory of the show, as Nate is posited, basically, as the prodigal son who years ago ran away from the family funeral home business, but who gets (arguably unwittingly) sucked into it, and thus the storyline begins.

That first pilot episode deals largely with grieving, and how various cultures (and individual people) grapple with it. Nate is enraged at his own father's funeral at what he considers the "sanitization" of grief, of overwhelming, unbearable, soul-crushing grief. He is disgusted by his family's business, of the way the modern funeral industry tries to "hide" the grieving widows or other family members, if they get too "out of control" by whisking them away into a private room to sob out their tears in private. He hates how composed everyone is expected to remain at funerals, and while standing over his own father's grave, begins to throw dirt into it and curses him for being absent and screams at him for all the anger and resentment he feels. The guests look on horrified, as does Nate's uptight younger brother David, but their mother, Ruth, gets the message and collapses on her knees over the coffin, and begins sobbing uncontrollably, while herself throwing wads of dirt on top of the coffin. David is humiliated and tries to stop her, but Nate stops him and encourages her. Nate later tells David a story about how when he was in Sicily he witnessed a funeral procession of an old man whose widow and children literally fell over themselves on top of the coffin, screaming to Heaven and cursing God, and how it was the only sincere form of grieving he'd ever witnessed.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was a Swiss psychiatrist who studied grief and the phases of it, and found in the people she studied a pattern (which is familiar to anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of psychology): Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and finally, Acceptance. She never claimed that they all happened consecutively, and in an orderly manner, but people often waffle back and forth between stages for long periods of time, sometimes years, and frequently get stuck in various stages. But overall, according to her, a healthy, normal grieving phase followed these patterns.

While still being respectful of her great accomplishments in the study of how people grieve, and ultimately come to terms with their own mortality, most modern therapists agree that the grieving process is far too individual, personal, and culturally-based to fall into such a tidy process.

Most mental illness has at its root a sense of intense loss, whether it's a metaphoric loss or a physical loss, if not a severe trauma of some kind, but usually goes unnoticed over many years.

The British developmental psychologist John Bowlby posited things a slightly different way: he outlined various processes and psychophysiological components to grief such as Shock and Numbness, Yearning and Searching, Disorganization and Disrepair, and then Reorganization.

I've done a lot of thinking about grief in the past year or so, and what exactly it means to feel, or not feel, grief, and what grief even means to people. Once you've felt it intensely, do you ever really stop, or does it just become absorbed into you, and become a part of who you are? In the area of severe trauma, particularly, I've been interested in how people feel things and continue trying to live a "normal" life, and if it's even possible. Collier and I were discussing this at one point last year, and she suggested that people who have suffered tremendous loss in their lives maybe just have a different idea of what constitutes happiness and making things manageable. I guess that makes sense to me. I mean, everybody has a different idea of that stuff, so it would serve to reason that especially people who have been through unspeakable things would have a radically different take on life and "getting by" than someone who has not been through something horribly tragic. How is it that emotions sometimes feel like they can kill us? And why is it that they don't? Somehow, someway, the human spirit just keeps on keeping on. Here is an interesting response to that sort of enquiry anyway. Which, after having done some research, is not far off from how most major psychologists view life after grief. Probably the one that makes the most sense to me (which is touched on in the letter) comes from Miriam Greenspan, who said that when you're feeling like an emotion is going to kill you (I'm paraphrasing here), just imagine that you are an animal. Animals don't analyze, or philosophize, or even try to get rid of pain, because, obviously, they are animals and don't have the mental cognizance to do so. What they do, as animals, is just feel it. That's the only choice they have! They can't even intentionally run in front of a car or stick their head in the oven, because they don't know to. They just have to feel it through, without even a slightly numbing glass of red wine, and certainly without any Xanax. How tragic, I agree, but that's what they have to do. And to my knowledge, no animal has ever died from grief.

Though I do remember as a child, I had two dogs, and one of them had to be put to sleep, and for almost a week afterwards, the surviving dog did nothing but sleep behind a big chair in our living room, crammed up against a wall, not even coming out to eat. That made a very big impression on me as a child.

Tonight it's raining and cold, and my heart is heavy and my head is full of so many things. But at least I've got a nice new bottle of red wine to help me sleep a little better.

From the "Mystic Odes of Rumi," via season 5 of Six Feet Under:

Our death is our wedding with eternity.
What is the secret? "God is One."
The sunlight splits when entering the windows of the house.
This multiplicity exists in the cluster of grapes;
It is not in the juice made from the grapes.
For he who is living in the Light of God,
The death of the carnal soul is a blessing.
Regarding him, say neither bad nor good,
For he is gone beyond the good and the bad.
Fix your eyes on God and do not talk about what is invisible,
So that he may place another look in your eyes.
It is in the vision of the physical eyes
That no invisible or secret thing exists.
But when the eye is turned toward the Light of God
What thing could remain hidden under such a Light?
Although all lights emanate from the Divine Light
Don't call all these lights "the Light of God";
It is the eternal light which is the Light of God,
The ephemeral light is an attribute of the body and the flesh.

...Oh God who gives the grace of vision!
The bird of vision is flying towards You with the wings of desire.

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