Death makes headlines. Sensational death makes sensational headlines. There is an estimated total of 4.42 million deaths in world records upto mid-Aug 2021 attributed to the Covid pandemic. But statistics on death through Covid merely created an outrage about freedom from wearing masks and refusing vaccines. The anguish and tears of grief and the grieving were drowned out in the clamour.
Death achieves highly sensational reports when there are mass public or school shootings, violent personal murders, or the shock of police or military regime killings. Even then, it has a fleeting, short-lived social register except for the targeted community, or those living with and suffering personal loss from the tragedy. Until death happens to your friend, your relative, your family or your loved one, it is just a background noise, a mind-numbing, irrelevant statistic of modern life.
For those who have the misfortune to bear it, death triggers a powerful mechanism of loss and grieving. Sometimes the tears are visible. Sometimes they are invisible, hidden in a deep but private depression. We sense it as a loss of motivation, a greying out of life, a loss of meaning, pleasure and fulfilment. We call this bereavement.
One model of processing death comes from Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying. Expanded by David Kessler, they identify key stages of grieving in human loss:
Shock – the trauma of the loss, the shattering of meaning in your world.
Denial – the person still lives on in the mind through (mostly good) memories, flashbacks or visions.
Anger – directed at the cause of the loss – what could have been done to prevent it?
Acceptance – the final admission of the factual reality of the loss.
Mourning – the exhaustion of the previous stages in a collapse into emotional grieving.
If bereavement is the shedding of tears, these key factors help us to see the different kinds of tears that take place in mourning or bereavement.
Tears of shock occur when trust, your fundamental assumptions of the world, and your personal safety feel exposed or destroyed by the death of a loved one. You realise they meant so much to you and gave your world and your life so much meaning. The tears can’t quite come out, but they are there inside you. You feel abandoned, small, emotionally paralysed and shut down. The world feels unsafe. It is replaced with a void.
Tears of denial occur during those tender and idyllic memories of special, fun, joyful or intimate moments. These memories, thoughts and feelings become so vivid and alive, it feels as if the dead person has not left you, that they are still with you in some way. You dream of all the unfulfilled future plans that you hoped were with them. These are tears of longing, creating an illusion of togetherness which no longer exists, but which your mind and emotions cannot fully let go of. Sometimes the denial is a huge effort to forget about them. But the tears go on inside.
Tears of anger erupt when you perceive that the death could have been prevented or was deeply unjust. Injustice appears to be entrenched in our world. But when it takes away a loved one, there can only be humane anger at the injustice of the loss. These are tears of anger and they can help to bring about change and reform in the cause of that particular death. But when there is no change, and there are no answers, these tears become silent tears of despair, bitterness and cynicism at the world.
Tears of acceptance are the final wearing down of time that tells you that nothing can bring your loved one back. Their death becomes a historical fact of your life, another bittersweet signpost to what was in your past, and what will no longer be. Your future will feel smaller and insignificant without them. But there can, at last, be a future, a restart, a life reset.
Tears of mourning are all of the above. They are the adjustment your brain is making at a diminished world that has lost meaning. In a strange contradiction, only when we finally let go of the lost love can we start to live life again with new meanings and new feelings.
The grieving process is not a linear progression. It does not jump neatly from one step to the next. Different factors become dominant in your mind and sometimes they overlap. It depends on what triggers you in the rich complexity of loving a person who dies. There is also no predictable time limit to when these factors will finally resolve in our hearts or our psyche.
Mourning also allows us to recall more difficult emotions to do with anger or hate when the deceased is not a loved one. This adds many layers of complexity that we will discuss elsewhere.
Knowing the tears of mourning can give us permission to understand what we are feeling and why. We can make sense of our loss and regroup for a future once more.
It is reckless, irresponsible and psychologically ignorant to demand that people who have lost their loved ones to Covid (or any other tragedy) simply demonstrate resilience and act as if there is no emotional cost to their lives. To shut down feelings is to create different psychological and emotional problems later. We know this from the mental health issues of perhaps the most resilient people society has – soldiers returning from war and the aftermath of their PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), addictions, depression, suicides, relationship breakdowns and failure to integrate into civilian life.
Give yourself or others time to grieve. But can you see the tears?
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