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How We Grieve: Relearning the World

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Edvard Munch's lithograph "The Death Chamber" depicts a sick room moments after someone has died. It is the scene of his young sister's death years earlier, but the focus falls not on the deceased but rather the survivors. The furnishings are sparse with only a bed, two chairs and a small portrait on the wall in view. Six persons are captured at the moment when they absorb the first impact of the loss. A young man at the left rear faces away from the bed leaning his hand on the wall with his head bent downward.

A bearded elderly gentleman in the right center rear, next to the bed and behind a chair that holds an obscure figure, faces front with his hands folded in prayer. A middle aged woman at the right rear stands with a featureless face bent downward bracing herself on that same chair.

A young woman is seated in profile at the center front with her head bowed and her hands folded in her lap. Behind her and slightly to the left another young woman stands and stares forlornly toward the front with her hands folded in front of her. Another young man stands behind with his back to the two young women and stares blankly toward the rear of the room.

Although the room is filled with people, it seems not at all crowded. Each figure is very much alone in his or her experience of what has just happened. Each is bereaved, i.e., deprived of the presence of the one with whom they shared life but a few moments before. No one speaks. No one faces, much less approaches, another. None touch or embrace. Each is stunned and still, frozen in place and lifeless. Each is withdrawn and vulnerable, reacting in isolation. Each recoils from the death and the changed reality he or she now confronts. Each is suspended between the world as it was and as it is now, transformed utterly by the death. The absence of the one they love is palpable. Each seems at a loss as to what to do or say, how to go on from here, and especially at a loss as to what to do with the feelings he or she still has for the one who has died. None appears ready to leave the room, to face the world and life without the deceased. Yet, that is precisely what each must do. For now, the death chamber is both the scene of the event that changes the world as each experiences it and a quiet refuge from the challenges that new world presents to each. Fortunately, although no one can grieve for another, when they leave the room, none must grieve alone. They will face the world together with fellow survivors and, in interaction with them, build new patterns of living in the absence of the deceased.

Few who have ever lost another can help but be moved by Munch's treatment of the first moments after a loss. Bereavement experiences, even when expected, leave indelible memories and define some of the most important turning points in our lives. We absorb the impacts of loss within our unique life circumstances and as the individuals we are. Each of us is a subject at the center of an experience of the world that is uniquely hers or his own. Within our worlds of experience we learn to feel, behave, think, expect and hope as if those we care about will continue to live. When another dies, we remain postured in the world as we were before the death, but we can sustain that posture no longer. We are challenged to learn new ways of feeling, behaving, thinking, expecting and hoping in the aftermath of the loss. As we learn these things, we cope. Grieving, by definition, is just such coping with the challenges that bereavement presents. Grieving is what we do in response to what happens to us in bereavement.

This book contains one philosopher's reflections on grieving as the centrally important human experience it is. It grows out of some twenty years of teaching and writing about death and dying, grief and bereavement. That teaching and writing, in turn, takes root in at least that many years of careful listening to the stories of persons like those depicted in Munch's lithograph who have lost someone dear to them and struggled with how to go on living without them. The book is written for all those who, with me, wonder what going on without the deceased involves, including those who grieve as well as their families, friends, members of support groups, and professionals who wonder how to support and comfort them. Yes, it is also a book for those with theoretical and professional interests in bereavement and grieving, but it is written with the intention of reaching the broad audience I have just described.