The work of mourning

Image of Harry Eyres

As a culture – I suppose I am talking about the prevailing techno-rational-utilitarian culture which has spread all over the west, and beyond – we are very good at many things. We are brilliant at designing new gadgets, some of ephemeral value, but others of marvellous utility in say, medicine (keyhole surgery), or astronomy (the Hubble space telescope). We have defeated smallpox and polio and increased life expectancy, even if we have not found the secret of eternal youth; we have brought London as close to Tokyo as it was in the 19th century to Dover. But one thing we are not good at is mourning.

In the four months since my father died I have felt this quite acutely. The prevailing way of “dealing with” such an event seems to be go into managerial overdrive – and there is of course a certain amount of purely administrative work to be done. I shall not quickly forget the cold December day when I went to register my father’s death (as perhaps he had registered my birth) at a council office. Managerialism has its uses; but it is a distraction from a deeper and more painful, though also strangely more valuable, kind of work – what Freud called “the work of mourning”.

Of course, not all responses were managerial. Many people sent wonderful handwritten letters of condolence – confirming my hunch that email is not the answer to everything. But if not within “a little month”, as Hamlet bitterly complained about the forgetting of his father’s death, then within two or three months, the sense was that my father’s death was a thing of the past, and would not be mentioned much any more: that, in the great modern mantra, it was time to “move on”.

My instinct was all against this. In some ways, after the initial numbing and flurry of activity, I find one feels the loss more keenly. And as the year revolves in the first 12 months after a death, one cannot help being reminded of our loved person’s absence at every turn. The first Christmas without him, the first New Year (he so much enjoyed the – in my view – rather kitschy New Year’s day concert from Vienna), the first stirrings of spring, the tentative coming into leaf of the copper beech tree that he loved; the first of his posthumous birthdays. Walking into the wine-store at my parents’ house, I found his German homework book and still expected to see him slightly stooped over a case of Mosel, as he prepared a spring offer. When I manage to parallel park successfully, I hear his voice saying “well done”, which I think were also the last words he said to me.

Maybe this is the reason that in traditional Jewish culture – and maybe other cultures I’m less aware of – a full year is prescribed for mourning. I was speaking to an observant Jewish friend about three weeks after my father died, and she described to me the rituals and formality of Jewish mourning: the week of intense mourning (aninut), during which mourners receive a steady stream of visitors, paying what are called shiva calls; the month of shloshim, the year of saying kaddish.

In traditional cultures mourning is more intense, more ritualised and more public than it is in our ritual-shy one. Such expressions of grief as keening and rending of garments appear over-the-top and almost embarrassing to us. The Jewish custom of not washing during the week of aninut and sitting on low stools or on the floor might seem repugnant. But there is value both in ritual, containing feelings which can otherwise either feel almost unbearable, or become chaotically dispersed, and in the public expression or visible signs of mourning.

Traditionally in Chinese cultures a piece of hemp is worn by a mourner; this is helpful in showing publicly that this person is in a different mental space, and may need more gentle handling.

Mourning, from a strictly techno-rational perspective, appears pointless, or at least unproductive. It could be seen as a throwback to an earlier time of superstitious belief in the afterlife. But you don’t need to be believe in a literal afterlife to feel that a lost person needs remembering. Freud, in his great paper “Mourning and Melancholia”, acknowledged not only the necessity of “normal” mourning (as opposed to pathological melancholia) but also that it constituted a “work”, a time-consuming process of revisiting emotional connections with the lost person.

Maybe I’m stuck, and haven’t moved on. But I can’t help wondering what “moving on” really means, or whether people who are constantly moving on ever arrive at any significant place. I suspect that moving on partly means turning one’s back on what is painful or unbearable. TS Eliot speaks words which are also applicable to mourning, when near the conclusion of the journey of the “Four Quartets” he says that “the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.”

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