Bereavement - does it have to be so painful?
Remember the scene in Four Weddings and a Funeral, when Matthew, played by John Hannah, reads out W H Auden’s poem ‘Funeral Blues’ in memory of his lover Gareth (Simon Callow)? As they bury Gareth, Matthew reads the lines that must strike a poignant chord with everyone who’s ever lost a loved one:
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with the juicy bone.
Silence the pianos and, with muffled drum,
Bring out the coffin. Let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead,
Scribbling in the sky the message: "He is dead!"
Put crepe bows around the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my north, my south, my east and west,
My working week and Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song.
I thought that love would last forever; I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one.
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can come to any good.
The pain is palpable. Matthew’s beloved friend and lover is gone and life no longer has any meaning. Even the universe is pointless; all is meaningless: ‘Nothing now can come to any good.’
What Matthew is voicing, as terrible as they are, are the feelings of ‘normal’ loss. And when someone expresses these kinds of emotions, we don’t think there’s anything wrong with them. On the contrary, we know – or imagine we do – exactly what they’re going through. And we know that, given enough time, they’ll pull through.
At other times, however, bereavement results not only in the pain of loss, but brings with it other, more confusing feelings. We may feel guilty. We may feel that we are somehow to blame. We may feel bad about ourselves. So why should this be?
Writers and therapists have long wrestled with this subject. Freud (1907) was one of the first to point out how similar some cases of depression (or melancholia, as he called it) can be to instances of mourning. As he and others have pointed out, depression results when we feel ambivalent – or have unacknowledged mixed feelings – towards the person who has died. The people we often find hardest to mourn are those with whom we have had the most complex and troubled relationships – the opposite of John Hannah’s character in Four Weddings, who loved Gareth wholeheartedly. It’s this lack of ambivalence which enables him to go through the normal process of mourning. And, by the end of the film, he’s let Gareth go and has formed another relationship.
For those whose mourning is more complex and troubling, it can be helpful to find a professional with whom to talk and with whom, in a safe and non-judgmental environment, you can explore some of the more hidden feelings about the person you’ve lost. Once this begins to happen, ‘normal’ mourning can begin, which will enable the depression to lift.
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