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Life and death issues

Written By : SUNILA KARAN . Death hurts. Whether we are four, 34, or 84 when death strikes a loved one, it still hurts. By adulthood, most of us have
02 Oct 2010 12:00

Written By : SUNILA KARAN . Death hurts. Whether we are four, 34, or 84 when death strikes a loved one, it still hurts. By adulthood, most of us have experienced a significant loss, even if it was only the death of a beloved pet. Even when death is not striking so closely, it is there, lurking somewhere in the background as we go about the tasks of living – in the newspapers, on television, fleeting through our minds. Some psychologists argue that much of human behavior is an effort to defend against the terror of death. Yet sooner or later we all have to face the ultimate developmental task: the task of dying.
What is death? When are we most vulnerable to it, and what kills us? And why is it that all of us eventually die of “old age” if we do not die earlier? These life and death” questions serve to introduce the topic of life and death.
What is death?
There is a good deal of confusion in many societies today about when life begins and when it ends. Proponents and opponents of legalized abortion argue strongly about when life really begins. And we hear similarly heated debates about whether a person in an irreversible coma is truly alive and whether a terminally ill patient who is in agonizing pain should be kept alive with the help of a life support machine or allowed to die naturally. Definitions of death as a biological phenomenon change; so do the social meanings attached to death.
Biological death is hard to define because it is not a single event but a process. Different systems of the body die at different rates, and some individuals who have stopped breathing or lack a heart beat or pulse, and who would have been declared dead in earlier times, can now be revived before their brains stop to function. Moreover, basic bodily processes such as respiration and blood circulation can be maintained by life support machines in patients who have fallen into a coma and whose brains have ceased to function.

Social meanings of death

Death is not only a biological process but a psychological and social one. The social meanings attached to death vary widely from the historical era and from culture to culture. People everywhere die and people everywhere grieve deaths. moreover, all societies have evolved some manner of reacting to this universal experience – of interpreting its meaning, disposing of corpses, and experiencing grief. Beyond these universals, however, the similarities end.
The social meanings of death have changed over the course of history. In Europe, during the middle ages, people were expected to recognize that their deaths were approaching so that they could bid their farewells and die with dignity surrounded by loved ones. Since the late 19th century, western societies have engaged in a “denial of death”. Death has been taken out of the home and put in the hospital and funeral parlor to be managed by physicians and funeral directors. as a result, we have less direct experience with it than our ancestors did. We have made death a medical failure rather than a natural part of the life cycle.
The experience of dying also differs from culture to culture today. There are many alternatives and no single, biologically mandated grieving process. Depending on the society, “funerals are the occasion for avoiding people or holding parties, weeping or laughing, in a thousand different combinations” (Metcalf, 1991). Corpses are treated in a remarkable number of ways, too: They “are buried or burned, with or without human or animal sacrifice, they are preserved by smoking, embalming, or pickling; they are eaten – raw, cooked, or rotten; they are ritually exposed as carrion or simply abandoned; or they are dismembered and treated in a variety of different ways.” (Metcalf 1991), In some societies, there is some concept of spiritual immortality. Yet, there is much variety, from concepts of heaven and hell to the idea of reincarnation to a belief in ancestral ghosts who can meddle in the lives of the living.
Different ethnic and racial groups clearly have different rules for expressing grief. For example, it is customary for women in the Indian culture to display intense, hysterical emotions after a death. Japanese Americans, by contrast, are likely to have been taught to refrain their grief – to smile so as not to burden others with their pain and to avoid the shame associated with losing self-control.
Different ethnic and racial groups also have different mourning practices.
Irish Americans have traditionally believed that the dead deserve a good send-off, a wake with food, drink, and jokes-the kind of party the deceased might have enjoyed. African Americans tend to regard the funeral not as a time for rowdy celebration but as a forum for expressing grief, in some congregations by wailing and singing spirituals. Jewish families are even more restrained; they quietly withdraw from normal activities for a week of mourning, called the Shivah, then honor the dead again after one month and one year marks. The tradition among the Navajos is to try to forget the loved one rapidly and resume normal activities after 3 to 4 days of mourning.
In short, the experiences of dying individuals and of their survivors are shaped by the historical and culture context in which death occurs.
Death may be universal, and the tendency to react negatively to the loss of the objects of our attachment may be universal, but our specific experiences of death and dying are not. Death is truly what we make of it; there is not one “right” way to die or to grieve a death.


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