The Art of Letting Go

Death anxiety is a natural part of life. We all will experience it at some point in time, but how we choose to react to that fear makes the difference between living an empty and unfulfilled life or overcoming death anxiety to live a full life.

Death smiles on us all. All a man can do is smile back. - Maximus

With the COVID pandemic moving through society, death has been in the air, and with loss comes grief. There is no denying that, over the past few years, we have all experienced grief through various forms and a spectrum of experiences. 

Psychologist J. William Worden defines grief as the personal emotional reactions following a loss. While it is common to associate grief with the loss of a loved one via death, grief shows up in our lives in many ways and is a tremendous ally to keep letting go of the past, so that we can keep moving forward in a good way.

For instance, we might be grieving the routines and "norms" we had before the pandemic. Though the loss is different, it still evokes pain that requires acknowledgement. Additionally, some of us may have also lost loved ones over these past few years and are riding the waves of multiple forms of grief.

The fear of death and dying, also known as death anxiety, is tightly connected to how our cultural and societal environments discuss or avoid talking about death. We can learn ways to better cope with death anxiety by understanding our own culture's death beliefs, the beliefs of other cultures, and the emotional commonality we share with animals. Experiencing loss connects us all as human beings, and we are beginning to understand that it also connects us to our mammalian friends.

💀 Death Affirmation

Across the globe, cultures express beliefs about death in similar ways despite a difference in overarching practices and language. But, no one actually knows what happens to us when we die. This is why discussions and beliefs around what it means to die and how we talk about death are very different from one culture to the next. 

For example, in the US and most other western societies, death is often seen as something to fight or resist. This would be considered death-denying culture. It's as if death is the enemy to victor over. We all know that the fight against death is one battle none of us will ever win. But it doesn't mean its not worth trying. Take Mr. Thompson's perspective for example.

The act of dying is radically different from the act of giving up, and this an important distinction. Many people go on thoughout their lives feeling like they are slowly dying, while others see every day as their last and embrace the moment fully. Both perspective lead to the same conclusion, but result in very different attitudes while alive. 

Death is one of the few truths we have as humans. Certain cultures choose to cope with the inevitable utilizing an avoidant approach and push death into a closet while others see it as a part of the cycle of life and celebrate.

In the United States, typical western funeral processions often mourning, remembering, and most wear the color black to illustrate sorrow. Every procession is different, but there often lacks a true celebratory nature, and the room is filled will people attempting to suppress their emotions. Dancing and laughing are often few and far between.

Funeral comic

In contrast, you have cultures that incorporate death into their yearly celebrations as a way to affirm the reality of death. These cultures are known as death-affirming. A well-known example of a death-affirming cultural festival is the Mexican holiday of Dia De Los Muertos. 

Every year, on November 1st and 2nd, families gather to commemorate their passed loved ones in a celebration of vivid colors and offerings in the form of "Ofrendas," usually made with marigolds, Pan De Muertos, and other meaningful items of the deceased. It is a day of life-affirming joy and remembrance and a Latin American tradition that combines indigenous Aztecan rituals and Catholicism. It is an event that recognizes death as a natural part of the human experience. 

Int this tradition, death isn't an end but rather a continuum of birth. The dead become part of the community again as they rise from their sleep and join the celebrations with their loved ones. The event spans two days, and the first day, known as Dia De Los Inocentes, honors children that have died. White orchids and baby's breath cover their graves in remembrance.

On the second day, Dia de Los Muertos is a colorful celebration where families decorate their loved ones' gravestones with bright, beautiful orange marigolds, beaming like miniature suns. They stay at the graves all day long, telling stories and sharing happy memories over food and drink.

Animals Grieve Too

There are benefits to celebrating death the way we celebrate life rather than choosing to ignore it. It may seem easier at the beginning to ignore the reality of our mortality, but in the long run, the things we tend to ignore cause us the most stress. 

Allowing ourselves the grace to embody something other than sadness during our grief can ultimately help heal our hearts and minds. We can laugh. We can dance and smile even when we are in the depths of our sadness. There are many valuable tools to cope with grief in how other cultures confront death head-on. Surprisingly, we may also find comfort in learning that other animals also express sorrow.

Grief is a natural response to loss, even for animals, and researchers have shown a difference between grief through mourning and simple curiosity of death. Some animals are seen to be simply curious of the dead and may sniff around inquisitively. Big brain animals sometimes express grieving behaviors that are counterproductive to their survival, such as refusing to eat or drink. 

For example, when a mother deer loses her fawn, she may cry for days or weeks. Dogs are particularly well-known for their ability to mourn the death of their human companion. They may refuse to eat or drink, become lethargic, and even suffer from physical symptoms such as diarrhea. Some dogs will even search for their deceased owner long after they've died.

Dr. Barbara J King, author of How Animals Grieve, believes that humans don't own the ability to express love or grief. These emotions are widespread in other big-brain animals as well. 

Evolutionary Thanatology is a newly developing area of study on understanding the explicit evolutionary consideration of death and dying across animal and human domains. In August 2018, an orca calf died off the coast of Vancouver Island, and its mother kept its corpse with her for 17 consistent days. 

J-35 Orca Whale

In this photo, taken Saturday and released by the Center for Whale Research, an orca known as J-35 (foreground) swims with podmates near Friday Harbor, Wash. Center for Whale Research via AP

These animal behaviors are fascinating when viewing them with their potential evolutionary purpose in mind. Evolutionary biologists believe that when two animals grow a companionship, they become used to one another's presence and often rely on each other for activities such as feeding.

When one dies, the survived partner might have to relearn routines and get used to living alone. It sounds very similar to what we, as humans, must endure following a loss as well. As for the mother whale and her calf, her grief is easily recognizable by any human mother.

We are animals and mammals, to be more specific. As humans, we have a more developed prefrontal cortex, which allows us to place meaning in our emotional expressions of grief. Big brain animals may not have developed the ability to communicate or put meaning to their emotions verbally, but who is to say their grief and expressions of grief have not developed in a similar way to us?

“Life is for the living. Death is for the dead. Let life be like music. And death a note unsaid”

Langston Hughes

Revisiting our Beliefs

Grief is the biological reaction to such a definite separation until we learn to live life differently. Sometimes when we untangle the emotions that seem so heavy and add a bit of rationalization, we can slowly alleviate the pain. We can breathe fresh life into old thoughts and death-related beliefs and soothe our anxiety. It's essential to spend time revisiting the way we think of death.

Do we ignore death?

Do we celebrate it?

Do we fear it?

How do you feel about death and the grief we often express because of it?

Steve Jobs was famous for many things, but his 2005 commencement speech in which he tackles life and death is considered legendary. In fact, it is the most watched commencement speech ever. Have a look.

Sometimes, the only moments we spend pondering what death and grief mean to us are following circumstances of intense losses. It becomes difficult to form new beliefs and opinions while enduring the raw pain of loss. If you find yourself able to think about these topics without too much trouble, there are a few points to consider about death and grief.

Grief is a powerful emotion that we as humans experience after losing someone or something significant. Studies have shown that grief has an evolutionary benefit, which helps animals survive past experiences and aid them from becoming extinct due to their pain.

Evolutionary biologists believe that grief passes on not because it provides benefit, but instead it is a side effect of having solid relationships. It's also possible that expressing grief isn't meant to prolong suffering but rather provide us with self-comfort. It's a gift.

Psychology professor, John Archer, shared that grief is analogous to an alarm reaction set off in our bodies by a deficit signal in our behavioral system associated with attachment. There are suggestions that grief is the time it takes the body to mourn and repair after a loss.

If you've ever had separate anxiety as a child, or if you've gotten lost as a child, the body creates stress hormones that lead to bad feelings which go away when reunited with our caregivers. A similar thing happens to our bodies as adults when we lose someone we love.

“The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?”

Edgar Allen Poe

Conclusion

Life and death are a natural part of life. And when we fear death, rather than respect it, we can easily get stuck in groundhog day. We don't have to fear death. And we can embrace grief. The are both a part o life, and ultimately serve us to appreciate the moment, appreciate our lives, and let go along the way so we can keep moving forward. This is something that funerals and rituals to honor someone passing serve. To honor a life well lived, grieve, celebrate, and keep moving forward.

References

Cardoza, K.. (2021). The Importance Of Mourning Losses (Even When They Seem Small). NPR.
Cormier, Z.. (2021). The truth about animal grief . BBC Earth.
Gire, J. . (2014). How Death Imitates Life: Cultural Influences on Conceptions of Death and Dying. Online Readings In Psychology And Culture, 6(2). .
Ingram, S.. (2021). 5 Festivals That Celebrate the Dead Around the World. National Geographic.
King, B.. (2021). When Animals Mourn: Seeing That Grief Is Not Uniquely Human. NPR.
Krystyna, K.. (2021). Guide to Death & Dying in Different Cultures All Over the World. Cake.
Waters, H. . (2021). The Evolution of Grief, Both Biological and Cultural, in the 21st Century. Scientific American.
Yoeman, B.. (2021). When Animals Grieve. National Wildlife Foundation.