The Art of Letting Go

Are you living fully or afraid of living?

'Death smiles at us all; all we can do is smile back.' - Marcus Aurelius

Death has been in the air as the COVID pandemic has spread throughout society, and with loss comes grief. There is no denying that we have all experienced grief in various forms and across a spectrum of experiences over the last few years.

J. William Worden, a psychologist, defines grief as "personal emotional reactions to loss." While it is common to associate grief with the death of a loved one, grief manifests itself in our lives in a variety of ways and is an invaluable ally in continuing to let go of the past so that we can move forward in a positive way.

For example, we may be mourning the routines and "norms" we had prior to the pandemic. Even though the loss is different, it still causes pain that must be acknowledged. Furthermore, some of us may have lost loved ones in recent years and are experiencing multiple forms of grief.

The fear of death and dying, also known as death anxiety, is inextricably linked to how our cultural and societal environments discuss or avoid discussing death. We can learn to cope with death anxiety more effectively by understanding our own culture's death beliefs, the beliefs of other cultures, and the emotional bonds we share with animals. Loss connects us all as human beings, and we are only now realizing that it also connects us to our mammalian friends.

Death Affirmation

Despite differences in overarching practices and language, cultures around the world express their beliefs about death in similar ways. But no one knows what happens to us after we die. This is why discussions and beliefs about what it means to die and how we talk about death differ greatly across cultures.

For example, in the United States and most other Western societies, death is frequently viewed as something to be fought or opposed. This would be considered a culture that denies the existence of death. It's as if death is the adversary to be defeated. We are all aware that the battle against death is one that none of us will ever win. But that doesn't mean it's not worth a shot. Consider Mr. Thompson's point of view.

The act of dying is fundamentally different from the act of giving up, and this distinction is critical. Many people go through their lives feeling as if they are slowly dying, whereas others treat each day as their last and live in the moment fully. Both perspectives lead to the same conclusion, but they produce very different attitudes while alive.

As humans, one of the few certainties is death. Certain cultures choose to avoid the inevitable by pushing death into a closet, whereas others see it as a natural part of the cycle of life and celebrate it.

In the United States, typical western funeral processions frequently include mourning and remembering, and most people wear black to symbolize sorrow. Every procession is unique, but there is frequently a lack of true celebratory nature, and the room is packed with people attempting to suppress their emotions. Dancing and laughing are often in short supply.

Funeral comic "deadness instead of dead"

In contrast, there are cultures that incorporate death into their annual celebrations in order to validate the reality of death. These are known as death-affirming cultures. The Mexican holiday of Dia De Los Muertos is a well-known example of a death-affirming cultural festival.

Every year on November 1st and 2nd, families gather to remember their loved ones who have passed away in a celebration of bright colors and offerings in the form of "Ofrendas," which are typically made with marigolds, Pan De Muertos, and other meaningful items of the deceased. 

It is a Latin American tradition that combines indigenous Aztecan rituals and Catholicism, and it is a day of life-affirming joy and remembrance. It is a commemoration of death as a natural part of the human experience.

Death, according to this tradition, is not an end but rather a continuation 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 lasts two days, with the first day, Dia De Los Inocentes, honoring children who have died. In remembrance, white orchids and baby's breath cover their graves.

Dia de los Muertos is a colorful celebration on the second day in which families decorate their loved ones' gravestones with bright, beautiful orange marigolds that shine like miniature suns. They spend the entire day at the graves, telling stories and sharing happy memories over food and drink.

Do Animals Grieve?

There are advantages to celebrating death in the same way that we celebrate life, rather than ignoring it. It may appear easier at first to ignore the reality of our mortality, but the things we tend to ignore cause us the most stress in the long run.

Allowing ourselves the grace to embody something other than sadness during our grief can help heal our hearts and minds in the long run. We can laugh about it. Even when we are in the depths of grief, we can dance and smile. In how other cultures confront death, there are many valuable tools for coping with grief. Surprisingly, we may also find comfort in learning that other animals also express sorrow.

Grief is a natural reaction to loss, even in animals, and researchers have discovered a distinction between grief expressed through mourning and the simple curiosity of death. Some animals are simply curious about the dead and will sniff around inquisitively. Big brain animals may exhibit grieving behaviors that are detrimental to their survival, such as refusing to eat or drink.

When a mother deer loses her fawn, she may cry for days or weeks. Dogs are well-known for their ability to grieve the loss of their human companions. They may refuse to eat or drink, become drowsy, or experience physical symptoms such as diarrhea. Some dogs will even search for their deceased owners long after they have passed away.

According to Dr. Barbara J. King, author of How Animals Grieve, humans lack the ability to express love or grief. These emotions are common in other large-brain animals as well.

Evolutionary Thanatology is a new field of study that seeks to understand the explicit evolutionary consideration of death and dying in animal and human domains. An orca calf died off the coast of Vancouver Island in August 2018, and its mother kept its body with her for 17 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

When viewed in light of their potential evolutionary purpose, these animal behaviors are fascinating. Evolutionary biologists believe that when two animals form companionship, they become accustomed to each other's presence and frequently rely on one another for activities such as feeding.

When one partner dies, the surviving partner may have to relearn routines and become accustomed to living alone. It sounds very similar to what we, as humans, must go through after a loss. The mother whale and her calf's anguish is easily recognized by any human mother.

We are animals, and more specifically, mammals. We have a more developed prefrontal cortex as humans, which allows us to assign meaning to our emotional expressions of grief. Big brain animals may not have developed the ability to verbally communicate or put meaning to their emotions, but who is to say that their grief and expressions of grief did not develop in a similar way to ours?

“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 response to such a clear separation until we learn to live differently. When we untangle the emotions that seem so heavy and add a bit of rationalization, we can sometimes gradually alleviate the pain. We can give new life to old ideas and beliefs about death, as well as alleviate our anxiety. It's critical to spend time reconsidering how we think about death.

Do we ignore death?

Do we celebrate it?

Do we fear it?

How do you feel about death and the grief that so many of us experience as a result of it?

Steve Jobs was well-known for many things, but his 2005 commencement speech, in which he addressed life and death, is regarded as legendary. It is, in fact, the most watched commencement speech in history.

Sometimes the only time we have to think about what death and grief mean to us is when we are faced with a series of devastating losses. While experiencing the raw pain of loss, it becomes difficult to form new beliefs and opinions. If you find it easy to think about these topics, there are a few things to consider about death and grief.

Grief is a strong emotion that we all feel when we lose someone or something important in our lives. Grief has been shown in studies to have an evolutionary benefit, assisting animals in surviving past experiences and preventing them from becoming extinct as a result of their pain.

According to evolutionary biologists, grief spreads not because it provides a benefit, but rather as a byproduct of having strong relationships. It's also possible that expressing grief is intended to provide us with self-comfort rather than prolong suffering. It's a blessing.

According to John Archer, a psychology professor, grief is analogous to an alarm reaction set off in our bodies by a deficit signal in our behavioral system associated with attachment. According to some, grief is the time it takes the body to mourn and heal after a loss.

If you've ever had separation anxiety as a child, or gotten lost as a child, your body produces stress hormones that cause negative feelings that go away when you're reunited with your caregivers. When we lose someone we love, our bodies go through a similar process.

“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 unavoidable aspects of existence. And when we fear death instead of respecting it, we can easily become stuck on Groundhog Day. We don't have to be afraid of death. And we can learn to accept grief. 

They are both a part of life, and they ultimately serve to teach us to appreciate the moment, our lives, and to let go along the way so that we can keep moving forward. This is something that funerals and rituals to honor a deceased person do. To remember a life well lived, to mourn, to celebrate, and to 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.