Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Dealing with Death When You are at Sea

His eyes were swollen and big tears rolled down his face. He would stop talking and put his head down sobbing, we felt helpless. One of the crew had gotten word that a close friend had died. He had gone out and bought a bottle of Jack Daniels in memory of her. It had been her favorite drink. Now half the bottle was gone and we had just returned to the boat after a long day on shore doing volunteer work.


I am sailing with three men and as normal they wear their emotions inside, their aggressions outside. If I make a mess, boy, I will hear about it, but god forbid them talking about feelings.

However, add some JD to the situation and everything pours out. He talked of his hopes, his disappointments, his regrets and his dreams. We drank to the memory of a woman he once loved. And listened mostly, as all those emotions exorcised their way out of his head---at least for now.

But why not. This person is in pain. Why DO we hold things in regarding death? Other cultures except expressing their pain better than we do.

What does research say? According to Encyclopedia of Death and Dying: “When an individual and family grieve within larger social narratives, larger political dynamics are in play. Society polices grief; it controls and instructs the bereaved about how to think, feel, and behave. All societies have rules about how the emotions of grief are to be displayed and handled. In some cultures, for example, those who grieve should talk to the dead, and in other cultures the name of the dead should never be spoken. Such coercion is, of course, a top-down matter. Those who do not conform to the social expectations are labeled aberrant. In contemporary psychotherapeutic culture, aberrant grief is deemed pathological. In other cultures the labels would be different—counterrevolutionary in communist cultures, sinful or idolatrous in monotheistic religions. One cross-cultural project seeks to compare the rules about the emotional expression of grief. Anthropologist Unni Wikan, for example, compared the rules in Egypt and Bali, both Islamic cultures. She found that in that in Bali, women were strongly discouraged from crying, while in Egypt women were considered abnormal if they did not incapacitate themselves in demonstrative weeping.”

In the Bible crying out and wearing ash and sack cloths are a part of culture. I’ve wanted to throw myself down at a funeral and beat my hands and feet on the floor. I’ve wanted to wail. But that would not be acceptable. I’m sure that if I would have thrown my body on top of the casket of my mother 14 years ago, I would have had friends or family take me to counseling because I was not “able to handle my emotions.” No, maybe I just needed to wail publically. Instead, privately I slipped into a 5 month depression that only after I was exhausted with loneliness, did I snap out of it.

But dealing with someone’s death while you are at sea can be harder than usual. For one, you don’t have people around you who are feeling the same way. It’s a helpless feeling.

Being away for a year combines that helpless feeling with guilt. A Scottish couple I met in the Balearics invited us over for wine one night and the wife started talking about the recent death of her mother. Her voice cracked and the pain was still fresh…could she have done more, would it have made a difference if she wasn’t away at sea?

On this year of sailing, I had only been overseas for three weeks when my Dad died. It was a distinctly different type of pain just being away, unable to return for the funeral. Then during the summer a close Aunt died. Even though I mourned both of them, I think being home soon will bring a second wave of realization that they are gone.

Besides my pain, my friends have had huge losses since I left; Lorry lost her Dad, Tara lost her Dad, Beverly lost her Mom. And I wasn’t there to be a friend.

Now, seeing my crew mate so upset reminds me of the pain death has brought. I wonder if everyone was handed a bottle of Jack at the door of a funeral, would the healing be swifter, or is that just a patch on the inevitable reality of acceptance?

Note: Sponsorship from Lorry in loving memory of her father. Rest in Peace, you have a wonderful daughter who loved you.

1 comment:

Ruth said...

Thank You Edee for this beautiful post.