Sylvia is from Eastern Europe. She cares for her young children, is working on a graduate degree, and is in her thirties. I asked her about the customs of mourning in her country and in her family of origin, and we explored how her perspective has changed since she came to the United States seven years ago. Her story emphasizes the connection between attitudes about death and one's religious views.
There have been dramatic changes not only in Syvia's worldview,
but also in her culture, as the 'walls' have come down, especially around
repression of religion. Sylvia told me that in her school, they were
drilled to think that there is no God. A typical method was to imagine
God as an old man sitting in the clouds, bestowing rewards or punishment
on people according to their behavior, which seemed an unbelievable image.
She was taught that religion is superstition, and consequently, that you
die, and that's it. Her mother and father are from different religious backgrounds, but she remembers that they acted like atheists. Part of the reason for disavowing religious belief, besides government repression, was that the extended families didn't like each other. The older generations (her grandparents) had religious beliefs that led them to be intolerant of other viewpoints. Because the families couldn't accept one another (this type of mixed marriage was uncommon at that time) her parents thought it would be better not to discuss religion at all. The school drills ridiculing religious superstition reinforced this attitude.
In her youth, Sylvia was sometimes terrified that she would die in her sleep. Her grandfather died when she was seven, and she remembers that he got sick, and then at some point she heard that he died. She didn't go to the funeral, and her parents and teachers never discussed dying. Later, her uncle had cancer. Sylvia prayed for him to get well, but he died. She did go to that funeral and described the religious rituals a bit. There was an open casket, and everyone was crying. (Afterward she knew it was a relief, as her uncle had suffered a lot.) She remembers a beautiful ritual service in a chapel at the cemetery, and another service at the graveside. Then there was a feast in honor of the one who died.
Other customs were that the bodies were made to look nice, were dressed nicely, and people would build a nice cross, or bring flowers as ways of commemoration. People would tell stories of dreaming of the dead, and would interpret the dream. This was seen as not religion, but superstition, yet it was accepted more easily than religion would have been. People were scared to talk about religion - there was officially no god - and their personal spiritual search was suppressed by fear.
There was another ritual of going back to the grave after a certain number of days to commemorate the death. Then there would be another feast, and people would talk about the dead person. A plate of food was given to each person, and veryone would keep the plate -- usually a really good piece that would honor the dead.
Sylvia remembers that all her life she has been grieving about being disconnected from God. She has felt a loss in not knowing who she is or where she came from - the important meanings that she yearned to know. She was told that she shouldn't go to funerals, because she would feel sad. He mother emphasized this point especially when Sylvia was nursing her babies. Yet, Sylvia WAS very sad, and scared in her youth. Besides being afraid to sleep, she heard horror stories of people buried when they weren't really dead. Her parents tried to shield her, but she believes this made her fear worse.
Sylvia remembers that when her sister died, her mother didn't want to talk about it, though she seemed sad. Sylvia was sad also. They went to church together, lit a candle to her sister's memory, and cried together. Her uncle and grandmother died after she moved to this country, and Sylvia didn't feel good that she was far from her family at those times. Because death is part of family life in her view, she felt bad not being there.
An example of family and cultural dynamics that have affected how her relatives mourn are that her mother thinks it is better not to make her children feel sad by talking about death. Individuals tend to "overly identify" with their jobs and everyday struggles, thinking it is a waste of time to dwell on thoughts about death. This bothers Sylvia, who believes that it is important to talk about death and life, and to celebrate how the person who died achieved some purpose in his life by loving, by helping other people, by finding a meaning in their life path, and by reaching a higher understanding through their life experiences. She believes that a healthy life that includes mourning and a celebration of life was missing in her home.
Sylvia's view of healthy commemoration of the deceased would include the celebration of achievement and how much they loved, as well as prayers for issues left unresolved. Sylvia has prayed that sometime she would have a chance to talk about these things with her mother, instead of them both being busy with practical concerns, like what they should do, running around to learn and to do a job, always being busy with something, thinking the other didn't want to discuss it.
Here in the U.S., Sylvia sees that television makes almost a joke about death by persistently showing so much violence. She explains to her children that life is precious and important, and they shouldn't believe the TV. She wants them to respect life, and she conveys to them a belief in God and heaven. She is not scared anymore.
Sylvia thinks it is very unhealthy to go through the process of grief all by herself. She believes she needs time alone with God, but that other people keep her grounded and help her heal. Sharing with supportive others "helps you really deal with the stuff you go through, and also to heal on a deeper level." Being alone can open one to despair, or lead to unhealthy behavior, like bottling up grief, "pushing it somewhere in a place you can forget about." In a country where religion is a matter that needs to be avoided, or reduced to a limited number of rituals, individuals may feel they cannot find something to believe in. Sylvia believes that death can help people put their lives in perspective, driving them to find a deeper meaning for their lives and the lives of those who passed away. "People should help each other to rebuild their lives with a renewed sense of gratitude for the wonderful gift of life."
She feels that she was left to choose her spiritual ideals for herself, and that she did. In this country she began reading and slowly came to a spiritual practice that helped her. She finally had the opportunity to read directly from the Bible, and she poured over many spiritual books. She is fascinated by the scholarly work that explores the reconciliation of science and religion, especially the suggestions of a creator of the universe and the image of a "mind-body-soul" human being, as opposed to the "body with a brain" human she learned about in her youth. She is also intrigued by the topics of near-death experiences, reincarnation, and the healing power of touch and prayer.
Sylvia now sees life as a process, with birth and death as portals. It is important to her to respect these portals, to talk about and honor death. Though her commitments to learning and her family sometimes conflict with her spiritual search, her priority now is that her spiritual awareness is a layer underneath every part of her life - that it motivates her, and leads her to what she is doing in her life.