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Language, Spirit & Bereavement

I noticed something about how bereavement and language can enter into a very complex and destructive circuit if one is not very careful.

This is a practical thing and has really nothing to do with whether one believes in an afterlife, or in simple switch off upon death.

If ever anyone has been in the presence of a person or an animal dying, the actual difference between the before and after state is quite breathtaking. It is an extraordinary thing as movement, and life, leaves the body.

Before, there was a living being with memories, thoughts, actions of all kinds; after, there is this immense stillness as all of these processes have ceased.

Something that was there before has gone and is no longer there - life, spirit, animus, whatever you want to call it.

Now the problem in languaging and subsequent processing arises when this clear distinction between, let's say, Peter (body plus all processes of life in action) and Peter (Peter's body minus processes of Peter's life) is not being made.

For example, in content and processing, there is the world of difference between these two sentences:

1. Peter's body is buried in the graveyard.


2. Peter is buried in the graveyard.

No. 2 is a veritable nightmare scenario of internal representations of all kinds, all of which are in essence "Korzybskian insanities" as there is no such person 6 foot under in the cold dark earth but indeed, only that person's *body*.

It also leads from this original set up, namely that Peter is in the graveyard, to all manner of thoughts, feelings and behaviours that are logically calculated from this faulty entrance point, such as:

- I can visit Peter in the graveyard;
- Peter likes it when the sun shines on his grave;
- I talk to Peter when I visit him;
- It's good to know where Peter is;
- I couldn't possibly move to another town and leave Peter behind;

... and so on and so on.

These things really aren't healthy (I was told of a case where the mother of a child who had died had endless nightmares about the child crying in the lonely grave and when she could not afford to maintain the memorial because of financial problems, had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalised as a result).

Now I'm not saying that the case above could have been solved entirely by the correct languaging of the processes of death and bereavement, but I am pretty convinced that it would have helped to be clear about the distinction between person plus body, and body minus person.

Sometimes it is held that to language wrongfully in this way ("Every Sunday I go talk to Peter and bring him his favourite flowers...") is a protection against bereavement pain, but that's not actually the case.

Natural bereavement processes have a chance to heal if they are allowed to go through their stages smoothly and are not being de-railed into vicious circles from which there is no escape.

It is actually not as easy as it seems to not fall into the old languaging traps of "I'm going to Peter's burial ..." which should be, "I am going to Peter's body's burial ...", "Peter was cremated ..." which is, "Peter's body was cremated ..." and many similar markers for this particular circumstance.

But with a bit of conscious effort, it gets easier, better and it is extraordinary how then the emotions follow suit.

And that's even without an afterlife.

Silvia Hartmann, 2004


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