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One Individual’s Perceptions of Grieving and Death, Interview Example

Pages: 4

Words: 1028

Interview

With regard to exploring how dying, death, and bereavement both alter as rituals over time and are perceived by an individual of advanced age, I conducted an interview with an elderly woman of my community.  Having encountered this woman several times at the library, and encouraged by her friendly demeanor, I inquired if she would consent to this, and not be offended by the subject matter.  She complied, and we established the following afternoon and the lounge area outside of the library as place and time.  The interview’s duration was approximately one hour, and my subject was a widow aged 77.

To begin with, I asked the woman, called here Ms X, what she recalled from her youth as to family members passing on and any processes of grief.  Ms X remembered very vividly the death of her mother’s father when she herself was seven years old.  In recalling the time, she emphasized that her family’s Italian background was a powerful factor in how all the stages of this death were addressed.  For example, and while the grandfather did not live with her family, she said that there was a constant tension in the house as the man was known to be dying.  Part of this was due, she believes, to the need to arrange daily hospital visits, and she made it clear that this created great conflict in the home.  That is, the visits were a blatant obligation and any failure on her mother’s part to make one was seen as a great violation of duty by the aunts involved.  Ms X knew of this because there were arguments between her parents, with her father defying this pressure and her mother seemingly trapped by it.  Even as a child, Ms X noted that the dying itself seemed secondary; it was the obligation to “make an appearance” every day that dominated, and she stressed that this was owing to an Italian sense of responsibility.

Ms X was actually amused as she recalled the grandfather’s funeral.  That is, she seemed amused by the contrast between her own awe at the occasion and the display presented by the family.  Indicating that sibling rivalry defined the relationships between her mother and her aunts, Ms X said that it was clear that each woman was seeking to “outdo” the others in grief.  The eldest sister, she recalled, loudly threatened to jump into the grave site, which powerfully impressed Ms X.  Only later, she said, did she understand that this was not grief, but vanity.  She also remembered standing by the open coffin and feeling that the dead man was not somehow being acknowledged; the emphasis was all on form and show.  Then, at the family gathering afterward, Ms X recalled that a cousin approaches various family groupings, asking them not to “have so much fun.”  She told me that, as she grew older and attended more funerals, she understood how these events are often social opportunities because they bring together people who do not see one another often, and who share histories.

When I then asked Ms X about the bereavement period, she replied that she could recall none of any consequence.  Aside from a black wreath on the door and phone calls discussing it, there was no actual observance of mourning in the home, and she believes this was due to a relief no one would dare openly express.  Reflecting further upon this, Ms X said that she believes these matters, when she was a girl, were viewed very differently than they are today.  Then, she reiterated the factor of the Italian/Catholic background as important.  The emphasis was on fear and reverence, which took the form of tightly adhering to certain behaviors.  As she put it, the getting together of appropriate mourning clothing was as important as honoring the deceased because this was how grief was actually measured.  She added that, strangely, she did not feel that these behaviors left much room for genuine bereavement.

When asked about rituals experienced by her later in life, Ms X recalled the death of a brother not many years earlier.  This, she said, was remarkably different than what she had known as a girl.  There was far less emphasis on the religious element, and more on the life and being of the man.  This in turn, she feels, was due to her own power as an adult in determining, along with her other sister and sister-in-law, the nature of the proceedings.  Despite their rigid background, she said, all were committed to maintaining the deceased as the center of the event.  Arrangements were properly made and in traditional ways, but everyone involved actively evoked the living memory of her brother, in contrast to the “non-being” of her grandfather at that time.  Ms X believes that changes in society have had an effect here.  That is, adherence to strict form seemed then disrespectful in a sense, and would objectify the man.

This relates to how she described the grieving process.  Unlike what she witnessed as a girl, this death triggered highly personal commitments to reflect on the dead man’s meaning, and to each relative.  She said that this provided a sense of deeply emotional interaction between them, even as each person inherently respected the others’ degrees of personal loss.  Going again to the contrast, Ms X, after further reflection, said that her brother’s death was more “right” in terms of how it was taken in and addressed.  There was far more an understanding that grief is a purely personal experience, and is lessened when form and ceremony are allowed to overshadow the identity of the deceased.  Much of this is my language, but I am sure that I express Ms X’s meaning.  The same thinking applied to her husband’s death, and to a greater extent because, as she said, how this was to be treated was within her power.  Above all, this elderly woman seemed to have developed a conviction that ceremony often impedes grief, which is an interesting perception given how it is so commonly assumed that the elderly rely on ceremony.  I thanked Ms X for her time and cooperation, and then recorded my notes in the above.

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