We flee from sadness. Attempts to discuss sadness are often deflected by people unable, apparently, to tolerate their own fears of loss and distress. In families with illness, our children and intimates are often shielded from the sadness that is a common partner of loss. Some of us do not wish to express sadness around our children, fearing that their trust and faith in a safe or good world will be harmed.
As parents we may believe that children who know of grief or danger will suffer unnecessarily. Sadness, from such a point of view, is a trauma to be avoided. How often is a child who expresses sadness met with the simple, quiet acceptance of a parental hug? More often we point out why a child need not feel so sad, or we propose a plan of action so that sadness won’t happen again. Often, with divorce, for example, the parents attempts to speak no ill or the other parent, regardless of their behavior, leave children confused as to why any divorce took place or either parent is upset or angry.
It can be easier to devise strategies to cope with guilt than it is simply to sit still with sadness. I see many people in grief who tell me that their mourning was often compounded by friends’ and families’ desires communicated in more or less subtle ways for them to “move on.”
In our culture, the work of mourning is attempted through a vocabulary of affects—anxiety, depression, angst, stress, and the like—that locates the source of anguish in our individual body or mind rather than in the community, environment, or transcendent order in which we also live. What is there about the mourning process that seems so essential? How can it be used to facilitate the healing of we and our families who are touched by illness?
There are so many painters, musicians, writers, and other artists whose work flourished in spite of, and possibly owing to, their physical afflictions and other experiences of loss and grieving. Why would this not also be true of we who are less artistically gifted? Are not richer relationships,
accomplishments in the face of great odds, experiences of joy and humor, battles for social justice, taking a stand for one’s own dignity, and the simple satisfaction of making it through the day also creative possibilities that we may realize as a sort of pentimento of grief.
There are dangers implicit in our concept and worship of health. Illness is not only inevitable but, in some ways, necessary in our culture. Yes, the messiness and pain of illness erupt into the sunlit clarity of the taken-for-grantedness of daily life like a ragged man at a politician’s ball. But illness is one of the few remaining humble and personal forces to oppose the powerful social ideals of health, adaptation, and productivity Without illness as a grave reminder, our personal and social fantasies of mastery and wealth might recognize no limit. It is possible, however, that a sense of the sacred and of fundamental good has a more significant impact on his or her life than parents and family.
Religious, spiritual, and archetypal meanings are among the few resources that anyone of us may seek use when serious illness enters our lives. Religious and spiritual concerns can inform any of us in matters ranging from the meaning and cause of illness, suffering, and death to specific religious practices.
But modernization and its accompanying attitudes have undercut the plausibility of religious belief for many. But it has not removed the sources of distress that elicit them. Human beings continue to be stricken by death, illness, poverty, war. Unfortunately, we lack the taken for granted stories, mythologies, and beliefs that made these facts of life easier to bear. We no longer live as if the wounded healers such as Gilgamesh, Jesus, or Moses are alive among or above us.
From a traditional religious perspective, illness and death are symptoms that reflect humanity’s continued fall from a pre-Eden golden age. The presence of physical suffering is an outward display and reminder of the distress and distance from perfection and wholeness that all humans share. The sight of a physically ill person ought to evoke the wish to harbor, comfort, and heal. Our communal failure to do so, whether as a result of inadequate insurance, support programs, fear, or any other reason demonstrates, from a spiritual orientation, that we are all ill. The religious attitude is important, because it calls us to witness and care for the suffering other as we wish to be healed ourselves.