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Preparing People for Death and Dying

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    Peterson (1996, p. 652) sees death as a developmental issue partly because “all human beings throughout their life prepare consciously or unconsciously for their own death and that of others.” I believe that preparation only comes when death is anticipated due to things such as a lengthy illness or some disorder that one might have been born with that would end in death in time. The death of a loved one is especially difficult, what Peterson (1996) refers to as “a crisis event that has a major impact on the lifespan development of bereaved survivors.” Further to this Peterson (1996) agrees with researchers in this field who see the death of a loved one as having a great deal of influence on a person’s emotions or patterns of social organisation.

    The event

    My father died over ten years ago and while it has been a long time, this experience remains uppermost in my mind, even though it is an unavoidable part of everyone’s life at its end.

    I grew up thinking the sun rose and shone on my father. While he was just a man with a lot of likeable traits as well as flaws, as his child I did not see the flaws. We had a really good relationship. I grew up knowing I could always depend on my father, and never envisaged a time when he would not be there. Yes, other people’s fathers and mothers died but it never entered my mind that something could happen to my father or mother. One could look on it as a certain amount of naivet� or rather just not wanting to think of such bad things lest they come true.

    My father’s death came as a painful surprise to me. Yes he had been ill for three weeks but the doctors said all he needed was some bed rest and he would be fine. He died of a myocardial infarction (heart failure) within two weeks of the doctors telling us, all my father needed was some rest. In retrospect it is possible that the doctors’ assumptions contributed to my denial of his death and led me to think that the medical treatment had failed rather than the natural end of life. When I woke up that Saturday I never imagined that my life would change forever by midday. He died at the age of fifty-three years old.

    Being Zimbabwean and African as well as a highly respected man in civil society, news of his death spread quickly and by nightfall our home was filled with relatives and friends who had come to pay their respect. In my cultural context grief and mourning brings people together and it is normal for them to stay for few days until the deceased is buried. The extended family is considered to be very important and can be highly influential in matters such as funerals and weddings. In this case my father’s brothers felt that they should make all the decisions as regards the funeral arrangements. While this would have been culturally normal, about a year earlier I had a discussion with my father in which he informed me how and where he wanted to be buried. He had wanted to be buried in the village (country side) in which he had grown up and to which he fondly referred to as the “open spaces”.

    My mother was beside herself with grief and unable to make any meaningful contribution as regards the funeral arrangements, so I informed my uncles about my father’s request. They differed with this and told me that I was just a child with very little experience. My uncles felt that burying my father locally in the city was cheaper and made sense in terms of accessibility for all who wanted to attend the funeral. I wanted my father’s request to be respected. I had to be assertive and was determined even if this meant my uncles would withdraw their help. Money was not the issue. I set aside my grief and arranged my father’s funeral, as he would have wanted it.

    I met with the funeral service provider, arranged transport, chose his casket, the clothes he would wear, and made the decision on the day he would be laid to rest. Over the four days he was mourned and finally buried, I matured significantly. With my older brother out of the country and the other not coping very well, I felt the responsibility for the family was firmly on my shoulders. I did not mourn or breakdown like I wanted to, I needed to be there for my mother and my siblings. Finally we transported his body to his mother’s house in the village and stayed overnight as per our cultural requirements. On a warm Tuesday morning my father’s body was carried to the graveside. Many people were singing, dancing, ululating and weeping as his body was buried next to his younger brother’s grave in the village “open spaces”, as he had wanted.

    Impact

    The experience of my father’s death affected my family in different ways. My grandmother mourned the fact that her son preceded her in death. According to Drewery and Bird (2004) parents feel that losing a child is contrary to the norm while for children they do not expect their parents to die until they are fully grown. But what is fully grown?

    I think even if my father had died at seventy years old I might still not have been ready for it. My father’s death opened up a door that showed me strength of character and a resilience that I did not know I possessed until then. It made me realise that nothing lasts forever and that life goes on. This follows Peterson (1996, p. 672)’s assertion that “Death terminates a person’s own lifecycle, but remains a factor which must be integrated into the ongoing life cycles of the other people who are affected by it” While the initial feeling was that I wanted to die too, because I could not imagine a world without my father.

    While I would have given anything to have him back, being able to carry out his last wishes made the grief bearable. I did eventually break down and mourn after the funeral and this helped me to move on. However according to Papalia, Olds and Feldman (2001), I experienced the pattern of grief in its three stages of; (a) Shock and disbelief. (b) Preoccupation with the memory of the dead person and (c) Resolution. As I reflect back it’s quite interesting that I also became quite protective of my mother. Maybe it’s because I witnessed my mother depressed for a while, and seemed lost and unsure of her place in the world without the husband she had been married to for more than twenty-five years.

    Between my parents, my father was the disciplinarian and after his death my mother found it difficult to discipline my younger siblings. Years later, when we speak of that time, we realise that the impact of my father’s death was greater than we actually realised at the time. My younger sister and brother literally grew up without a father, as he was not there during their teenage years, a time when the influence of a father is greatly required, especially for boys. I also realised that for all of us it helped to talk about him and laugh as well as cry about the little things and the big things that made him dear to us. My relationship with my mother became so much closer, and I still wonder if this would have happened if my father had not died. I believe that all experiences whether painful or not are good for the individual because they help to foster coping mechanisms.

    Human development theory

    Knowledge of human development theory may be applied to the experiences of people in this event in a number of ways. Drewery and Bird (2004) take the view that any life however short should be celebrated as it has made a contribution to those left behind. I support this view even though it is a painful reality of loss. I think my father achieved a great deal in his fifty-three years hence I still celebrate his life. Further to this, Drewery and Bird (2004) believe that relationships with our loved ones should not necessarily end with their death, but can be kept alive in our hearts. Generally when a person continues to talk about their loved one whom they lost to death, its as if they have not got over this or have a morbid fascination with death but Drewery and Bird (2004) in Julia’s story show that people do not have to forget about their loved one, in fact remembering may assist with dealing with the grief.

    Berger (2005) believes that while the death of a spouse is generally difficult, it varies on the sex of the remaining spouse. Wives usually survive their husbands and this is not easy as it not only means the loss of a friend, a lover, but also lowered income, less status, loss of identity and a broken social circle. (Berger, 2005, p. 651)

    Berger (2005) also believes that while widows do get quite lonely after the loss, they generally do not seek to remarry, which was quite evident with my mother. According to Berger (2005) adult children are more likely to keep in close contact with their mothers than they would with their fathers. The loneliness is abated because their mothers might play a role in the lives of their grandchildren.

    Peterson (1996) sees the developmental task and the inner changes experienced with the crisis of death as probably being greater than those experienced in other developmental tasks such as adulthood, marriage, parenthood, changing jobs or even retirement. Peterson (1996, p. 672) postulates that “since bereavement is as universal as death itself, this developmental task is one which no adult escapes from.” Further to this Kubler-Ross (1975) supports this view and believes that in some cases the experience of death turns out to be a meaningful growth- inducing aspect of life. I found this to be true in my case.

    Bibilography

    Berger, K. (6th Edition) (2005). The Developing Person: Through The Life Span. USA. Worth Publishers.

    Drewery, W., Bird, Lise. ( 2nd Edition) (2004). Human Development in Aotearoa: A Journey Through Life. Auckland. McGraw Hill.

    Kubler-Ross, R. (1975). Death: The Final stage of Growth. Englewoood Cliffs, NJ. Prentice Hall.

    Peterson, C. (3rd Edition) (1996). Looking forward through the lifespan : Developmental Psychology. Australia. Prentice Hall.

    Papalia, D.E., Olds, S. W, Feldman, R. D. (8th Edition) (2001) Human Development. NY. McGraw Hill

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