15 November 2009

Time for a New Ritual

For all our understanding and tendency to pity "more primitive" civilizations, we don't do particularly well at ritual. And the modern world has seemingly created the necessity for a new one.

Someone told me that that as life expectancies increase, we're going to encounter more cases of dementia. My aunt has just gone through the trauma of being verbally threatened by her husband of 50+ years, a man who has such severe Alzheimer's that he no longer recognizes her and, for her safety, he has just been institutionalized. She says that the man she loved is no longer there. I think she's right. We need a new way to acknowledge the "death" of a person that precedes the time when their heart stops.

I'm not sure what this ritual would look like, but it would probably be somewhat like a funeral. Perhaps a ceremony in which loved ones mourn the lost, shared memories and praise the "dead" personality they once so loved.

Whatever the actual ritual, I do feel strongly that we need a new designation for those who have "passed over" into a mental confusion and fog so thick that they've lost themselves and everyone they know. Their loved ones need a ritual to deal with the fact that they're "gone."

Without such a ritual, the poor family members have no real way to deal with their loss, or are left to process this without any closure. Perhaps a simple ritual could help.


slouchy said...

this is what happened with my mother. she had a catastrophic stroke in september of 2008 and was unrecognizable afterward. THAT is when i mourned. she died in april of 2009. i mourned less acutely then than i had the previous fall.

Big Al said...

Almost 2 years before my father died is when he no longer recognized me, the youngest of his 4 children. Even though he was in a care facility in Ohio and I was/still am in Oregon, I visited as much as I could and talked to Alvin, the guy who was my father in physical form only. I still called him Dad but didn't know what to feel because I didn't know what was going on inside his head. It was probably harder on my siblings who all lived within a few miles. I was saddened to see my father's mental and physical deterioration but not mournful. The mourning for me came after he died, when I cried deeply.

To be honest, I don't know if any of us could compartmentalize and mourn the mental loss of a close loved one while the physical body was still alive. Then again, maybe we could. Perhaps we could modify the truly traditional Irish wake to truly mourn the loss of a soul.

Anonymous said...

I liked this post. It was very thoughtful and compassionate.

They say "The body is the temple of the soul," but what do we do when the temple is empty?

Sometimes Saintly Nick said...

Rituals have provided humans with so much through the ages, I find it sad that we have entered a time when they are neglected and ignored.

Your suggestion about a ritual farewell to the the personality of one whose mental awareness is waning is an excellent idea.

Lifehiker said...

As an EMT I've treated many patients who were no longer "there". They were often very fearful and confused about their condition, who we were, and why they had to leave their nursing home surroundings.

In the old days, pneumonia was called "the old man's friend". My proposal would be that, at a certain (very certain) point, no medical care other than simple treatments and pain management should be given to those who are no longer "there". That's not heartlessness, that's mercy.

Our ability to keep people alive past their natural time is a curse, not a blessing.

Big Al said...


Your suggestion is exactly what my siblings and I agreed on w/my father when we placed him in a care facility. Over the course of just under 2 years we watched his physical body deteriorate like his mental. We all thought Dad would suffer a heart attack or stroke, but he ended up getting Gangrene. The care facility staff made sure he didn't suffer any pain over the course of what turned out to be the last 5 days on this earth.

And even though my siblings and I readily agreed to not provide extraordinary care for my father, when we were informed of the Gangrene, it still tugged at the heart strings until the point when my Dad died. As soon as he passed, there was an immediate sense of relief. And at my father's funeral every single person expressed condolences and thanks that Dad was suffering no longer. We couldn't agree more.

Anonymous said...

This is such a wonderful idea, Ron.
I work in nursing homes and see the grief on the faces of family members all the time.
Maybe a casual gathering at home, over old photos, with some comfort food, sharing memories with laughter and tears?

I think this is wonderful and so healthy.

Gypsy at Heart said...

After reading all these comments, it is very clear to me that almost everyone can relate to the sad situation now suffered by your aunt. I too have a family member who is there solely in body, divested of all the personality and understanding that made her the person we, her family, once knew.

For all intents and purposes, my paternal grandmother died approximately 4 years ago. Every time I see her, deep down I feel that she would never have tolerated this medical upkeep of the shell that has become her body. But that is just my feeling isn't it? Who knows if whatever limited consciousness that is left in her would agree.

Speaking solely for myself, I do not exactly know when I stopped thinking of that poor lady in the bed as my grandmother but I have made a mental transition of import there. She lives in my memories but nowhere else on this earthly plane.