Family, Marriage, and Parenthood

By Howard Becker; Reuben Hill | Go to book overview

Chapter Twenty-Two
Bereavement: Inevitable but Not Insurmountable

THOMAS D. ELIOT

IS MR. HESSERT in this class? . . . There is an urgent message from his home to go to his mother at St. Luke's Hospital at once." This might have happened to the student who reads this; it might happen to you today. "Verily, death is not far from any one of us."

Bereavements are usually unexpected, often a shock, and seldom planned for either personally or by the family. Yet they are the most widespread form of family dismemberment and must be considered, potentially at least, as the normal form of family dissolution. It therefore behooves the educated person to have some knowledge of the actual dangers and possible adjustments characteristic of such family crises. As the Renaissance "Dance of Death" warned, Memento mori: hodie mihi, cras tibi (Remember death: today for me, tomorrow for you).

A quarter of all American marriages are in a widowed state at any given time. Probably five times as many families are broken by death as by all other forms of dismemberment combined. One in thirteen among persons of marriageable age -- a total of six million or more -- is widowed. Four fifths of the broken homes are fatherless.1

That bereavement has been so little studied can be attributed to inertia, taboo, and inherent methodological difficulties, not to the obscurity of the problem. The normal death rate bereaves two American families every minute -- and this quite aside from war. War has again confronted the world with mass bereavement. For every death at the front there were probably three broken hearts at home. Each broken heart is still alive. A problem involving so profoundly a million or more persons deserves our attention, however reluctant and however ignorant or helpless we may feel about it. If there be any counsels of wisdom or comfort, they should be made accessible to the bereaved and to the advisers of the bereaved. "Science rather than silence" should be the watchword when confronted by a problem of such universality.

Religion and poetry have attempted to shed light upon the experience of bereavement, but the shadow is still there. There is a bond of sympathy between those who have gone through it, but as yet the survivors offer little to guide those not acquainted with grief.

Too often the individual has been left to face the ordeal unprepared and alone. We do not even know to what extent the old rites and beliefs continue

____________________
1
M. F. Nimkoff, The Family ( Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1934), pp. 422-424. The disproportion of widows to widowers is due to (1) higher death rate of men, (2) higher remarriage rate of widowers, (3) greater male age at marriage, and (4) war deaths.

-641-

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