Death, Grief, and Mourning: Some Chaotic Thoughts
We always talk about life. And then when people die, we talk about their deaths in terms of life—a life they will live for eternity in all incomprehensible sense of peace and prosperity. Only the dead knows where the dead goes, and because we are left behind to live a life without them, we try to understand their demise by interpreting it as a departure—from one place to another; and hence, a movement. Movement is life. We give life to the dead through emotion, logic, and ethics (of religion, morality, society, or philosophy). And by giving death a life in our own way, we 'handle' death. We do not talk about death. Death—the most public moment of one's last connection with the earth—becomes a private matter. It becomes private because grief is thought to be a private matter. But mourning, on the other hand is public. Mourning is a public safeguarding of the ideology of the private (grief). In mourning, the negation of death becomes an affirmative sign.
The poetics of mourning is generally constructed out of three issues, namely, loss, commemoration, and ethics. Loss is the truth of the inexpressible absence that demands to be expressed in words; following loss comes a period of mourning, when personal feelings and expressions of loss are intertwined with the communal and religious demands of mourning rituals. Commemoration marks the loss by giving the dead a sign or a gift through an act of language (elegies, dirges, and the likes of it) or work of art (a tombstone, or a monument) and thus gives a private loss a public character.
Julia Kristeva presents her theory of loss and mourning in terms of melancholia and abjection. Writing or language is concerned with our need to connect with others, and our inability to make proper and real connection; in other words, it is determined by our ability to communicate love or the absence of it. Grief is non-communicable and the grieving subject finds a lack of meaning in every word they utter. Grief takes the grieving subject out of the semiotic world, out of meaning. In The Black Sun, Kristeva talks about the debilitating pain of depression and melancholia that a grieving subject goes through. The living body of the grieving subject becomes the mortifying body—that of a living-dead—unable to connect with others and living the life of what is left behind. “I live a living death,” writes Kristeva, “my flesh is wounded . . .time has been erased or bloated, absorbed into sorrow . . .. On the frontiers of life and death, occasionally I have the arrogant feeling of being a witness to the meaningless of Being, of revealing the absurdity of bonds and beings.” Kristeva defines a text as a duality that exists between a mark and a sign. The grieving subject becomes entrapped in that duality and faces the difficulty to read the mark of death as a sign of lack.
Lacan's theories of lack inundate in them the poetics of mourning and loss. Between the craving for the mirror stage and the jouissance, is hidden the mark and the sign of death, loss, mourning, and commemoration. In Lacan, the child's cry is the lack of subjectivity—the mourning for 'not –yet-being,' and the adult's cry in the final stage is that of and for language—the cry of death and the urge to exist in and through language; the cry for the fear of death. And once death is met, that cry is transferred into the laments and sorrows of the grieving subject, who struggles to process the loss of the loved ones in language.
The ideology of loss is subjective, or an expression of the loss experienced by the Self. As I said earlier, because we as living beings only know and interpret all signs in context of our lived life, we interpret death more as a departure than a cessation. We are not thinking of the dead when we think of their death; we are thinking of us, as us. And by doing so, by our unwillingness to see the otherness of the dead (as not among us and does not need to be among us) we are, in a way, killing the dead. We are reducing their otherness into nihility.
In death, one ceases to exist in corporeal presence and continues to exist in signs and semiology, consciousness and memory. The living subject who lives and remembers the dead thus becomes both the living and the dead. And it becomes the responsibility of us as the living subject—the self—to allow the other (the dead subject) to live in us. I am thinking of Derrida and his elegy on Paul de Man. Derrida says that when a friend dies, they live in the body of the mourner, taking on a being in us. “This being in us of the other,” Derrida writes in his Memories for Paul de Man, “in bereaved memory, can be neither the so called resurrection of the other himself (the other is dead and nothing can save him from this death, nor can anyone save us from it), nor the simple inclusion of a narcissistic fantasy in a subjectivity that is closed upon itself . . . .The being in us in bereaved memory becomes the coming of the other.” The other, being in us, can neither be outside us, nor inside us. When Death comes to the other, it comes to us through the other. The friend no longer exists except in us, and we are no longer ourselves. The other's being in us thus splits us. Through grief and mourning, the “I” ceases to be itself and becomes the other. Derrida calls this the gift of death. The other gives death to the subject. Death becomes a responsibility because it cannot be transferred (without experiencing death). “Because I cannot take death away from the other who can no more take it from me in return, it remains for everyone to take his death upon himself,” says Derrida, in The Gift of Death.
Needless to say, Derrida's ethics (or discourse) of death is directly influenced by the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. In Levinas, death is interpreted both as a menace and a gift. The menace is not defined in the knowledge of death; it is the imminence of death, the unforeseeable fact of death as something that exists beyond our horizon is what defines the menace of death. Death takes me without giving me the chance I have in a struggle. In death I am exposed to the absolute violence: the murder of the self. Death threatens me from beyond. But when I grieve and mourn the death of a friend or a closed one, I invite the other (dead) to possess me—my memory and my consciousness; I let the other be in me. And that is when Death brings me the gift of the other. If we are to become responsible mourners, we must prepare ourselves to face the menace and be willing to let the dead live inside us, like living organisms of memories.
Fayeza Hasanat is an author, translator and educator. She teaches English at the University of Central Florida.