On December 14, CBS’s news portal for Boston carried a news piece similar to the ones appearing on pretty much every news site in the country. I’m quoting from it not because it’s extraordinary in any way, but because (a) it’s reasonably close to the community most directly affected by the Connecticut shooting, and (b) we have to start somewhere. But really, I’m fairly sure I could find something similar in any news site in the country.
According to CBS, “Twenty-six people were killed and one person was injured in a shooting at an elementary school in Newtown,” including “20 children – ages 5 to 10 – and six adults.” In the very next paragraph, however, the article states “The gunman shot and killed himself inside the school.” And to be clear those six adults are Rachel Davino, Dawn Hochsprung, Anne Marie Murphy, Lauren Rousseau, Mary Sherlach, and Victoria Soto. Even though the shooter, Adam Lanza, died in the school, he’s almost never included in these lists.
It’s fairly straightforward to mourn a child. I don’t mean that it’s easy, or that there’s a formula that has to be met and then you move on. Grief never works that way and least of all with a child who we believe has barely begun to live. But this kind of grief lacks the moral ambiguity you see in suicides and deaths embedded in horrific crimes like the Connecticut shooting. How do you mourn someone when that mourning seems to so often be about the end of their life – and when that life ends so spectacularly in a way you just can’t approve of? On the one hand it seems wrong to name people like Adam Lanza in the same breath with their victims, almost disrespectful to those twenty-six people, but at the same time those who were closest to people like Adam Lanza have still lost a beloved brother, son, and friend. They’re part of this tragedy, too, and not by their choosing.
This goes beyond whether news articles list Adam Lanza as a victim of the shooting or not. It affects how we talk about the deceased person, and more importantly, how we let their family talk about them. Not long after the shooting, someone used the FB account of Adam Lanza’s brother Ryan to post several memorials for Adam, their mother, and more generally all the victims of the shooting. Now, there’s some question of whether the person doing the posting was actually Ryan Lanza, and I’m in no position to know. But even if it isn’t him, these are precisely the kind of thing that he should be allowed – even encouraged – to say if he feels so led. He really did have a brother kill himself, and his mother was just murdered, and it may help him to talk about them a certain way.
But whether he made the posts or not, Ryan Lanza faced some people lashing out at his recently-dead brother, telling him to burn in hell and calling him a monster. Ryan didn’t need that. No one going through that should be told he is not allowed to miss his brother or think kindly of him, if he is so inclined, or that if he does speak out this is the kind of reaction he can expect. Nor should he feel compelled to say anything. In fact, if I could offer rules for a good approach to death and grieving, rule #1 would be this: mourning rituals should be designed to accommodate mourners’ needs in proportion to how affected they are by the death. That sounds complicated, but it’s really quite simple. If it’s your brother who has just died in a way that (rightly!) makes other people uncomfortable, your need to mourn your brother trumps their need to have their discomfort addressed. I’d even say that in the immediate aftermath of the situation, the mourners’ needs trumps the value of speaking truthfully. This is not the time to speak harsh truths, unless this will help the people most affected.
And let’s add a corollary: as much as the casual onlooker might want to find gods and monsters in tragedies like this, those closest to the deceased are under no obligation to provide them. When we hear of six-year-olds gunned down in their classroom on the other side of the country, we long desperately – so desperately! – to convince ourselves this won’t happen in our kids’ schools. And one of the easiest ways to do that is by thinking the murderer is somehow exceptionally bad, so much so that no one we know could ever act like that. I get that. But I also get that those distant onlookers’ existential angst pales beside the real, intense pain of losing your mother and brother, and the Lanzas’ needs come first. They also know the killer better than you do so may have some insight you lack; or they may simply be in shock and not be able to face the reality of the situation. In the immediate aftermath, I think that’s okay. Anyway, it’s good for us to face that existential angst over our lack of security head on. Sacrificial lambs should really be a B.C. kind of thing.
For me, rule #2 rests on my religious beliefs, but I don’t think you have to use religious reasoning. I’m a Christian which means I believe in an immortal soul that survives the body’s death. But I’m also a Protestant which means I believe that soul goes to heaven or hell or purgatory or nothingness or whatever – I’m definitely wrestling with different theories of hell, but that needs a post of its own – and wherever it goes, it goes there right off. It’s also a big Protestant thing that you’re not supposed to try to communicate with the dead in any way. In light of that, rule #2: Funerals are for the living, not the dead. Whatever funeral you give Adam Lanza, it’s to help those left behind, not him. So those people grieving for Adam shouldn’t feel embarrassed or guilty that they can’t approach the funeral the way they think he would’ve liked. This is their party, it’s their way of memorializing him and coming to grips with what happened. But it’s for them, not Adam.
I suspect atheists would agree with this (no soul means the deceased isn’t around anymore at the funeral), but I can see people of other religions or even other interpretations of Christianity disagreeing with me on this point. And if they do, I’d point back to rule #1. If those most affected by the death believed the deceased is still around and is impacted by our choices, and if this is important enough that it outweighs other considerations, we need to respect their wishes. Whether or not we think they’re actually right on that point.
That said, I believe people really benefit from the way funerals can give a sense of closure to the person’s life. This helps them grieve. If the person had specific funeral wishes or if they belonged to a certain faith (or no faith), respecting that is a good way to respect them, which can help you in the long run. So, rule #3: In general, it’s better to have the funeral reflect the deceased person’s values rather than the grieving person’s. This isn’t because it helps the deceased person (remember, at this point we can’t harm them anymore); rather, I’m concerned for the family and friends. And if you put together a ceremony to match your beliefs rather than the person you’re memorializing, that could easily make it too much about you and not enough about them.
Now, everything I’ve said here has been very subjective. It’s about how beliefs and actions impact those grieving, not whether those beliefs are objectively good or true. I happen to believe in those first few days, it’s the Ryan Lanzas of the world’s psychological and emotional health we need to look after. This is more important even than objective truth – if someone has a false belief but correcting it would do them more harm than good, now’s not the time to go into that. But I do believe in the value of truth and think we should try to correct untrue and harmful beliefs.
A good example of this is the Roman Catholic Church’s position on suicide. Once upon a time, the RCC treated suicide like murder, a mortal sin. You died in sin without giving a confession so you couldn’t have a church funeral and be buried with your family. More than that, it was seen as a rejection of the faith, so your family thought you were basically going to hell. That’s an awful burden to live with in those first few days. These days, though, the RCC has eased its position a good bit, and it recognizes the role of mental illness and the way even rational fears (like concern that you’re about to be tortured) can make you less culpable. And the church generally buries you in the church ceremonies, and priests emphasize God’s mercy rather than telling them their loved one is hellbound. You may not think this is a perfect belief, but it’s obviously much better than the old approach.
Here’s the problem, though: it’s very hard to change a belief when you’re in the middle of grief. There’s a cost when you try to do this. Rather than taking comfort in a steady belief system, you feel even more awash than you would otherwise. Sometimes beliefs are so damaging, it’s better to change them than live with them. More often, though, people should be doing this critical work of examining beliefs that people rely on when someone dies and seeing whether they’re helpful and true. But they should do it in such a way that it doesn’t interfere with the bereaved person’s right to grieve in a way that helps them deal with the loss. So, rule #4: If you’re far enough removed from a death (either through emotional distance or time’s passing) that you can reevaluate relevant beliefs, you should do so. It’s a balancing act, how and when to work on these concepts, but I do think it’s important. We just need to do it in a way that’s humane to those most impacted by a loss.
So to summarize:
- Funerals should accommodate those closest to the person who died over people who are less directly impacted by the death. That means be humane and don’t challenge their beliefs unless this will actually help them.
- This also means that even if attacking the Adam Lanza’s of the world will make you feel better about unspeakable tragedy – don’t. Not unless you’re really directly affected by his deaths or his victims’. If you’re just watching this on the news, as hard as it is to bear what you’re going through, the Ryan Lanza’s are going through much worse.
- The dead person is gone so you don’t need to make choices based on what they would like.
- … But it’s often good for you to respect who the deceased person was. So other things being equal, it’s probably good to pattern the funeral after the deceased person’s wishes and character. (Just don’t feel like you’re betraying him or her if you can’t.)
- In the immediate aftermath of a death, we need to make room for those most affected to properly grieve. And we should only challenge their beliefs if this is helpful. But we also need a space to think critically about our beliefs that come into play during the grieving process. So those less affected by grief (either through time or proximity) should try to make these beliefs as true and helpful as we possibly can.
Speaking for myself, when I have seen someone close to me die I wasn’t capable of true criticism for a long time. Getting through the day took every ounce of strength I had to offer, and when I did think about those deeper concerns (because, well, I’m me and my brain won’t shut off) I got stuck in loop-de-loops and made very little progress. But as more time passed I kept thinking about these issues and came up with some ways of viewing things that have helped me weather more recent losses a little better. While my ideas aren’t perfect, I like to think I still make progress. And I know when I see national disasters like the Newtown shooting, the first shock passes a little quicker and I’m ready to think about those important thoughts more quickly. That work with concepts is crucial. It just needs to be done in a way that stays out of the way of those people not able to do it yet, so you don’t make their grief that much worse by throwing them into a tailspin.
Obviously, this isn’t a blueprint for how to plan a funeral, whether it’s secular or progressive Christian or multidenominational or any other kind. I don’t think I can offer one, since each situation is so different, and personal. But I hope these general rules provide a good starting place for those unfortunate enough to need them.
if you were writing the template for collective mourning, understanding the mixtures of people from different traditions and temperaments who would inevitably be present, what would your template look like? We might need multiple templates and I would be one to argue that we should have norms that allow for a fair amount of individual customizations of templates for different individuals, families, and other groups. But what sorts of values do you think should be central to the template? What sorts of rituals for what sorts of purposes would you want to preserve or create?
In short: If it were up to you to design one or more basic models for messaging and for ritual through which people were to regularly mark deaths together, what would such ceremonies be like?
I’m not sure I quite hit the mark but I hope it was interesting anyway. I’ll post a link to the other posts tomorrow.