Tag Archives: grief

How Do We View Death in Fiction?

The question of how death is handled and viewed in the horror industry popped into my head earlier this week as I eagerly awaited the release of The Strangers: Prey at Night (a sequel to one of my favorite scary movies). As a horror buff, I’ve read many articles detailing theories on why we enjoy horror movies (see reference below for a decent summary), but no one seems to really delve into how the deaths themselves are viewed in horror, or in fiction as a whole.

Why are we okay with reading a 500-page book or sitting through a 2-hour movie, bonding with and exploring various characters — only to have them killed off at some point. I realize it’s hard to equate fiction and reality, but it’s interesting to me that we can separate them so easily with something so universal and personal as death. Fiction can evoke emotion or instill ideas into consumers, so I believe it important to compare and contrast death in fiction and death in reality.

Separating Fiction and Reality

Most horror fans are aware (either consciously or unconsciously) of the “fakeness” in film. This is most apparent in campy B-movies such as Thankskilling, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, or Stippers vs Werewolves. These movies either have outlandish themes or poor production values such that we can easily say to ourselves, “This is a movie.” Other horror movies accomplish this awareness by having supernatural or comical overtones (see Rosemary’s Baby and Scream, respectively).

However, some movies, such as The Strangers, lack anything major that’s outside of reality. It features a relatively realistic set of characters, plot, and setting and has a paranoia-inducing ending. When I left the theater, I was scared by the realness of it, but even then, I can’t say I felt anything about the character’s deaths nearing how I feel when I hear of a death on the news or such. This isn’t a unique sentiment to scary movies. Non-horror movies such as Me Before You, A Fault In Our Stars, and Les Misérables are all seen as super-sad, relatively realistic, and dealing with death. Many people (myself included) bawled my eyes out during these movies, but I don’t think many could say they “grieve” the characters.

Where’s the Dividing Line?

I mourn the losses in the Parkland shooting, but I can’t say I sobbed upon hearing the news that day. Conversely, I cried in the the theater for fictional deaths, but I can’t say I mourn(ed) them. How can we be moved by fiction without further grief; why does the world grieve over complete strangers? I know some things that don’t always play into the second question — time (be it in the past or the present) and proximity (be it local or international). So what factors truly play in?

As discussed in the article below, there has been research done that compared disturbing documentaries dealing with death and horror movies. The results are surprising to me. Many people couldn’t handle the documentaries but could easily swallow the horror movies. I would be very interested to see the results in a study exposing people to a documentary played off as a movie or a movie produced as a documentary. Do people’s reactions change based only on the idea that something is real or not? Is the primary factor that creates the distinction between a “real” death and a “fictional” death the knowledge of which is which?

Reference article that sums up most of the theories regarding attraction to horror (I disagree with some claims made, but it’s the best summary I found):

The Psychology of Scary Movies

Death in the Spotlight

A look at what happens when the rich and famous die.

Many of us are familiar with death whether it is someone close to us or a friend of a friend. The deceased is often remembered and mourned for in a relatively private way. However, all the rules seem to be thrown out of the door when the deceased is not the elderly man next door, but a celebrity.

An interest in the lifestyles of the rich and famous is something that seems universal across the globe. Their every move is documented, publicized, and largely criticized. Pictures are taken and articles published for tasks as insignificant as grocery shopping or jogging. Celebrities, for some, have reached a god-like status. Their fans are dedicated, passionate, and quick to combat the haters. The life of a celebrity is seemingly not their own. It belongs to the fan, the critic, and the consumer. The same goes for their deaths. The death of a celebrity often prompts more fanfare and acknowledgment than the deaths of millions at the hands of disease and hunger. A celebrity death tends to prompt news specials, award show tributes, and sometimes public displays of distress by people who were merely fans of the individual. The public mourns the celebrity’s  ability to inspire, encourage, and provide an escape. The fan is mourning the loss of a connection, a figure that to them was maybe more than a person.

An LA Times article referenced the phenomenon saying, “We don’t cry because we knew them, we cry because they helped us know ourselves.” The way we ritualize death often seeks to serve the needs of the living over the needs of the dead. We view death from how it affects us. The death of an ordinary person is made more about those left behind then celebrating the person who is no longer here. The celebrity experiences this to a greater extent. For most it was not the loss of Prince the person that caused tears to roll down their face, but the loss of hundreds of unrecorded songs and the persona of a man who dared to defy the status quo. The connection between the fan and the artist is one that is cherished by many.

Some celebrities are defined by their deaths as much as their life especially when their death is a “bad” one such as suicide, a drug overdose, or murder. Their legacy, more so than the average person’s, is shaped by this death. Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, and Prince will always be remembered for their indelible contribution to music. In the same breath their overdose related deaths will forever be tied to their name in the public sphere. It is through the death of a celebrity that we get a glimpse of life in the spotlight. Despite what we learn we cannot help but place their death back under the same spotlight. It seems as if their celebrity demands consumption by the public, even when they are no longer alive.

Whitney Houston on stage

Whitney Houston Welcomes Heroes by PH2 Mark Kettenhofen licensed under Wikimedia Commons

K-pop star Jonghyun

Jonghyun at 2016 Korean Pop Culture an Art Awards by Im’ Sorry licensed under Wikimedia Commons



















How Close is Too Close?

Yesterday I watched the TLC show My Strange Addiction after getting home from our Death and Burial class. My timing has never been so perfect. The episode that was on was about Casie, a 26-year-old widow who became addicted to eating her dead husband’s ashes after his premature death. According to Casie, she first tasted his ashes when after spilling some on her hand. Instead of washing the remains off, she decided to eat them so as not to waste them. Ever since that moment, Casie has eaten a total of one pound of her husband’s ashes. The most interesting part of the story is that Casie sought help from the TLC show because she understood that the ashes would run out eventually. She feared that the total loss of her husband once the six pounds of his ashes were completely consumed would be too much for her to handle.

This case is extremely interesting because the thought of the physical harm that the ashes could cause to her body is overshadowed by Casie’s intense need to be close with her late husband. As many of us know, human ashes include many toxins, including carcinogenic formaldehyde, which is used to preserve the body for funeral rituals before the actual cremation. Surely a part of Casie always knew that eating her husband’s ashes was not healthy, regardless of the extent to which she understood this. However, when asked about this possible physical harm, Casie expressed that she never worried about it. To her, the ashes could never be as harmful to her body as the death of her husband was to her soul.

Casie’s story offers a few ideas to think about. Firstly, why did Casie feel that she needed to eat her husband’s remains? In her interviews, Casie repeatedly talks about how she feels a bond with her husband that she has missed. But this would only be in her mind. I don’t think that there can be any physiological explanation for the happiness that eating her husband’s remains brings to Casie, other than a possible high from the chemicals. Secondly, at what point did Casie realize she needed help? It is actually extremely admirable that Casie was able to understand that she needed help. I could imagine that someone in such a sad emotional state would have the insight to seek help!

In Casie’s case, the grief of her lost loved one never came to an end. As we have discussed before, societies have burial rituals in order to transport an individual who has lost a loved one from a state of extreme grief and bereavement to a state of acceptance. Whether it was due to the inability of her society or herself to facilitate a successful burial ritual for her husband, Casie’s grief was never brought to a close. It is possible that after her husband’s cremation, Casie did reach a state of understanding and acceptance. However, after tasting her husband’s ashes, all acceptances were shattered. In the end, Casie was treated for a mental illness and was prescribed anti-depressants and talk therapy sessions.

This is not the first time that such a case has been discussed. There are multiple articles online about spouses who choose to eat their dead partners’ cremated remains. Most of them say it is because their grief is allayed because of the act. Would there still be a reason to treat these individuals for a mental illness if these remains did not pose a physical threat? Is it really that bad to want to eat your dead partner?




Vietnamese Grief over General Vo Nguyen Giap’s death

On October 4th, Vietnam has been shaken by the news of General Vo Nguyen Giap’s death (at 103 years old). He is one of the most respected and well known military leaders in Vietnam after Ho Chi Minh. He led the North Vietnamese in the war against both France and America. Every Vietnamese, who grew up in Vietnam, learned about Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap’s contribution in unifying the country, or at the least have heard of his name. General Vo Nguyen Giap’s death was carried out as a national funeral, which is similar to America’s state funeral, in order to honor his achievement and contribution to the country. This is one of the rare death events, in which I was able to see death and its impact on people on such a grand scale.

When people think about death, they often think about the grief that the living people experienced. Grief has many forms and is handled according to the culture. In many cultures, grief in public supposed to be a calm and solemn display of emotion. After the news of Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap’s death, thousands of Vietnamese from all over the country traveled to North Vietnam, where his family is to pay condolences. The line of people waiting to come into Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap’s house and pay respect wrapping around many streets in Hanoi was an extremely significant picture. There were many adults, children, elders, as well as retired soldiers standing in the heat of Hanoi. People from all over Vietnam coming to Hanoi brought flowers, poems, and songs written about Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap. People who come to funeral are not supposed to disturb the solemn mood and have to pay condolences in prescribed way of that culture. In Vietnam, waiting in line in public is not a common practice and is considered as a recently “imported” cultural behavior. However, people were waiting patiently for hours in Hanoi in order to express their grief and sincerity.

It was surprising to see grief experienced by that many people toward one person. There has to be some form of bonding between the dead and the people who experienced grief. This bond can be biologically made (such as in family) or culturally made. In cases of natural disasters or mass murders, people often feel sympathy for the tragic death of the victims. It is a cultural behavior to express sympathy to show your humanity side. ”Bad death” also often provokes extreme emotion such as anger and depress.  In Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap’s case, his bond with the people in Vietnam is culturally made by people learning about and seeing him through book, television and the news.

When a person’s social status is high, having a good death including a good funeral is important. In many cultures, having a lot of people attending a grand scale’s funeral proves that the dead person was a beloved and important person when he was alive.

 General Vo Nguyen Giap’s obituary from New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/05/world/asia/gen-vo-nguyen-giap-dies.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0).

Images: Google Image

Let’s Go On A….Grief Vacation?

For many of those who have had to live through the tragedy of losing a loved one there are often several months of grief and sadness that  survivors must endure following the death.  In many situations, there is no time or space where it is appropriate to openly grieve.  People are surrounded by places filled with memories and familiar smells that haunt them.  Some are left with family responsibilities and must constantly appear strong so the underlying infrastructure doesn’t crumble beneath them.  A few weeks after the loss of a loved one, neighbors stop bringing over meals and those more distant begin to forget.  However, the loss is still very new and those more closely related to the deceased are often still only in the beginning stages of grief and attempting to piece their lives back to normal.

The last thing one might think of is taking a vacation during this time period; however, those who do, find that it is much easier to proceed in their grieving process.  Those who choose to go somewhere fun, where they can take their minds off the sadness that has overwhelmed their lives, find that they don’t forget that they are grieving, but find it easier to remember the happier times with their loved one.  For others, a vacation taken alone to a familiar spot may be easier, it gives the person the time and space to openly grieve and heal.

After the death of her teenage daughter to suicide, Jaletta Desmond, described how she and her husband decided to go to Las Vegas  to celebrate a friend’s birthday only a couple of months after the tragedy.  Desmond describes that “Although we were able to laugh and visit and enjoy our friends and each other, we knew jumping on a jet to Vegas wouldn’t carry us away from our grief.”  However, they both found that it was refreshing to be temporarily distracted by their sadness. She believed that her experience in Vegas somehow revived her and allowed her to begin to move past the grief that she had dwelled in for so long while also allowing her to become more equipped to go back to a home filled with past memories.

-E. Robinson

To find out more on Jaletta Desmond’s journey, please click here.

Grief, Students, and the University

In American culture, the death of a close loved one like a parent or sibling is often emotionally and physically stressful. Not only can funerals be draining processes, but the mental preparation needed beforehand to plan for a loved one’s death and the strength needed to cope with it afterward can also elicit anxiety. For college students, death becomes even more stressful when school life bombards their grieving process. Although many universities and colleges have set grieving policies for students, many others have yet to implement any forms of support. In an article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Caitlin Peterkin discusses how important campus policies and support groups are for students dealing with death. Specifically, she notes the uniqueness of college life and its impact on student bereavement, or what she calls “the silent epidemic.”

(Photo by miss karen at http://www.flickr.com/photos/misbehave/156217484/)

According to statistics, approximately 38 to 50 percent of college students have lost a close relative or friend within the past two years. Unfortunately, because many students do not see grief as a mental health concern, they usually do not seek any form of counseling or help. Grief, however, can negatively affect school activities. In the article, Peterkin quotes sociology professor Heather L. Servaty-Seib, who states, “On college campuses, the focus is so much about fun, growth, learning—it’s high energy. Having a death loss really sets you apart at a time you don’t want to be set apart or be defined by a life event.” Bereavement often causes students to leave school for an extended period and therefore to miss important lectures and deadlines. Additionally, students also begin to do poorly socially because they are unable to keep up with the high energy perpetuated by college life. In order to support students, many schools have created policies that have given students a chance to grieve without negative effects to their academic lives. Some have allowed students to take a leave of absence without penalty provided they have a certificate of death or other medical letters. Other schools have developed policies that mandate professors give make-up work for bereaving students.

Although these policies are definitely necessary, at least to help students in their grieving process by reducing stress, they can also be limiting. For example, many policies only allow excused absences for deaths within the immediate family, and only after a record is provided. But what about the deaths of close friends or important extended family members? Do those deaths count less under these policies? Also, what if universities or colleges lack the appropriate funds to create additional counseling or groups for students? Is the university still responsible for student grief if these resources are not available? Of course, these questions are not meant to justify taking away any bereavement policies in place. Rather, they speak to the inherent obstacles that could prevent schools from implementing them.

For a more in-depth look, click on the following link to Peterkin’s article:


—Tiken Savang

Good Death, Bad Death, Very Bad Death

The older we get, the more we have to face the fact that death is creeping closer and closer. In general, a good death in the United States is one that involves old age, minimal suffering, and at least some expectation. We know that death is inevitable, and the longer a person lives, the more it seems they’ve had a “full” life. This makes the occurrence of death easier to swallow. When death suddenly pounces upon the unsuspecting victim, sinking its teeth into youth, our society is unprepared. We are taken aback, thrown off balance, and left in a state of shock. If this kind of death is mixed with injustice, it makes for a powerful combination of circumstances. My former classmate, 16 year old Christina Lembo, embodies this image of a very “bad death”.

Christina Lembo, a junior this year at Bloomfield High School in Bloomfield, NJ, was tragically seized from life on Saturday, September 29
th. Though I did not personally know her, I know several people who did. She is described as an athletic student who was “smart,” “talented,” and “so sweet and loving and kind.” She was young, healthy, and full of life with a promising future. According to our culture, this shocking end to her life was not supposed to happen yet, and not like this. It was too unexpected. What makes matters worse is that it was completely out of her control. A car suspected of drag racing abruptly crashed into the car in which she was a passenger. Someone else’s mindless decision cost a vibrant young woman everything.

In instances like this it is not enough to study grief and death rituals from a purely anthropological academic viewpoint. An anthropological viewpoint, however, helps one understand and recognize how the healing process can begin. Culturally accepted rituals that tell us how to handle a situation like this give us guidance in how to grieve. They tell us what is acceptable to do and/or say, and therefore give us the freedom to begin healing. The biggest example of this can be seen in the vigil held for Christina on Broughton Ave, the street where the accident occurred. The vigil is a ritualistic way for the community to come together and publicly mourn over this beautiful young student. It is a way in which support is created to all who are in need. This vigil is also a way of showing that, though Christina is physically dead, she is not socially dead. I have a feeling that, due to the nature of this tragedy, Christina will remain socially alive for a very long time.

-Sarah Hampton

More information about Christina Lembo can be found here.


When Doctors Grieve

I know we haven’t touched upon this topic in class yet but the concept of grief interests me simply because it’s different for every person. Some people like to openly discuss feelings and memories while others tend to remain quiet and keep their emotions to themselves. Grief also differs depending on how the person died. Were they ill for years or were they a victim of a tragically fatal car accident? When a loved one dies, one focuses mainly on either their own grief or the grief of their family. However, what about the doctor that cared for your ill grandparent? How do you think he feels? The grief doctors experience usually goes unnoticed but these doctors have spent long hours slaving away at curing the patient and have gotten to build a personal relationship with them and their families so it’s only fair that they have a right to grieve their patient’s death as well.

I found this article “When Doctors Grieve” that was published in the New York Times last May very interesting because it is a topic that isn’t discussed often and because I am an aspiring doctor. A study was done on twenty oncologists concerning grief practices when one of their patients died. Over half of them reported feelings of “self doubt, sadness, and powerlessness”. Many added that they felt guilty and would often cry and lose sleep. However, most of these oncologists fought to hide their emotions because it is seen as a sign of weakness as a medical professional. Surprisingly, the death of a patient oftentimes effects the behavior of the doctor and the treatment practices they perform on the patient. One doctor stated “I see an inability sometimes to stop treatment when treatment should be stopped.” This results in more aggressive chemotherapy treatments. Another aspect of this article which was of most interest to me was the idea that as a patient gets closer to dying, the doctor tends to distance themselves from the patient and their families resulting in an overall less effort toward the patient. I think this is because the doctor does not want to become too attached with the patient and develop a relationship with them because when they die, the doctor becomes affected by this both emotionally and professionally. The author of the article believes that doctors should be trained to handle their own grief and I agree. A great doctor is one that can compose themselves and carry on with their life while coping with the loss of their patient.

The article can be found here: (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/27/opinion/sunday/when-doctors-grieve.html)

Jared Siegel