Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Memorializing and Trauma Recovery

Memorial offerings removed from grave markers in our local cemetery.

A recent incident in the community where I live really brought home the trauma that many experience at the death of a loved one and how the grieving process is not widely understood or acknowledged by officials who caretake cemeteries.

Our community has three cemeteries, the newest of these is the only one where new internments can be accepted.  There is a municipal cemetery bylaw that limits memorial offerings placed on grave markers to cut flowers only.  However, in the history of this cemetery, this bylaw has never been enforced and the only items removed were ones that interfered with grounds maintenance crews doing their job.  Memorial offerings placed on the grave markers or in the four inch flower receptacles on each concrete grave base were left undisturbed.

Recently, municipal staff made the decision to hold a “clean-up” and posted two advertisements in the local newspaper advising the public that they would be enforcing the bylaw and of the planned clean-up - very few people noticed the ads.  During the clean-up, maintenance staff removed every memorial offering and made judgement calls on what they considered worth keeping and what to discard.  The items they kept were placed in on the ground in a works yard so people could retrieve them.  Items they deemed worthless or were accidentally broken during the clean-up were sent to the municipal landfill.

The public’s response was immediate and profound.  Municipal Council was inundated with phone calls, letters were written to the editor of local newspapers, people appeared before Council to voice their anger and sorrow.

To their credit, the Mayor and Council were as shocked and outraged by this action by Municipal staff as the public was and most offered sincere apologies for their staff’s actions.

Losing a loved one can be a truly traumatic experience for many - and I am speaking of clinical trauma, the same shock to the mind and body that combat soldiers, abuse, or rape survivors experience.  The initial experience of those who have a loved one die can be identical to the symptoms of Acute Traumatic Stress Disorder; numbing; detachment; derealization; continued re-experiencing of the event through thoughts, dreams, and flashbacks; avoidance of any stimulation that reminds them of the event; symptoms of anxiety.  If Acute Truamatic Stress is not therapeutically addressed, it can - in many cases - become Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after 30 days.

The stages and process of grief have been well documented by such notable clinicians as psychiatrist Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross, M.D. who categorized the 5 stages of the grieving process; 
  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

It is the fifth stage - Acceptance - that is the most important for an individual to navigate through successfully to be able to integrate the trauma of losing someone they love, reorganize, and move forward in life.

Part of the Acceptance stage is for the affected individual to be able to personally memorialize their lost loved-one.  For many, this memorialization must be more than purchasing a grave marker and holding a funeral - this is evidenced by the number of memorial offerings removed from our cemetery by municipal staff.  Each of those items were placed there by those who sought to memorialize their loved one on a personal and emotional level.  The psychological process of this memorializing is to relocate their loved one from within their own life story to their loved one’s grave, and accept that they are no longer alive.

The removal of those memorial offerings - putting it bluntly - retraumatized many of the people who placed them there.  The most moving example of this was one lady who had planted a miniature rose in the four inch receptacle of her husband’s grave marker and tended it weekly each Sunday after church for the past year.  This lady was still in the process of working through the Acceptance stage by doing this, and when she discovered to her horror that the rose had been pulled up by its roots and discarded, her trauma resurfaced.

The lady had the courage to attend the next Municipal Council meeting and address them during the public hearing portion.  As she spoke of her shock and distress of discovering that the miniature rose had been torn up by the roots and discarded, her emotions were as raw and intense as the day her husband died - her grieving process was not only interrupted, but reverted to a previous stage.  She was experiencing the trauma of her husband’s death once again.

I have urged our Mayor and Council to take the psychology of grief into consideration when examining the cemetery bylaws and district policy in the coming months.  Municipal staffs’ suggestion to landscape the cemetery by adding plantings of “colour” is all well and good, but will not replace the personal memorialization that helps people heal from the trauma of losing a loved one.

On a personal note; A well-tended cemetery - to me - appears sanitized and impersonal, but seeing the small memorial offerings left and tended on grave markers speaks of the love family members still hold for the significant people they have lost.

Aaron D. McClelland, RPCc

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