Against the waning of bushfire grief

'Annual day of mourning for Victorian bushfires announced', The Herald Sun, 23 February 2009 An Australian long resident in Greece, I keep my gaze steadily fixed on the Wide Brown Land, which has now been doing its worst with regard to fire and flood for longer than anyone cares to think about. Dorothea McKellar would surely agree that the terror has been very much outweighing the beauty of late. Even as I write there is a huge fire raging on Wilson's Promontory, and NSW and Queensland continue to drown.

I am an email addict, and so it is easy for me to keep my finger on that faraway Antipodean pulse. My friends in country and city post almost daily in order to keep me informed as to how matters are developing.

My brother, who has been working with the SES, tells me of things that do not occur to me, such as the eerie silence in the burnt-out bush: there are no birds.

But he also tells me of the quirks of Fate: no birds except for some chooks that had a miraculous escape, as did their owners, who later collected 40 eggs. (Were they hard-boiled, wondered my brother?) The conscientious slog put in by the police in their search for the missing. The comforting and efficient organisational skills of the auxiliary service people, who are doing a sterling job of keeping the workers housed, fed and watered.

At the end of a long email, my brother, who wept on his return home, wrote: 'We did nothing wonderful or heroic, but we helped, and that is why we went.' He and his team may go again, in several weeks' time, and no doubt the efforts of huge numbers of helpers will still be going on.

And yet, my other correspondents are now ruefully commenting on the less attractive aspects of human nature. When I wrote some days ago that we simply had to maintain our compassion, one friend agreed, but noted that the recriminations had already started, and that 'the knives are out'. Another castigated herself for her own creeping numbness, despite the continuing reports of suffering, sorrow and danger.

This is the way it seems to be, always; perhaps it is a harsh fact that humans can take only so much of the adrenalin rush, and thus have only a limited amount of sympathy to give, with not much left over for later.

Most people over the age of 50 have experienced bereavement, and it is often noted that when the crisis is at its height, suffering people show remarkable courage, while those near to them demonstrate great sympathy in giving solace. But when the funeral meats have gone, and when even the closest mourners begin to pick up the threads of their own lives, the bereaved person is left to face the long haul, often alone.

The Greek way of death involves the ritual replaying of grief. Memorial services are held eight, and then 40 days after a death, and then again at six months and a year. Grief is renewed, and an adrenalin flow is almost forced, I think, but there is a noticeable winding down of both with each successive occasion.

The mourners gather once more to support the bereaved, and empathy reasserts itself; some acceptance of absence and loss also begins to take place as a result of the repeated process.

Somehow, traditional societies learned long ago what grief counsellors learned only recently. The Greek method allows people to reshape themselves after loss, so that they can carry on living.

At times of crisis, there is usually a strong and spontaneous reaction of generous fellow-feeling: there, but for the grace of God, go I. But it is only natural that the intensity should die away. The Greek process, it seems to me, accomplishes this diminishing effectively.

Human kind cannot bear too much reality, and both pain and memory have to be blunted, for psychic survival cannot happen otherwise. But sympathy and empathy should remain fresh, if at all possible. Maintaining the freshness of both is often hard work. But it is very necessary.

But really, it doesn't even have to be too hard. All we have to do is remind ourselves that we all bleed in the same way.

Red Cross Bushfire Appeal

Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an Australian writer who has been based in Greece for 28 years. She has had eight books published. Her most recent is No Time For Dances.


Topic tags: gillian bouras, greek, way of death, greece, ritual replaying grief, victorian bushfires, queensland flood



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Existing comments

Thank you, Paul, and thank you all who want Religion Report, as well as Stephen Crittenden's reporting of it back on Radio National.

Ilona | 26 February 2009  

I live abroad, too, in Japan. Over the past number of years I have had friends/acquaintances here pass away. The most impressive for me was exactly as Gillian has noted in her own traditional milieu of Greece - a similar diminution of the grief for those left behind in the land of the living as ceremonies immediately upon death followed by ceremonies weekly for seven weeks - then after a year, after three years and beyond. By the latter stages it becomes a means of reinforcing distancing family relationships - the ties held firmly by that shared loss of years before!

My own Anglo-Aussie ways included gifts of food for the bereaved family, especially from neighbours, lots of support to the funeral and to shortly thereafter and then a distancing - ostensibly to allow people to regain there composure but in fact, to my mind, just as the grieving person was coming out of the numbness of shock and really requiring the highest degree of loving support.

Thank-you Gillian for reminding us all there are other ways which more properly nurture the needs of loss.

Jim KABLE | 27 February 2009  

Thank you for the information. The web is so full of crap it is becoming difficult to find exactly what you are looking for these days. Have you got RSS on this site?

dr denese microdermabrasion | 29 December 2010  

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