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Grief exploited for political purposes

Grief exploited for political purposesJehan Nassif, 18 years old, died of meningicoccal disease. The refrain in the media was "her death could have been avoided". The NSW Opposition has taken up the cry. Leader Peter Debnam has promised a no confidence vote against the government's Minister for Health, John Hatzistergos. Meanwhile, Jehan's family is grieving her death and looking for an explanation.

Sudden death, particularly of a young person, has its own demands. Family and friends are not prepared. Life and liveliness, promise and youth are the context. Death is the disruption, the destruction of a dream. The initial reaction is shock, then unbelief, denial and anger. The family does not want to, cannot, believe that life, this life, should end, now, here and suddenly. This is a normal and healthy reaction.

The gradual adjustment to this loss begins with the funeral preparations, where the thinking and shock can be put on hold. Practical considerations can absorb energy and create an immediate focus. There will be time for the investigations and the recriminations. Now there is only time for honouring and remembering and farewelling, the rest can wait.

Only, it cannot wait. Private grief like that experienced by Jehan Nassif's family becomes fuel for the imagination of the general public. The outpouring of feeling is charged with indignation. How could this happen? The questioning intrudes. The inquiry cannot wait.

Grief exploited for political purposesThis politicisation of grief is not uncommon. Some years ago, a young woman died at the Big Day Out. Elements of the inquest continued for some years afterwards, including analysis of the band and its responsibility. Currently, any death associated with possible failures of the health system is fair game. Personal grief becomes public property. More than this, it can become political capital.

There is a public face to grief, and funerals are an important expression of this. The structured and ritualised expressions are the beginnings of mourning, that time of supported and acknowledged sadness that enables people to come to grips with loss. It is both a permissive and freeing time, where there can be the beginning of acceptance and a re-ordering that enable people to recover from tragedy or death. We need this public side to our grief; many cultures have structured and detailed customs related to mourning. In our secular western society we tend to muddle through, with some traditional religious rituals and some evolving attitudes to death that serve us well enough. Until, that is, our mourning is structured in ways that are not helpful.

Accountability and blame have their place in inquests. There is little room for them in mourning. There is the world of difference between the anger of a family feeling robbed of their daughter and the genuine, and manufactured, cries of injustice linked to purported failures of 'the system'.

The family's anger has its roots in loss. It is more than rage against the coming of the night. It could well include the anger that spurs one on to discover what went wrong and why a life was lost. But, at heart, for a grieving mother, father, friend and family, this anger is the cry of why? Why her? Why us?

Grief exploited for political purposesIt is rage addressed to God and to the Universe. This cry has no answer, none that any inquest could provide. It is the instinctive and healthy assertion of individual uniqueness in the face of the eternal law. This energy is not wasted, nor futile. It is part of the sanctity of grief: every death is special and some of them are tragic. A woman said to me after the funeral of her aunt, "I wish I came from a family who could wail!" This is what the grief-anger is about.

Politicisation of grief will occur. It is inevitable. But, it is important that the anger which can be a part of mourning, not be confused with the anger that demands explanations. They can become intertwined. People may talk about the closure associated with explanations and resolutions. They have more difficulty articulating the anger at the loss of meaning a tragic death occasions. Only the safety and support of a mourning space and place allow for new meaning to emerge. This is where real healing begins.



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