Mourning in America

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

Our comfort level with death suddenly takes center stage when we lose an icon like Ronald Reagan.

By Jeanie Lerche Davis
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

It's an American milestone: A president has passed on. Whatever your politics, the event of Ronald Reagan's death has likely stirred emotions.

When we lose such a historic figure, we indeed feel the loss. They have spoken to us in our homes. We know their personas. We know many details of their lives. With their loss, we face issues of our own regarding death.

How should we deal with these feelings? Are some people likely to have more problems than others? Is what we're feeling "real" grief? How can we get past this?

When Icons Die

In the American tradition, Reagan had indeed become an icon, says Edward Volkman, MD, professor psychiatry at Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia.

"He symbolized optimism, patriotism, the Irish humorist's view of the world," Volkman tells WebMD. "Even people who opposed him politically liked him personally. And he lived a long, fulfilling life. I'd forgotten that he had cancer twice, was shot, and survived it all to live a good many more years."

With the president's decline into Alzheimer's disease, he became all the more mortal. "We're also grieving for a wife who had to watch it happen," says Volkman. "We wonder how we would have handled the situation. We felt the poignancy of Nancy Reagan's situation. She was losing the love of her life. While he was there, he wasn't there. That gets to us."

Our own mortality may begin to loom larger. After all, two decades have passed since the president's first inauguration. No one's getting any younger. "We're grieving over our own lost youth and happier times," notes Volkman.

For many people, long-buried memories likely come flooding back. "We remember authority figures from our childhood -- our dads, granddads, people of great importance we have had in our lives," says Blair Justice, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at The University of Texas School of Public Health at Houston. "This is an opportunity to deal with those feelings again, if they haven't been dealt with."

Indeed, we may be grieving for our own losses, says Dominick Flarey, PhD, a certified grief counselor and executive director of the American Academy of Grief Counseling.

"We see people going by the casket crying, we see Nancy Reagan kissing his casket. That really sparks a call to your own loss," Flarey tells WebMD. "Maybe we have walked behind a casket, remember the moment when we were told our mom, our spouse, our child died. Just for a second you go back to that place. I walked behind two caskets when I was young, when I lost both my parents. I know how hard it is. It brings me to that time again."

Rituals Help Us Heal

Your sadness is very real and very normal, says Flarey. "You never get over the loss of someone you love. But you can get on with your life. Cherish the person, cherish the memory, and realize that this event made you pause for a moment and remember it. But you walked behind that casket with love, and you want to remember that love. Just don't dwell on it."

The funeral process gives us time to heal, he says. "A funeral is about honoring the person we loved. It's a ritual of honor. Maybe we shouldn't focus on how the death affected us, but on how we honored that person. The funeral is actually for the living, a piece of the grieving process. It is a ritual of honor."

In fact, every culture has such a ritual, notes Justice. "It's universal in origin. These rituals give our lives a sense of order. We can feel strength from this communal grieving. Mother Theresa talked about the strength in sharing these experiences. But it's something to reflect on -- not just get buried in a sense of melancholy."

The rituals also give us permission to express grief, Justice says. "A president's death, because it generates emotions, can help us process our own memories. An event like this can actually be very healing."

Reagan's legacy can also be healing because it was admirable, says Justice. "He had strong principles that he acted on. He engaged in the problems of other nations. He consciously acted on this principle: When you have enemies, you don't disengage with them. And the results were good." The Cold War ended during his presidency, and the Berlin Wall came down.

A note of comfort comes from neuroscientists: The National Academy of Sciences recognized the soul's existence at a recent conference.

"It's very clear, the soul is not a biological part of the body that you can cut out," says Justice. "But everyone has something called essence, and when it's touched, the [part of the brain called the] amygdala becomes activated. When there's learning, when something matters, the brain cell synapses -- connections between cells -- actually are changed. That is our essence, what neuroscientists recognize as the soul.

"Physicists say the soul cannot be destroyed," he tells WebMD. "It was there at our beginning. We came out of eternity, and we are called into this experience called human life that has this [earthly] feature, the body. When the body ceases functioning, that doesn't mean we aren't still in eternity. We never left eternity. The human life is just a spatial-temporal sandbox to play in or mess up. When it's over, we go back to where we came from."

Published June 9, 2004.

SOURCES: Edward Volkman, MD, professor psychiatry, Temple University School of Medicine, Philadelphia. Blair Justice, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology, The University of Texas School of Public Health, Houston. Dominick Flarey, PhD, certified grief counselor; executive director, American Academy of Grief Counseling.

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