PARIS — French workers are allowed up to four leave days to celebrate their entrance into a civil union pact. But if a partner or, heaven forbid, child should die, they get just two. Losing a parent or sibling warrants just one single day off work. And there's no legal leave for the death of a grandparent. Mourning, in other words, is something people are expected to do on their own time.
The implicit message here is that the bereaved should shrug off the emotions people once made a point of exposing in public. At the very least they should bury those feelings so as not to embarrass the living.
One is supposed to mourn and be quick about it, "to make your mourning," as we say in French.
"This way of putting it alludes to a technique, the success of which depends exclusively on the subject's good will," says philosopher Michael Foessel. Behind the semantics, he sees "a management-oriented conception of loss, the idea that it's a passing feeling to be suppressed as soon as possible" — perhaps with the help of specialized coaches who promise to bring their clients better "stress management."
Obviously, the rituals that used to accompany the passing of a loved one have become more discreet. Long gone is the time when widows would dress in black and widowers wore black armbands over their dark suits. We've also lost the habit of long funeral marches to accompany hearses. Nowadays, coffins are taken to graveyards quietly. The cemetaries themselves have been pushed back to the outskirts of the main cities.
In the case of cremation, ashes are often scattered in "remembrance gardens," which are often just a patch of grass. And with the exception of All Saints' Day (Nov. 1), occasions when people come together to remember the departed have almost disappeared. What remains is a candle burning on top of the fireplace, a framed picture, perhaps a walk where that person liked to be.
Suffering in solitude
Hidden away inside homes, mourning is now banned from public life. It's a private accident that those whom we call "mourners" only prolong in secret, so much so that "many complain of not being able to talk about their suffering and of annoying others around them," says Marie-Frédérique Bacqué, psychoanalyst and president of the association Society of Thanatology. "They feel a little excluded."
They also need time, which is something society as a whole has difficulty accepting. "To turn down an invitation to a party because you've lost a brother some time ago is considered obscene," says Belgian philosopher Vinciane Despret. "What's not acceptable is to use your sadness to justify your refusal of a social life."
"The price to pay for the disappearance of codified mourning rituals is that we can no longer be sad," she adds. "Because when you can't express your sadness, it becomes difficult to live with it."
Ultimately, that means going on as if nothing happened, since "making your mourning" implies putting aside, or even forgetting the dead — a fitting approach for a society obsessed with the concept of "resilience," which is defined by an organism's ability to recover its initial properties after a shock.
"The expression "to make your mourning" is tarnished," Marie-Frédérique Bacqué explains. "It originated from a misinterpretation of Freud's work, in which he explained that at the end of the mourning period, the subject is able to reinvest in a new love object. A lot of doctors and psychologists have taken this conclusion for granted, even though it was merely a vain wish, unconfirmed by clinical practice. In reality, the emotional bond with the deceased doesn't vanish instantly."
"To make your mourning is to be able to think about that person without sinking into the affliction you felt at the beginning," she adds. "After some time, the mourner can start talking about the deceased again, look at pictures, listen to their voice, without despair. It's not about detaching yourself from them."
A mark of attachment
And yet, it's what society has come to demand since the end of World War II. Back then, the goal was to contain the suffering caused by the loss of human lives so as to prevent this negative feeling from spoiling the heroic image of soldiers who died in battle. Today, the motivations are very different indeed.
In a secular and materialistic world that has stopped believing in an invisible hereafter inhabited by the souls of the dead, those who cry for their lost ones are accused of living in slow-motion. We fear they might not be efficient enough. "Asking people to "manage" their mourning takes us back to a performance or self-control ideal that denies what's indissoluble in human loss," Michael Foessel explains.
"Those who say mourning should be quick don't understand that it is a long process that's always challenged by life events," says José Morel Cinq-Mars, a psychoanalyst who worked for seven years with families who had lost one of their children. Morel Cinq-Mars describes how in some cases, just as the suffering had started to dim, the bereaved can be suddenly overwhelmed by new waves of grief. "With the start of the school year, one mother was taken back to the suffering that followed her child's death," she says. "She remembered that he would have started primary school then, if he was still there."
That's not to say there is no such thing as pathological mourning. "All experts consider that if, after two years, mourners are still in poor mental condition, we have to treat them," explains Alain Sauteraud, a psychiatrist in Bordeaux. "Sadness remains for the rest of your life. It's the mark of attachment. But if somebody has anxiety attacks at the mention of the deceased, if he's brought down by their absence or can't fullfil certain fundamental tasks, it means that the mourning has been frozen either in an excess of emotion or in overwhelming thoughts."
It's also true that circumstances influence the scope and scale of grief one can feel. "On average, acute mourning lasts between three and four months," Alain Sauteraud says. "But how can we compare the death of a father at the age of 87 after a long battle with prostate cancer to that of an 8-year-old after an anaesthesia went wrong?"