Readers in Council,
The Japan Times,
5-4, Shibaura 4-chome,
Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-023
When tragedy and loss occur, when people vent their sad emotions, we cannot say that we are witnessing their grief. That is what we commonly say, what is written and spoken in the media and even what professionals loosely say. Instead, what we are witnessing is mourning, which is a prepared, ritualized display for public eyes. Mourning is not the same as grief, but the confusion of one with the other is one of the common confusions of life - like confusing school with education, or law with justice, or democracy with freedom, or religion with faith, information with knowledge, etc. Grief is chaotic and socially dangerous, but mourning applies a structure to the emotional purge that helps channel and contain it for the preservation of society.
So I think that although Roger Pulvers’ assertion in his June 12 article “Barber’s cutting comment denies other’s humanity - and hers, too,” that people everywhere experience “the very same grief” to “the very same degree” might not be true, it survives William McOmie’s thoughtful criticism in his June 30 letter “Differences in experiencing grief.”
Claiming that Pulvers fails to properly account for cultural and individualistic differences among people McOmie asks “what role would culture and environment, personal history and personality possibly play?” The answer is mourning. We may say that those things inform one’s mourning behavior primarily, rather than one’s experience of grief - which also might be true, but it may be outside our ken. A better criticism might be to describe the futility of trying to talk meaningfully about people’s grief at all rather than challenge Pulvers’ description from the angle of culture. So regardless of whose position is correct, I think Pulvers’ description remains intact for now.
Published on Sunday, July 3, 2011 as “Grief not the same as mourning.”
This is a very academic letter, involving intricacies of semantics and debate in Roger Pulvers’ June 12 article, and one commenting letter. Readers unfamiliar with the original article and subsequent letter might see no point to mine. But I understand if one observes that this is not my usual kind of letter - I mean, not one of my usual themes. But I disagree. From the start my intention was to remind readers that grief and mourning are not the same thing, just as other things that are commonly taken as synonymous are, in fact, not. And that is a common theme of mine. It is important to continually remind the public not only about language but concepts, and the mistakes we make by mixing separate things with ill-considered language. My position further identifies me as a philosophic nominalist in that I see the identity and reality of things in the names they bear. Calling something by an improper name means to me that one’s understanding is way off base from the start.