Coping with the Death of a Loved One

The loss of a loved one is a sorrowful and emotional occurrence. Death is a loss that one can never recover from or forget, and one can just cope with it. The conversations about death are difficult as depicted by The Clan of One-Breasted Women by Terry Tempest Williams and Coming Home Again by Chang-Rae Lee. The two authors demonstrate that having close people that suffer life-limiting illnesses equates to “living with death”. In his story, Lee narrates about his mother’s illness and the family struggle to cope with her condition, while Williams tells the reader about how she contends with the loss of her mother and other family members. Although their stories are different, both authors illustrate that coping with a terminal illness and the inevitable death of a loved one is disheartening. Consequently, people use various approaches to cope with death including anticipatory grief, denial, memories, cultural strategies such as family unity and rituals, and resolutions.

Anticipatory grief is the first way of dealing with inevitable death. Knowing that a loved one is going to die is difficult. However, very often people may know that they are going to lose their loved ones, and there is nothing they can do to avert the death, especially if they suffer chronic ailments. For example, Williams recounts the initial illness and the subsequent deaths of the members of her family or what she calls “family nightmare”. Her mother’s diagnosis of ovarian cancer completely changes her life as the author realizes that she is going to lose the person she loves the same way she lost her grandmothers and her aunts. Similarly, Lee also tries to deal with his mother’s deteriorating health caused by stomach cancer. It breaks his heart to see his mother suffering as she has to use an electronic pump to eat. Nevertheless, all that Lee can do to try and cope with the impending loss is to cook his mother’s favorite meals, even knowing that it is difficult for her to eat.


Denial and disbelief is the second mechanism following the anticipatory grief. The given mechanism is used at a point when the inevitable happens and the loved one dies. When death strikes, individuals usually undergo a range of emotions, including denial, guilt, and regret. In addition, people often try to analyze and determine what could have happened differently. For instance, Williams feels that she needs an answer to the question why she lost so many special people, saying: “I must question everything”. The author feels that “Mormons have a low rate of cancer” and some external forces caused the illness in her family. Williams believes that the reason for cancer in her family arises from the dropping of bombs in Utah/Nevada desert during the 1950’s and 1960’s. She states that such activities resulted in the “clan of one-breasted women” and have caused deaths of seven members of her family and occurrence of critical conditions in others. Williams feels that the government must be held accountable for the deaths of her family. Similarly, Lee is also in denial following his mother’s illness and death because “in a brief week she was dead” and he considered that he had not been kind to her, especially as a teenager. The author feels that he did not pay enough attention to his mother, and he could treat her better, if only he could turn back the time. Lee blames the time he spent schooling in Exeter because he feels that it was the time when he and his mother became distant. Lee feels that cooking and maintaining the family like his mother would make him feel better.

Memories are one of the best coping mechanisms following the demise of a loved one. Memories reflect a celebration of life and serve as an indication of a loss. For example, Lee reflects on his mother’s outstanding cooking skills, attention to details, and selfless attitude. The author remembers his childhood and how he could always help his mother in the kitchen. Consequently, he attributes his culinary skills to her. Lee appreciates that his mother did all she could to preserve their Korean culture, and he realizes that he must strive to do the same in honor of her memory. Williams also shares the memories about her loved ones. Williams recounts how her mother taught her the Mormon culture and such virtues as obedience. Through her memories, Williams realizes that the women in her family had died heroic deaths battling with cancer that had become part of their lives. The author feels happy that she cared for them, bathed them, and listened to their secrets. She recounts witnessing their last breaths and although it was difficult, it seems to have helped her adjust to the losses.

Culture plays a crucial role in understanding and dealing with the loss of a loved one. Grief is a family matter as the family members needs to deal with new structures and dynamics as they watch one of them slowly dying. The Korean culture is not different from the Mormon one. For example, family unity is one of the underlying coping mechanisms displayed across the different cultures. In Williams' case, the unification of the extended family caused by confronting cancer is evident and caring for the sick is the responsibility of all. For Lee, the family forms the core support in times of death and illnesses. Lee, his father, and his sister adjust their routines to ensure that they spend time with their mother. The two accounts reveal that death leaves a huge gap in the family that nobody can ever fill.

Such rituals as eating together also form a basis for dealing with a loss. For example, Lee’s family strives to eat together, regardless of the fact that his mother can hardly eat anything. However, the bond formed by eating together and the effort made by Lee to cook his mother's favorite Korean foods, such as kalbi and kimchi, help concur the feelings of loss. Williams gathers some crucial information regarding the loss of her mother and other relatives as she is eating with her father. The author realizes that the deaths of her loved ones were avoidable, and she vows to find more information to confirm that she was right. Eating together and maintaining close contact after the passing of a loved one gives the family reassurance that they are experiencing the loss together.

Resolution is the final stage of coping with death. By this time, the bereaved are ready to confront issues that were previously dormant and unresolved for many years. For instance, Williams questions the Mormon’s absolute blind obedience in the name of patriotism, and the federal state’s sovereign immunity in the issue of nuclear testing. Motivated by her dream vision, Williams joins other members of her community in protest of the nuclear testing. The author knows that punitive damages cannot bring back hear family, but it would give her confidence that she can receive the answers that may help eradicate the condition that continues affecting numerous families. Lee also experiences a moment of resolution. He is happy that he has come back home again and spent time with his family during his mother’s final days. Such deed lessened some of the guilt that he had held for not paying enough attention to his mother. Lee realizes that he treated his mother unfairly sometimes, even though she considered her history and achievements immaterial, and all she cared about was to keep the family happy and contented. Lee hopes to keep his mother’s memory alive through his cooking, since that is what he remembers best.

Overall, coping with death requires an individual to work through a variety of tasks. Accepting death is hard no matter how prepared individuals may be. Dealing with the loss requires the bereaved to accept it as a real event, fully experience the pain, transition their thinking of that person to a memory, and find the meaning of the loss to overcome it. The ultimate goal of coping is not to forget the loved ones but to help individuals go through the loss and re-enter a normal daily life.

Feb 7, 2020 in Research
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