Monday, June 15, 2009

On Openings and Closure

Yesterday, the Monday Morning Crisis Quarterback ranted about how important the recovery of loved ones' remains is in the healing process. This got me thinking about how we as a culture and we as crisis responders think about the bodies of the dead.

When we think about Themes for crisis response, one that sometimes comes up is the issue of whether or not there will be an open casket at the funeral or visitation. Sometimes the death is so grisly that having an open casket is simply not an option. And those in the CISM biz will sometimes say, "Not having an open casket interferes with people's sense of closure."

I always cringe when I hear this, because it is said with such authority and as though any idiot could figure it out, but it isn't universally true. I had never been to a funeral with an open casket until I was an adult. Jewish funerals do not have open caskets. So failing to have an open casket doesn't interfere with anything for me or my family.

The signs and symptoms of distress that are displayed by those exposed to trauma, and the thoughts and feelings they report are so universal that it's easy to forget that this experience, like all experiences, is rooted in culture. Culture is the lens through which we see absolutely everything, and sometimes that changes what we see or how we see it. We tend to assume that the way we see things is the "normal" way, particularly if the culture we come from is dominant in our society. This is where the listening side of crisis intervention is so important.

It is not uncommon at all for me to hear, as I work with traumatized people, some discussion of whether or not there will be an open casket and how important having one is to the person and their sense of this being a "real" funeral. I know my job is to hear that distress, normalize it, and help the person cope with it. I try to say, "It sounds like having an open casket is very important to you. That makes sense, because it is part of how you understand death. Not having one takes this abnormal situation and makes it even more abnormal for you."

It is not my job, nor should it be anyone's job, to say, "You don't really need that. My family never has open caskets." Yet I also know that, during a group intervention, what I say will be heard by everyone in the group, so I also don't say, "Yes, having an open casket is very important for closure." Who knows what the next person in the circle is used to, or how that will or will not alienate them from the intervention and their sense of trust in me. On the other hand, I have been in interventions where my partner said just that, and it makes me cringe -- not for myself, I can handle it -- but for anyone else for whom closed caskets are the norm.

I don't mean to criticize my colleagues -- we all do the best we can. But how many other things come up in interventions that I, or they, treat as "just normal" when they're really cultural? It's something to think about. I guess Quarterbacks are only human, too.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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