There are a few things that the Irish do exceedingly well. We do a good pint, a good cup of tea, a great roast, and we do an excellent death.
We have always known we have at least that over the British, but it’s possible now that we have academic research to back it up.
A paper recently published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress found Irish respondents were less likely to have signs of prolonged grief.
The study recognized that after someone we care about dies “intense feelings of sadness and anger, as well as ruminative thoughts about the deceased, are… considered normal psychological reactions to the loss of a loved one.”
But “a small minority (10–20 per cent) experience chronic psychological distress in the form of grief-related mental health problems, depression, or posttraumatic stress” long after the death has occurred.
Enter Prolonged Grief Disorder (PSG), which is recognized in two of the diagnostic bibles of medicine – the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases and the latest edition of the Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
PSG is different from “regular garden variety grief” and must involve a “pervasive longing or yearning for the deceased and a concern with the deceased” alongside “cognitive and emotional difficulties” for at least six to 12 months after the death. All of which impairs the sufferer’s ability to function.
The study had two samples of bereaved adults (1,012 from the UK and 1,011 from Ireland) taking the International Grief Questionnaire.
The research found 15.3 per cent of the UK respondents indicated signs of prolonged grief compared with 10.9 per cent of Irish respondents.
It feels like when someone dies they are only ever passed through the hands of friends until they are put at rest
Researchers from the University of Ulster, Maynooth University and Napier University say “cultural differences with regard to death may be an explanatory factor”.
“For example, in Ireland, it is customary to hold a wake (ie social gathering prior to a funeral) during which family, friends, neighbors, work colleagues, and acquaintances can come to pay their respects and support the bereaved,” the researchers explained.
“Hence, it may be that there is a greater sense of community within the Irish bereavement culture, with it being widely established that social support plays a key role in determining the ability of the bereaved to adjust to their loss.”
It might sound counterintuitive to Irish funeral first-timers, who can get quite a shock seeing a dead body in a house as others mill about calmly eating sandwidges. They might find it a bit spooky that we take turns sitting up with the deceased through the night and maybe consider it a bit disrespectful when the drink comes out. But who knew seeing granny laid out in the good room all day while shaking the hands of people filing across her coffin she was going “does n’t she look well” she could actually be good for our mental health?
The research says that, in comparison, death in the UK is seen as “private”. As it is in other cultures – in Anglo-Australia it would almost be seen as imposing to attend a funeral without being close family or friends. Usually the body is whisked away to a corporate funeral home chain where it may be held for weeks depending on burial or cremation waits. There is rarely an open casket. The funeral usually happens in a small chapel with a strict start and end. There may be some food afterwards but usually everyone is home by 5pm. Personally, without seeing the body and sitting with the reality, it has the confusing effect of seeing your loved one alive one day and then on a memorial power point the next. They have just gone and you are expected to accept it as the crematorium curtains shunt across the coffin slowly.
[ Sorry for Your Trouble: The Irish Way of Death – Funerals, wakes and handshakes ]
But in Ireland, from the wake to the removal, to the funeral and the afters, it’s truly a community event and a celebration of life. There’s something for everyone – nosy neighbors finally getting a chance to have a goo inside the house, those left behind hearing little stories about their loved one’s impact on others and the chance for those who can’t talk about death to sing grief out instead. We all know a professional funeral attendant who eagerly scans RIP.ie for events in the surrounding square mile radius, such is their social appeal.
There is a sense that grief is a collective responsibility, to be shouldered together. The volunteers carry the coffin. The people who come out to form a silent guard along the road when the hearse makes its final lap of the home. In parts of the country neighbors will often take to the ground to dig the grave themselves. In this way it feels like when someone dies they are only ever passed through the hands of friends until they are put at rest.
It’s no coincidence we might feel better about the whole business here.