• Kasia Borowczak

Coversation with Gloria Galván - tanatologist from Mexico

Kasia - How would you explain what the term thanatology means and what you do?

Gloria - Well, thanatology comes from a word ‘thanatos’ which means death. Initially it was a specialty focused only on loss through death but today it is commonly used for any type of loss. What is a loss? I always say that it is something you had and now you don't have. And this loss implies sorrow. It may be that you have been diagnosed with a serious illness or someone close to you has died, it may be that you lost your home as it happens in wars, any type of loss that is affecting you and involves grief. So that's where we as thanatologists step in as a support, to accompany in a bereavement process.

Kasia - What is the difference between attending a session with a psychologist and a session with a thanatologist?

Gloria - The thanatological session is shorter because it is specifically focused on the subject of a loss. Of course we touch sensitive points, because grief awakens other emotions that are not resolved and we thanatologists work with them, but we mainly focus on healing the grief and reaching the final phase, which is acceptance. A therapy with a psychologist is much deeper, much longer and also involves other topics.

Kasia - Do you think that every loss can be transformed into strength and acceptance?

Gloria - Well focused, yes. That's where our work starts. There are people who say that time heals everything, but that’s not really true. Time alone is not going to cure anything.

You can drag it along for years without linking it to an unresolved grief. You just think that you are becoming bitter, that life is not worth it or you are always sad. These are things that we have not healed, so it is important to seek support if you really need it. Not everyone needs help, not all grieving processes are that complicated, but if you need it, go ahead.

Kasia - Yes, it is said very often that with time it gets better and this is true to some extent. But as you just said, only time, without an effort from your part, will not cure the sorrow.

Gloria - Exactly.

Kasia - Now you are seeing much more patients, but it is not only because of the pandemic and the fact that more people have died and as a consequence more people are grieving, but because now we have more free time and we start realising that something, a loss in our life, has not been resolved or healed.

Gloria - Exactly, yes. We kind of learnt to leave it by the side and say "I'm fine, I'm getting on with my life, I'm still working, I'm meeting my friends, I know how to distract myself." And now when everything is closed, you do not go out with your friends and no longer go to work, you have to face yourself.

Kasia - Do you think that dealing with the emotions related to a loss as soon as possible can have a positive effect on people who are grieving?

Gloria - Yes of course, but there is also a process. I am contacted very often when a loss has just happened, for example the following day. And I understand it, because it is such a strong pain that you no longer want to feel it. But for me, in my personal experience it has been easier to work in the stage where anger or sadness occur, because there is a clearer idea of ​​what we want to heal. When the loss is very recent, we are in denial and do not see much sense in getting help or want someone to take this pain away from us immediately. In the end it cannot be like that because feeling pain is necessary to get to the next stages.

Kasia - And do you think that people who have lost someone important in their life feel supported by their family and society in Mexico? I'm curious because as a non-Mexican person, I always associate Mexico with the celebration of the Day of the Dead and the people who accompany them.

Gloria - In Mexico, now you are freer to express your loss on social media, you feel more confident in putting a photo or a message showing that you had a loss, and you know that everyone is going to support you. You don’t do it for this reason but you know that there is going to be a good response and support from all. When there is no pandemic, wakes are like a party. They are very large, people bring food, dance and stay together. It is more difficult when this moment passes, and you return to being alone at home. But I think we are very good, at least, at being there during this moment. Having said that, nothing is going to give you back the person you lost, and nothing is going to take away the pain you feel. It may be during the anger stage when we may feel that no one understands us and it bothers us that people around us do not give us what we truly need. I believe that we need a little more empathy and understanding that the grieving person has their process and nothing is going to console them at this precise moment. You can try to be as loving as you can, but nothing is going to give them back the person who died. Nothing. So there is no way to fully comfort them. You can accompany them through this, and there are many ways to do it, but that’s the only thing you can do. And the grieving person, if they are a little empathic, understands that others are speaking from their heart but in reality there is nothing they can do at this time to take away their pain.

Kasia - It is very important what you are saying now, but it seems to me that many people are not aware of this process. For example in Poland, or as you say in Mexico, many people are with you at the beginning, when the funeral has to be prepared or when a loss has just happened. But later, during this next phase, where anger, loneliness, sadness appear, many people do not know that in this part of bereavement, a grieving person also needs support. But on the other hand, as you are saying, it is a very complex process and nothing and no one can console you. For this reason, people who go through this second phase feel very lonely but they do not know what is happening to them nor how to explain and express what is that they need. All these new emotions are like a roller coaster. One day you feel one way, another day you feel totally differently and this makes people around you uncertain on how to react and support them. It is a very difficult situation for both sides. What do you think?

Gloria - Yes, you just described exactly what grieving people go through, It's a roller coaster ride. You go up and down. Sometimes you feel good, sometimes you don't. And I think that this is when the therapists should step in to help understand that it is normal to feel this way. It is important to say that you can get through this process even though people cannot give you the answers you are looking for. In the end, the last stage is acceptance. This is not joy, because someone passed away. This is accepting that life goes on and that you can live fully even though this person you love is gone. Many people are afraid to go to therapy thinking that they might forget this person. It is never about forgetting the person you love. They may have passed away, but their love, their love for you, and your love for them is not going to end. It will just stop hurting. When you remember them, you won’t do it with pain but with love. And at the same time you accept that you have the right to continue your life fully and happily despite this loss. But what you just said is important, we really don't know how to behave in this situation.

Kasia - Maybe we behave like this because everyone is afraid of dying and when we have to support a person who is grieving, that reminds us that we are mortal and that the people we love will die as well.

Gloria - Yes, precisely. We do not know how to handle other people’s pain. Trying to do so reminds us that we are very vulnerable and that we can lose someone we love.

Kasia - What is the difference between talking about your grief with a professional and a friend? What different aspects can you expect from these two types of support?

Gloria- I believe that the difference is as with any other profession. I can ask a friend who has a business how they manage their accounting or I can ask an accountant. It is not that friends’ advice does not help us, they work to make us feel cared for and loved. This is very helpful, but as friends we are not that neutral and we can project our fears, ideas and beliefs. Someone professional will be more neutral and will guide you through the necessary path for you to heal.

Kasia - I wanted to ask you this to show the importance of seeing a professional because sometimes it seems to us that the support or conversations we receive from friends or family are enough and that we should talk to people who know us. But I think that it is also very important to speak with a psychologist or a thanatologist, someone who does not know our personal situation and can be more objective.

Gloria - Yes because professionals have knowledge in psychology, philosophy, ethics, medicine, so they see all the aspects of your situation.

Kasia - It's also about having this impartial space where you can talk only about yourself, your emotions and your difficulties.

Gloria - Yes, it is a safe space without judgment. I always say that going to therapy is very brave. Because you are going to face a lot of painful and not so pleasant things.

Kasia - And what about someone who doesn't want support in their grieving process even when they need it. What effects and difficulties can this person face in their life?

Gloria - In the end we cannot force anyone, we all have our time and our processes. But something unresolved is going to drag us down because it is like a snowball. It starts out small and it grows bigger with time and in the end it's going to affect you. Now there is a lot of knowledge and more studies showing that there are various physical illnesses that are caused by something emotionally unresolved. Emotions will have to come out one day and if you don't let them out little by little, they will end up exploding. Better safe than sorry. A stitch in time saves nine.

Kasia - A close person of mine, who supported me from the beginning, one day told me that he’d really want to support me more but also, that he thinks that there is a part of loneliness in the bereavement process that I have to go through alone.

Gloria - Yes, this is a very individual process, it is your own experience and learning. No one can take away the pain, but also no one is going to take away what you have learned in this process. We need strong emotions for the experience and growth to stay with us. Because you are not the same Kasia that you were a year ago. And this fortress that you have built after your loss is a great thing. No one will be able to take this strength, experience and growth from you. In the end, this is what crises in our lives are for. To grow. Because if we don't learn, then what a joke!

Kasia - I really like the word you just used 'Fortress'.

Gloria - Yes, because you will have more losses in your life and I am not saying that they will not affect you, but now you will have this strength. As if you used to have a box of tools with three little things and now it is a super box, it’s a proper workshop. You now have all the tools to face reality in a different way.

Kasia - When we spoke the last time you told me that knowing what your profession is, many people ask you if it is not too difficult for you to work with people who have lost someone or something. How do you normally answer them?

Gloria - I answer that I am astonished by the strength that human beings have. My patients leave me surprised because despite such adverse things in their lives, in the end I see them so complete and so determined to continue to live their life fully, in the best way possible and without this pain. Even though I know that at the beginning it can be a bit sad to share their experience and accompany them through this process, this fullfils me and makes me very happy. Acknowledging that the human being has this ability to get ahead despite adversity is admirable. Sometimes it makes me want to print diplomas for my patients because it is a great achievement. All people who seek help and work on their grief deserve recognition not from others but from themselves. Some people may not notice that they have changed and created this fortress but, in fact, they have.

Translated from Spanish by Kasia Borowczak

Corrected by Jen Fearnley