We Need to Talk About Death
Addressing the grieving process.
Posted March 9, 2017
Whether we like it or not one of the only sure fire things in life is that we are all going die. It is one of the subjects that we in the West are discomforted by, embarrassed about and that many of us avoid and this includes avoiding the people who are experiencing grief or who are dying. This is a subject close to my heart as when I was still a teenager one of my brother’s was killed. I have never forgotten the absolute silence that greeted me when I returned to work. No-one knew what to say to me and I felt I was going slightly mad. I had had a catastrophic, life-changing experience and everyone at work pretended it hadn’t happened or else they avoided me. I felt like a pariah and I left a month later although I had worked there happily for over a year.
We don’t talk about death. We talk about sex, drugs and money. We teach our children about these subjects but we don’t talk about death and dying. Death was so common in the 19th century that it was readily addressed. People wore black if they were in mourning and were treated accordingly. If people were dying they planned their funerals with their family and everyone knew to express their condolences if they came across someone who was bereaved. It seems we’ve got out of the habit and the subject has become taboo.
We need to talk to our young about death and dying and we need to talk among ourselves openly about grieving. Pets are a good start. We need to discuss how we feel about their death and encourage our children to do the same. We need to remember the pet fondly and refer to it often. Then we need to employ this process when discussing the death of a loved one or friend. Experience creates empathy and then they in turn will identify with those experiencing loss and will be better equipped to respond kindly and appropriately.
How we respond personally to the death of someone close to us will of course depend hugely on what that person meant to us when they were alive. There are widely believed to be several stages to the grieving process but I personally believe they can come in any order and all stages can be experienced alongside each other. It is possible to feel several contrasting emotions at once. It is possible both to miss the person enormously and be furiously angry with them, too. There is no accepted time frame in order to come to terms with the death of someone—it takes as long as it takes. You do not “get over” the death of someone but you do, in time, learn to live with their loss. The fact that you miss the person is an indication of the part they had in your life when they were alive.
Elizabeth Kubler Ross outlined the five stages of grief and they are worth reading just so you can know what to expect in very general terms, for yourself and others.
1) Denial: This is not happening to me. Sometimes people continue to act as though the deceased person is still alive. An expectation that any minute they will walk through the door and life will continue as “normal”.
2) Anger: Why me? How dare the person die, leave me? A feeling of rage that this has happened.
3) Bargaining: Please don’t let my loved one die…I’ll be good forever. If only they hadn’t died. Pleading, wishing, bargaining with a higher power.
5) Acceptance: This is not resignation to the death of the person but acceptance. An ability to look forward and enjoy your own life whilst remembering happy times with the deceased and recognizing that life goes on.
We need, as a society, to acknowledge this grieving process; to talk openly to people living with a terminal condition and be kind and available. When we shun those experiencing death or loss we shut ourselves off from our more compassionate, empathetic selves and reduce our capacity to relate to those in distress.
However you choose to grieve, we as a society can help. We can remind ourselves that it is part of the process of being human and we can prepare our children by talking about loved ones or people they know who have died. We can be more open about our feelings and when we meet someone bereaved or dying we can approach them and ask how they are. They will let us know if they want to address their situation by continuing to talk to us or by changing the subject or by moving on. Death is not frightening, we just think it is because it has become so unfamiliar. It is just a part of life and we need to stop fearing the reality of death and instead start embracing it, discussing it and familiarizing ourselves with it so we can remove the scare factor for the sake of ourselves and the next generation.
Kubler-Ross, E (1969) On Death and Dying, Macmillan, New York