Conversations in Grief Blog: Let's Talk About Death
Before the arrival of COVID-19, most of us were able to live in a world rarely touched by death. Unless someone we know (or ourselves) has a terminal diagnosis or a sudden and tragic situation, in our western culture, we are usually able to “live our best lives” free of encountering death. 2020 changed some of that when our newsfeeds began updating the COVID-19 death toll as it climbed (and continues to climb). When we put our normal end-of-life and funeral practices on hold due to safety concerns, it forced too many families to say goodbye via video screen. Being noticed is what death is asking, and for many of us, it has become a constant source of fear and anxiety.
It is natural to be afraid of death. This fear keeps us alive most days. In the simple acts of washing our hands and properly cooking our food, we keep sickness and death at bay. Humans have gotten very good at avoiding death, and that’s what makes it so hard to bear. It fills us with fear, anxiety, and sorrow to think of our life and the lives of those we love coming to an end. Because it brings up unpleasant emotions, we avoid even talking about it. But not talking about death won’t make it go away. It isn’t the bogeyman in a campfire story that appears at the mention of its name but the natural end to the journey of life. Death is natural and inevitable, and we can’t will it away by ignoring it.
In September of 2011, Jon Underwood, after working for a year on a project on death, hosted the very first “Death Café “in his home in the U.K. This event was to gather people in a “relaxing environment,” with refreshments, to talk about death. The goal was an open dialogue about all things related to death. This event launched the “Death Café social franchise,” which has since hosted 12,351 café conversations in 78 countries. To host an event, one only needs a host/facilitator, a relaxing place to meet, refreshments, and people who want to talk about death. Death Cafés have helped to begin stripping away the taboos around talking about death and dying. These events, and others like them, have helped to encourage people to be honest about their thoughts, fears and to work toward death acceptance.
When we are honest with ourselves about our fears and concerns over death and dying, we can move towards accepting death as part of our life experience. There is value in contemplating our mortality and in talking about our death with our loved ones. Yes, it is hard and painful at times. But it can also be helpful. Learning about end-of-life issues like estate planning, advance directives, and putting in writing what we would like to have done with our bodies when we die, can help us make peace with death. It can also help support our loved ones when the time comes. Years ago, my dad mailed me his will along with what he would like done when he dies. I know when the time comes, what is in that envelope will guide me in being able to fulfill his desires when he can no longer speak to them. It provides me with peace of mind, and it exists because we were willing to talk about those things.
It’s time to talk about hard things like death and dying. To allow ourselves to be uncomfortable, that we may better understand our relationship to our own mortality, and to ease our passing for those we leave behind. Death acceptance will not erase the pain we feel when someone we love dies. But knowing they were at peace with what was to come helps provide us comfort as we grieve, and making that peace for ourselves allows us to live fuller. Yes, this life will end. But we can embrace all it has to offer until our time comes.