I’ve been reading Joan Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking, which is about losing her husband and her daughter falling very ill, all in a short space of time. I haven’t finished it yet, but there have been many insights that were familiar to me, about death and grieving and how our society approaches both of these.
Didion writes: Philippe Aries, in a series of lectures he delivered at John Hopkins in 1973, noted that beginning in about 1930, there had been in most Western countries…a revolution in accepted attitudes towards death. “Death…so omnipresent in the past that it was familiar, would be effaced, would disappear. It would become shameful and forbidden.”
She goes on to cite papers and books that speak about how as a society we have become so hung up on looking like we’re enjoying ourselves (sound familiar social media fans?!), and not wanting to “diminish the enjoyment of others”, that we must never mention death. In fact, “mourning was treated as morbid self-indulgence.” Instead we admire those who look like they’ve got it 100% together after a bereavement, “chin up” and let’s just carry on, as though the loss of someone we love, should not even be a blip on our radars.
What kind of stupidity is this? How is this vaguely healthy? Of course, you have a right to mourn any way you choose to, and not everybody wants to speak openly about their grief. But if someone does, we, as family members and friends of that person, should welcome the opportunity for them to discuss it with us, to explain how they feel, to let it out.
We shouldn’t cross the street when we see them, stop phoning them or visiting, because avoiding grief is what society has taught us is “normal”. It’s only by working through these things, that we can pass along the journey that is grief, that we can move closer to the light, where we can breathe more easily once more, without that pain at our throats.
I’ve become aware of this societal norm when it comes to grief, through the process of writing and sharing about losing my mother. I’ve had the most wonderful feedback from people who have lost parents, who now feel less alone. And from others too, who simply admire how much I share. Of course I really appreciate this feedback, and it encourages me to continue. But this surprise at me being so open about losing her, certainly stems partly from the way society has warped our approach to grief.
I share because I’m a writer and it is part of my healing. It’s the way I work through events. But I also share because I’m not ashamed of death and grief. And why should I be? It is as much a part of our lives as birth, romance, and all the other good things. And by not writing and speaking about it, we are stigmatising it, and making the process of losing someone you love, a little more painful.
If we don’t write about the process of dying, how will we know that a body can take a few days to die? How will we know about all the paperwork there is, how many decisions that must be made, when your mind is barely functioning? How will we know the right things to say to others? How will we give them hope, that they won’t always feel this way?
That’s why reading a book like Didion’s may not appeal to you, but we need to read these books, we need to share these stories, we need to learn from other’s experiences, if we are to survive our own experiences of it. We only do ourselves a disservice when we hide death away, and whisper about it behind closed fists. I’ve even heard of Death Cafes, which are held around the world now (in 61 countries!), with the aim to have open discussions about death, in order to make more of the rest of our lives.
It may sound macabre but I think being this open about death is what our society desperately needs. Or you could just go along blindly believing that neither you, or anyone you know, is ever going to die. Okay then. Good luck with that.
Speaking about death doesn’t make it happen any sooner – I think we need to get over that superstition. All it does is prepare us a little better.
What happens after death, well, that’s a wider discussion which has many divergent views. But I think we can all agree on one thing: that we do die. So let’s start talking about it more, where we can. With respect, love and support.
Love to you all on this Sunday.