Let’s talk about death. Yup! DEATH.
As we enter the second year of this insidious pandemic, let’s reflect upon those who are trying to heal from loss.
In the wake of so much pain, society can best help the bereaved by welcoming death into our lexicon.
For insight, we need look no further than President Joe Biden, who lost his first wife and two of his children to tragedy. The President has never shied away from talking about the griefs he holds so close to his heart. His insightful words at the recent COVID-19 memorial sagely reminded a grieving nation that, “To heal, we must remember.”
And to remember, we must discuss.
Taboo brings more anguish
Tragically, during a pandemic, the expected comfort of being surrounded by family and friends after a loved one’s passing is made more difficult, and often impossible, as we are required to isolate. Helpful traditions and religious customs must be minimized, thereby creating even greater hardship for the bereaved.
Grief touches all of society sooner or later. If left unchecked, it can lead to mental health issues that affect the family, workforce, medical system, and ultimately, federal budgets.
Yet, how can we move forward if talking about death is still a taboo in most of the world?
Societal timelines create increased loneliness
The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) suggests many helpful ways to get through grief, and explains that “there is no normal grieving period”.
And in order to avoid ‘complicated grief’ (an ongoing, heightened state of mourning that keeps one from healing), the Mayo Clinic recommends “talking about your grief”.
Yet, whenever I review my many social media community pages, one of the most frequent issues widows post about is their loneliness and grief.
Whether they are a few months in, or have lost their loved one long ago, mourners feel they have no other option than to turn to online strangers to chat about their sorrow, memories, fears, tears, and loneliness. They recognize that they need to talk in order to grow healthier; but, sadly they no longer believe they have the ear of their friends and family.
Society gives those who grieve a timeline to ‘feel better’ and ‘get on with life.’ How long is this fancifully-conceived timeline? Somewhere between six months and a year, from my experience.
Truth be told, society has a fear of death, and grief is the ugly emotion that weighs everyone down.
Death is a reality we shall all shall face inevitably, yet no one wants to be reminded of this. So we try to hide from death, hoping it will magically disappear.
Society teaches grieving people to grieve alone, so they push away friends and family — but friends and family also retreat, distance themselves, or pull away, because society pressures people supporting grievers to ‘make them feel better.Shelby Forsythia, certified Grief Recovery Specialist
Because of societal timelines, we assume it is unhealthy for the bereaved to talk about grief and the deceased. We learn to believe that it’s better for them to move forward and ‘get on with life’ rather than ‘obsessing’ about loss.
In fact, the opposite is often true; deliberate avoidance of grief-related feelings may actually prolong the emotions.
This is likened to the ‘don’t think of the white bear’ syndrome (aka the ironic process theory), whereby attempts to suppress certain thoughts make them more likely to surface.
A healthier perspective is to offer a safe space to welcome conversation, so the griever can gain perspective and move forward.
Why do we hide from death?
- Vulnerability: Opening up to genuine emotions is difficult for many.
- Fantasy: It’s so much easier to pretend our lives are wrapped in a pretty bow.
- Treadmill: REALLY listening to others takes time from our busy and challenging lives.
- Stress: It’s easier to talk about trivial matters.
- Taboo: Death is not a subject we have learned to discuss and, in fact, most of us fear the conversation.
- Dread: We know death is inevitable, so we shy away from those who are living through our greatest fear.
What’s the harm?
Society has created a negative attitude around bereavement, thus instilling a feeling of embarrassment for the sufferer.
Widows often pretend to be leading a happy life, but in fact most talk privately about feeling excluded, isolated, sad, or silenced. Many mention feeling like a third, unwanted wheel. Widowed people usually receive an outpouring of initial support from friends and family, but eventually loneliness takes over. In fact, 70% report that loneliness is their biggest challenge (Lund, 1989).
8.223,419 Instagram posts are tagged #lonely
The ‘Loneliness Epidemic’ is concerning because of its negative spiral effect. Reports site that loneliness is as harmful to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
According to many studies, loneliness has been linked to early death and an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, depression, cognitive decline, and poor sleep. People who feel lonely are more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s (and other forms of dementia) than those who do not feel lonely.
Consider this - Each of us is expected to lose a minimum of five loved ones in a lifetime; the negative effects of grief are likely to affect you, to some degree, in your journey.
Loneliness is getting noticed
There’s no shortage of research projects and charitable foundations dealing with the subject of loneliness and grief. Recently, various international days have been set aside for grief awareness and bereavement. There is even a National Loneliness Day. And, jolly good on the Brits, who in 2017 created a government position called the Minister of Loneliness.
However, change is not happening fast enough to help the growing numbers of bereaved, especially during the worldwide pandemic.
We need a shift in the conversation NOW!
My suggestion? I believe we should follow the example of Bell Canada’s Let’s Talk Day. Since its launch in 2010, Bell has made tremendous headway addressing the stigma of mental health and opening up a dialogue. A previously taboo subject – mental health - has emerged from secrecy, and is no longer shunned.
A similar approach is instrumental in birthing a global conversation about death and its impact on those grieving.
Let’s change the narrative and learn to be comfortable talking about death. Death really is the one eventuality we all share. For the sake of our own mental health, let’s lean in to our discomfort! Let’s poke the bear.
“These are dark times,” Biden said, “But, there’s always light.”
I challenge YOU to begin an uncomfortable conversation about death this month, and help to create a healthy change for all.
May I count on your support?