Death is the only thing in life that’s guaranteed, there’s no way to cheat it and most of the time we don’t know when it’s going to effect us or the people around us.
With this knowledge why then does Western society try to avoid everything about it? Despite what us Westerners believe, Western society is not the majority of the world and the way we handle death among other things is not the world wide “norm”.
How do Westerners handle death? We ignore it and hide it away, we deny its existence by not talking about it, and it is something which happens in hospitals and only to old people that we don’t see anyway.
When someone dies we look for someone to blame, some failing in the health system acting as though death shouldn’t have happened, like it’s an unnatural phenomena. Or alternately we over acknowledge death and feel compelled to grieve and mourn long after we have actually gotten over it.
Lets look at other cultures and how they deal with death.
In Europe during the Middle Ages, people were expected to recognise the approaching death, in order to die with dignity at a time of their choosing.
Anthropologists have had a fascination with death for decades. One study found that in over half of the examined cultures there were practices that hastened the death of frail elderly people, and that isn’t a unique practice it appears either!
Most cultures will speed up death and enable people to die with dignity at a time of their choosing. There are also have different practices after death compared with Western society - from celebrations and memorials to making the dead person's name taboo.
One of the Western death rites - burying people in cemetaries
Benefits of Death
There are many benefits to openly talking about death. A new appreciation is emerging about bereavement, where it is seen as having positive consequences and can foster personal growth and development.
Like the old adage “there’s no gain without pain”, it too rings true in dealing with death and going through the steps of loss.
Many people who have suffered loss come out of it believing they are stronger, wiser, more loving and with a greater appreciation of life. There are especially benefits seen in those who were dependent on the loved one who passed.
When being forced to stand on your own two feet you begin to master a new identity, become independent with a higher self esteem when the realisation hits that you can manage on your own.
When a mother tragically loses a child they take on a new vigor believing if they were able to pick themselves up after that loss they can withstand anything, finding strength they never felt they were capable of.
Celebrating The Day of the Dead with an altar of a loved one Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Society has put an unnatural pressure on us to hold onto our loved ones, it places guilt on those of us who “get over it” and “move on”.
Did you know it is normal after a couple years to rarely think of someone who has died, to not miss them and to begin to forget things about them?
Research shows this is indeed common, but why do we not admit this if that’s a normal step? It is because we view death as unfair and which shouldn’t have happened. Without a base of understanding or appreciation death exists and will inevitably happen someday, we will always struggle when it happens.
What Should We Do?
Talk about death, talk about how we feel about it and form an action plan for life after death.
Be open with children, answer their questions with age-appropriate honesty. One of the worst things that you can do for your child is to create a fear and confusion in them by telling them the loved one who died went away, got sick or went to sleep.
Discuss feelings, normalise the grieving process, accept people for feeling and accept yourself for feeling, then move on and be honest and open about that too.
Death happens, it’s a logical progression in our lives so let’s embrace it and not hide it away in a cupboard leaving us shocked when it rears its ugly head.
For more reading:
Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence. Written by: R. G. Tedeschi & L. G. Calhoun, 2004
Gender, preloss marital dependence, and older adults’ adjustment to widowhood. Written by: D. Carr, 2004
Current widowhood: Myths & realities. Written by: H. Z. Lopata, 1996
Learning about grief from normal families: SIDS, stillbirth, and miscarriage. Written by: J. DeFrain, 1991