The Pathway to Compassion: Embracing Death and Becoming Grief Informed

Posted on April 18, 2024 by Rev. Pam Reidy under educating for grief and loss
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As a child of the 1950’s I was dutifully taught the proper dictates of acceptable conversation. I was schooled in the principle that if you couldn’t find anything good to say, not to speak. I was carefully taught that sex, religion and death were topics to be avoided. I learned my lessons well, and it has taken a lifetime to recover from the social, intellectual and psychological limitations that arose from this training. Not talking about sex, religion and death simply left me ignorant about each. As for not saying anything if it appeared to be uncomfortable, it merely left a lot of things unresolved.

In my work as a death care professional, every day I meet the inadequacies of a culture that still avoids talking about death at any cost, leaving  people unprepared to face their own demise, or assist others in facing impending death. Moreover, and even more significant is a common incapacity to effectively companion the bereaved. I frequently use the terms death-phobic and grief-illiterate to describe our cultural disorder. This blog explores the cost of our fears about death and our lack of knowledge about grief.

Fearing death causes us to deny it, it leaves us unable to articulate our beliefs and our hopes of a peaceful death. One result of death phobia is an exaggerated fear of the unknown about the afterlife. As I help people plan rituals for their loved ones who have died, I encounter so many people who have no idea what their loved one believed about the afterlife.  Most people tell me, “We never talked about it.” As a result they have no idea where to begin celebrating a loved one’s life, not even an inkling whether they preferred to be cremated or buried.

Not being able to talk openly about death also impacts how people die and our ability to help them in their last hours. Though still considered a “fearless” act, people who have open conversations about what they would like their death to be like, have made it easier on their families, and commonly had a more comfortable death.  Our silence keeps us disconnected from the natural process of death, causing us to fear it even more.

Another consequence stemming from our inability to talk meaningfully about death is the isolation we experience at death, the death of a loved one or our own death. This isolation creates a chasm wherein the dying person experiences even greater fear and the survivors begin their grief journey alone, hesitant about reaching out for the necessary supports to heal. Interestingly, many health care professionals report experiencing a sense of failure, shame or even guilt when their patients die, suggesting that even frequenting death does not rid us of emotional discomfort.

Where might someone begin to repair their death phobia? I like the following video by Emma McAdam, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, who is on a mission to make mental health resources easier to access. Emma’s YouTube videos on topics of mental health are simple, well-researched, and eloquently produced. She is articulate, moving, and persuasive. She takes big topics and breaks them into nugget sized messages. Her video on developing skills for death anxiety is excellent and a good place to start in identifying our death-phobic culture. (Facing Fear of Death: 4 Skills for Anxiety and Fear of Death .YouTube· Therapy in a Nutshell·July30, 2020

Grief literacy can be acquired by anyone. The way our culture celebrates life, ritualizes loss, and supports people through a death should reflect the core values of a compassionate society. In a grief-illiterate culture, people can’t help each other with death loss because they just don’t know how. When we don’t know how to help ourselves or each other through loss, the result is unnecessary pain and suffering.

Another outcome of grief illiteracy is that the void of accurate, intelligent knowledge is often filled with false, ineffective and even harmful misinformation. Any good educator will tell you the golden rule is not to teach anything you will have to unteach later. After the death of my brother many years ago, in a world with little sensitivity or training about death education, I remember so many untrue things people said. Experiencing a death loss without effective support and accurate resources, especially an early, significant, or traumatic loss, can result in life-long mental health issues. We simply must become a grief-informed culture. We must stop saying things like, “You will come to realize that in this case death was for the best” or “Time heals all wounds” or even worse, “You must get on with your life; he or she, would want that.”

In 2020, The Dougy Center, the National Grief Center for Children & Families, published a paper challenging the dominant beliefs about what it means to grieve. I highly encourage reading this as a first step in becoming grief- informed.

Embracing death and becoming grief-informed takes intellectual, emotional, and even spiritual work. Living in a culture where people are knowledgeable and compassionate in understanding loss and healing grief is well worth the effort.

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