It’s something everyone who has ever lived has done and something that inevitably we all will do, so why is it that death – ‘The Great Equaliser’ – is so difficult to talk about?
The most obvious answer is that death is depressing, it’s scary, it’s the ‘unknown’, it’s not the kind of thing people want to spend too much time thinking about.
Well, it’s the kind of thing we’re fine with watching and hearing about on the news or for entertainment. In some way’s death is far from taboo, we’re fascinated by it, it’s all around us. But when it comes to openly talking about death
Reminding ourselves of our own mortality is not a particularly pleasant experience, we would much rather go on pretending that we and all our loved ones will go on living forever. But being in denial about death will not make us immortal. All it does is make us less willing to accept death as a natural part of life and less able to truly empathise with those around us who are grieving.
Grieving the loss of a loved one is one of the most isolating experiences a person can endure, yet it’s something that everyone will come to experience at some point. However, because the norm is to avoid talking about death as much as possible it can often be extremely hard for people to reach out to others for help in their time of need. Even if they can reach out, they tend to find that those they turn to for comfort can offer little more than generic platitudes or an unwillingness to talk about it at all.
Somewhat surprisingly, people’s perceptions of how taboo the subject of death is don’t necessarily align with their own level of comfort with talking about death. According to a 2016 study from the National Council for Palliative Care, around three quarters of the people they surveyed (73%) said they agree that people in Britain are uncomfortable discussing this issue, but only a third (33%) said they actually felt this way themselves.
The report’s findings indicate that among the British public, what holds people back from speaking more openly about dying, death and bereavement is not their own discomfort at doing so, but due to a perception that nobody else feels at ease talking about it. Interestingly the study also found that younger people (aged 18-24) were the most likely to have feelings of discomfort around discussing death, even with close family and friends.
One major advocate for changing our perspectives on talking about death is Katherine Sleeman, Palliative Medicine Registrar at the Cicely Saunders Institute. She believes that having a ‘good death’ is as important as living a good life, and that if we open up to talking death and dying, we can be better prepared, both emotionally and practically, for when someone reaches the end of life.
She likens the process of life ending to the process of one beginning, saying: “We prepare for the arrival of a new baby, we plan for it, we think about what we are going to buy and what we are going to call the new baby. It is part of our daily life, our conversation. Why do we not prepare for our death in the same way?”
According to Sleeman, dying has become medicalised and isolated from the rest of our lives. Those who are dying tend to die in hospital or in care homes rather than in their own homes, and as a result we’ve given ourselves permission to not have to think about death.
We frequently fall back on euphemisms when discussing death: “My Grandad passed away two years ago”; “I lost my sister to cancer”; “He hasn’t got long left now.” Even doctors can be hesitant to use the ‘D-word’ when talking to their patients, preferring to say things like “Your condition is life threatening” and “We should prepare for the worst.” While in some respects these sorts of phrases can help soften the blow and protect us, they ultimately stop us from facing the reality of death, and that it’s something we all must face eventually.
In recent years there’s been an uptake in people answering the call to start the conversation about death. In 2016, Let’s Talk About Loss, a meetup group for bereaved young people, was founded by Beth French, 18months after her mum had died and she found herself feeling completely isolated. There’s also Cariad Lloyd’s Griefcast, a podcast where each week she and a guest chat about “the pain, loss and the weirdness that happens when someone dies.” It won three Gold prizes at the British Podcast Awards 2018 as well as Podcast of the Year 2018 at the UK ARIA’s, and it offers a heartfelt insight into how grief affects each of us differently.
My mum died when I was 18 years old, and although in the immediate aftermath of her death nobody expected me or anyone else to hide their grief, it didn’t take long for an unspoken understanding to emerge, a shared assumption that we didn’t want to dwell on what had happened, that it was time to start moving on.
But that’s not how grief works. You never truly move on. The trauma of loss rips opens the ground beneath your feet and leaves you staring into a huge gaping hole. If you try and pretend that hole isn’t there you only end up falling into it. But once you acknowledge it’s there and there to stay, you gradually learn how to build your life around it.
So often I was applauded for carrying on with my life and barely ever mentioning my mum’s death. “You’re being so strong,” and “You’re coping so well” I was told time and time again, yet inside I couldn’t have felt more broken. I wish I’d let myself be more open about what I was going through and that I’d felt able to ask for the help I needed.