Let’s talk about death. Yup! Death.
As we approach the second year of this insidious and painful pandemic, society can best help the bereaved by welcoming death into our lexicon.
For insight, we need to look no further than newly inaugurated U.S. President Joe Biden.
The president has never shied away from talking about the tragic grief he holds so close to his heart. (His wife and infant daughter were killed in a car accident shortly after he became a senator. His son Beau died in 2015 from brain cancer.) His insightful words at the COVID-19 memorial this week sagely explained to a grieving nation that, “To heal we must remember.”
But to remember, we must discuss.
And how can we move forward if talking about death is still a taboo in most of the world?
Tragically, the pandemic has only made it more difficult and often impossible to grieve as we are required to isolate. The immediate comfort of being surrounded by friends and family is gone. The absence of helpful traditions and religious customs creates even greater hardship.
Grief touches all of us sooner or later. If left unchecked, it can lead to mental health issues that affect the family, workforce, medical system, and ultimately federal budgets.
The Mayo Clinic recommends “talking about your grief” to avoid complicated grief (a more severe form of grief). The Canadian Mental Health Association suggests many helpful ways to get through grief and explains that “there is no normal grieving period”.
Yet when I review my community pages on social media, one of the most frequent issues people post about is their loneliness amid the grief.
Whether they are a few months in or have lost a loved one long ago, they feel they have no other option than to turn to online strangers to chat about their sorrow, memories, fears, and tears. 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 has given those grieving a timeline to “feel better” and “get on with life.” How long is this fancifully conceived timeline?
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 face inevitably. No one wants to be reminded of this and so we try to hide from it, hoping it shall 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',” certified grief recovery specialist Shelby Forsythia says.
We assume it is unhealthy for the bereaved to talk about grief and the deceased. We are taught to believe it is better to move forward and not obsess about loss. The opposite is true.
Deliberate avoidance of grief-related emotions may actually prolong loneliness. This is likened to the "don’t think of the white bear" syndrome (a.k.a. the ironic process theory) whereby attempts to suppress certain thoughts make them more likely to surface. A healthier perspective is to provide a safe space to welcome conversation so the person grieving can gain perspective and move forward.
Prolonging the feeling of loneliness is concerning because of its negative spiral effects. Loneliness has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, depression, cognitive decline, and poor sleep. Reports cite that loneliness is as harmful to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. People who feel lonely are also more than twice as likely to develop forms of dementia.
Consider that 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.
Recently, various international days have been set aside for grief awareness and bereavement. There is even a National Loneliness Day. And jolly good to the Brits, who created a government position called the Minister of Loneliness in 2017.
However, change is not happening fast enough to help the bereaved.
We need a shift in the conversation. We should follow the example of Bell Canada’s Let’s Talk Day, which happens again on January 28.
Since its launch in 2010, the initiative has made tremendous headway in addressing the stigma of mental health. A taboo subject has emerged from secrecy. A similar approach would be instrumental in birthing a global conversation about death. It really is the one eventuality we all share.
“These are dark times,” Biden said. “But, there’s always light.”