For as long as we’ve lived, we’ve died. It’s a simple fact of life. We will all die. We will all lose someone we love. We will all grieve. No one is immune. It’s something we all live with. And yet we still find death, dying and grief so difficult to talk about.
Historically, we were much better at talking about it. The Victorians, for example, may have been reluctant to discuss sex, but death was part of daily life. Disease was everywhere, so living with death and dying was normal. No one was exempt from an early death, no matter how privileged or wealthy they were. Only 40 per cent of babies born in the 1850s would reach their 60th birthday. Less than 10 per cent made it to their 80th. That meant that the Victorians saw a lot of dead people and attended a lot of funerals.
Today, medical advances have meant life expectancy has increased. We now expect medicine to be able to prolong our lives regardless of our diagnosis. We may well be in our twenties, thirties or forties without ever having to confront the reality of our mortality, see a dead person or attend a funeral.
We’re no strangers to death though. Over the last 110 years, we’ve witnessed death on a major scale with two world wars, a major flu epidemic and now the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet we’ve never been taught how to openly discuss and process the difficulty and complexity of emotions that death, dying and grieving brings. We’ve been encouraged to deal with the trauma of death by embracing the stiff upper lip, keeping calm and carrying on.
But today, we are reclaiming our emotions and getting so much better at processing how we feel. If we talk openly and honestly about how we feel, about how something is impacting us, about how grief is manifesting, we can begin to understand that whatever we’re feeling is normal and to pick up the pieces and find a way through. By opening up and talking, we can share our experiences. We can dispel the damaging myths that grief is something to get over and that it has five neat stages. We can embrace grief in the knowledge that it’s something we can learn to live with, and not feel we’ve failed because we haven’t “got over” the death of someone intrinsic to our lives.
There are no stages of grief. Grief is unique. Everyone will experience it differently and no one will ever get over the loss of someone they love but they can learn to live with their absence and their life can grow around their grief.
Avoiding talking about death won’t prevent it from happening. Avoiding talking about it will only perpetuate our fears and the misnomers surrounding it. Talking in euphemisms about the one universal event that will happen to each and every one of us will only result in misperception and confusion.
By changing the dialogue, opening up and allowing ourselves to talk about death, dying and grief, we can begin to transform the way we approach not only these fundamental subjects but the rest of our lives too. We believe in doing this we might begin to live fuller and more satisfying lives. By embracing the end as we do the beginning, by acknowledging our mortality, by not thinking that we have forever and by not taking our one beautiful life for granted, we might just be able to see the world in a different way.
Let’s not wait until we reach the end of our lives before we have the conversation. Let’s talk about it right now.
Anna Lyons and Louise Winter run Life. Death. Whatever. – an initiative to help redesign the dialogue about death, dying and grief. Their book We All Know How This Ends: Lessons about Life and Living from Working with Death and Dying is published by Green Tree (lifedeathwhatever.com @lifedeathwhat)