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We need to talk about death: Why ignoring our darkest fears only makes them worse

It's a universal human experience. So why do we act like we need to confront it alone?


Mattea Kramer
December 14, 2014 4:00AM (UTC)

“I don’t want to die. It’s so permanent.”

So said my terminally ill grandmother, a kick-ass woman who made life-size oil paintings and drank vermouth on the rocks every afternoon.

This isn't an anecdote I’d be likely to mention in regular conversation with friends. Talk about ruining everyone’s good time. (“Ick, that’s so morbid,” everyone would think.) But earlier this month, the New York Times released its 100 Notable Books of 2014, and among the notables was not one but two – two! – nonfiction titles about death. This seemingly unremarkable milestone is actually one that we should celebrate with a glass of champagne. Or, better yet, with vermouth.

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Right now our approach to death, as a culture, is utterly insane: We just pretend it doesn’t exist. Any mention of mortality in casual conversation is greeted with awkwardness and a subject change. That same taboo even translates into situations where the concept of death is unavoidable: After losing a loved one, the bereaved are granted a few moments of mourning, after which the world around them kicks back into motion, as if nothing at all had changed. For those not personally affected by it, the reality of death stays hidden and ignored.

For me this isn’t an abstract topic. There’s been a lot of death in my life. There was my grandmother’s recent death, which sent my whole crazy family into a tailspin; but also my dad's sudden death when I was 20. Under such circumstances (that is, the unexpected sort), you quickly discover that no one has any clue whatsoever how to deal with human mortality.

“Get through this and we’ll get through the worst of it,” someone said to me at my dad’s funeral, as if the funeral itself was death's greatest burden, and not the permanent absence of the only dad I'll ever have.

Gaffes like that are common. But insensitivity is just a symptom of much deeper issues, first of which is our underlying fear of death, a fear that might only boil to the surface when we're directly confronted by it, but stays with us even as we try our best to ignore it. It’s a fear that my grandmother summed up perfectly when she was dying — the terror of our own, permanent nonexistence. Which makes sense. After all, it’s our basic biological imperative to survive. But on top of that natural fear of death, there’s another, separate issue: our unwillingness, as a culture, to shine a light on that fear, and talk about it. And as a result, we keep this whole huge part of the human experience cloistered away.

“We’re literally lacking a vocabulary to talk about [death],” said Lennon Flowers, a co-founder of an organization called the Dinner Party, which brings together 20- and 30-somethings who have lost a loved one to discuss "the ways in which it continues to affect our lives."

That lack of vocabulary is a big problem, and not just for people who directly experience loss. It’s a problem for all of us, because it means we each grapple alone with the natural fear of our own expiry. We deny the fear, we bury it under an endless stream of distractions. And so it festers, making us all the more invested in keeping it buried, for how painful it would be to take it out and look at it after letting it rot for so long.

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But why all the self-enforced agony? Maybe it's because a more honest relationship with death would mean a more honest reckoning with our lives, calling into question the choices we've made and the ways we've chosen to live. And damn if that isn’t uncomfortable.

Of course, if there's one thing our culture is great at, it's giving instruction on how to live. There are the clichés — “live each day to the fullest” and “dance like no one’s watching” — and beyond them an endless stream of messages telling us how to look better, feel better, lose weight, have better sex, get promoted, flip houses, and make a delicious nutritious dinner in 30 minutes flat. But all of it is predicated on the notion that life is long and death is some shadowy thing that comes along when we hit 100. (And definitely not one minute before then!)

To get a sense of how self-defeating each of these goals can be, consider this chestnut given to us by a Native American sage by the name of Crazy Horse:

“Today is a good day to die, for all the things of my life are present.”

No, today is not a good day to die, because most of us feel we haven’t lived our lives yet. We run around from one thing to the next. We have plans to buy a house or a new car or, someday, to pursue our wildest dreams. We rush through the day to get to the evening, and through the week to get to the weekend, but once the weekend comes, we’re already thinking ahead to Monday morning. Our lives are one deferral after another.

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Naturally, then, today isn’t a good day to die. How about tomorrow? Probably not. What number of days would we need to be comfortable saying what Crazy Horse said? Probably too big a number to count. We preserve the idea of death as an abstract thing that comes in very old age, rather than a constant possibility for us as fragile humans, because we build our whole lives atop that foundation.

What would we gain from finally opening up about death? How about the golden opportunity to consider what's really important, not to mention the chance to be less lonely as we grapple with our own mortality, and the promise of being a real friend when someone we love loses someone they love. Plus it would all come back to us tenfold when we’re the ones going through a loss or reeling from a terminal diagnosis.

Sounds like a worthy undertaking, doesn’t it?

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And that’s where there’s good news. Coming to grips with death is, as we've already established, really hard. But we at least have a model for doing so. Let's consider, for example, the Times notable books I mentioned earlier. One of them, the graphic memoir "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant," provides an especially honest — and genuinely funny — account of author Roz Chast's experience watching her parents grow old and die. The other book, Atul Gawande's "Being Mortal," reveals just how much even our medical establishment struggles with the end of life. Doctors are trained to treat sickness, of course, but often have little or no training in what to do when sickness is no longer treatable.

What both of these books do especially well is provide a vocabulary for articulating just how difficult a subject death can be for everyone — even the strongest and brightest among us. As a universal human experience, it isn't something we should have to deal with alone. It doesn't make a person weak or maladjusted just because he or she struggles openly with death. And what Chast and Gawande both demonstrate is that talking about it doesn't have to be awkward or uncomfortable, because these are anxieties that all of us have in common.

It's a common refrain that what distinguishes humans from other animals is that humans can understand, on a rational level, the full magnitude of our mortality. But what also distinguishes humans is the richness of our relationships and the depths of our empathy — the ability we have to communicate our experiences and support those around us. Death is a deeply unsettling prospect, no matter who you are. But it doesn't need to be a burden you face alone.

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The following is a list of resources for those looking for an organized platform to discuss the topic of death:

  • Atul Gawande serves as an advisor to the Conversation Project, a site that encourages families to talk openly about end-of-life care — and to choose, in advance, whether they want to be at home or in a hospital bed, on life support or not — in short, to say in unequivocal terms what matters most when the end is near.
  • Vivian Nunez is the 22-year-old founder of a brand-new site called Too Damn Young. Nunez lost her mom when she was 10 and her grandmother – her second mother – 11 years later. “Losing someone you love is an extraordinarily isolating experience,” she said. “This is especially significant when you’re talking about teenagers, or a young adult, who loses someone at a young age, and is forced to face how real mortality is, and then not encouraged to talk about it.” She founded Too Damn Young so that bereaved teenagers will know they’re not alone and so they’ll have a public space to talk about it.
  • The Recollectors is a groundbreaking project by writer Alysia Abbott, that tells the stories of people who lost a parent to AIDS. She’s exploding two big taboos – death and AIDS – in one clean shot.
  • Get Your Shit Together is another great one, a site launched by a young widow who learned the hard way that everyone should take some key steps to get their financial matters in order in case of an untimely death. “I (mostly) have my shit together,” the site’s founder says. “Now it’s your turn.”
  • There’s also Death Cafe, dedicated to “increasing awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.” And Modern Loss, a site that’s received coverage from the New York Times and the Washington Post, shies away from nothing in its quest to tell stories about end of life and living with loss. “Death Cafe and Modern Loss have attracted a loyal following,” said Nicole Bélanger, author of "Grief in the Rearview: Three Motherless Years." “They offer the safe space we crave to show up as we are, without worrying about having to polish up our grief and make it fit for public consumption."

Perhaps these communities will start to influence the mainstream, as their emboldened members teach the rest of us that it’s OK, it’s really OK, to talk about death. If that happens, it will be a slow process – culture change always is. “Race and gender and myriad other subjects were forever taboo, but now we’re able to speak truth,” said Flowers of the Dinner Party. “And now we’re seeing that around death and dying.”

If she’s right, it’s the difference between the excruciating loneliness of hiding away our vulnerabilities and, instead, allowing them to connect us and bind us together.


Mattea Kramer

Mattea Kramer, a TomDispatch regular, is a writer of cultural commentary. She’d like to know what your inner critic says to you, so drop her a line (or a tweet).

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Aging Atul Gawande Death Roz Chast

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