It is true that there are stages to grief, though no two people grieve in exactly the same way. However, something has been missing in our understanding of grief that offers an opportunity for many of us to lessen our pain and suffering when faced with a major loss. That key is to understand the way we have been culturally programmed to react to death.
Each culture has its own mindset about death that consciously and unconsciously influences the beliefs, thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors of its members. The guidance of a particular culture seeps through the pores of its members, shaping their thinking and behavior. Mostly, we learn through observation, repetition, and the reactions of others if we step out of line. Social norms and taboos guide us in what is considered proper and acceptable and what is frowned upon. Those of us raised in the United States, for example, have been culturally programmed to believe that death somehow shouldn’t even exist — it’s not fair, it’s wrong, and to be avoided at all cost. Is it any wonder than that when dying, death, or bereavement knock at our door, we respond with a fight/flight/freeze response and avoid death like the plague?
We are uncomfortable with even the thought of death. That’s why many hospitals avoid using the word “death” in the presence of patients and their loved ones, even when it is not in reference to them specifically. One contemporary hospital uses a code to spread the word among the medical and nursing staff when a patient dies. Rather than simply saying that someone has died, they say, “Guess who won’t be shopping at Walmart anymore?” If we are this uncomfortable with even the mention of the word “death,” how are we supposed to deal with its reality in our lives? How are we supposed to know how to be in death’s presence let alone tolerate its very existence?
It is not our fault if we are uncomfortable around death, because that is how we have been trained to respond. The fear of death is at once culturally pervasive yet deeply private. Having been taught to fear death and to believe that it is fundamentally wrong and undesirable has set us up to be ill-equipped to deal with it on any level. In terms of grief and bereavement, I can’t help but wonder how much of our suffering is directly attributable to this dysfunctional belief.
Beliefs are the filters through which we interpret the events and experiences of our lives. If one person believes that death is bad and shouldn’t happen, and the other accepts death as a normal part of the human journey, then who is likely to suffer more when grieving the death of a loved one? Clearly, the one who thinks death is bad and wrong. When something is unacceptable to us, we are so busy being angry and resistant to its reality that processing it and dealing with it are overwhelming. When someone accepts death, they can get on with the business of grieving their loss, while those unable to accept death must deal with their negative emotions about its existence as well.
Accepting death is not about liking it, but acknowledging its normalcy and inescapable nature in the course of human life. Acceptance allows us to access the wisdom and intimacy with our loved ones that is available when we are not busy denying death.
When my mother was dying, for example, we acknowledged that she was dying with each other, and that gave us the freedom to say what we wanted and needed to say to each other about what was really going on. I knew, for example, that she was really curious and impatient to find out what happens when you die and that she believed that she would be greeted by loved ones who had predeceased her. So, when she actually died, I was able to be really happy for her and comforted that she would finally have her answer; she would see her mother and husband again, and be freed from all the physical pain she had been experiencing. Did I want her to die? Never — but I was happy for her. During those final months of her life we were also able to share a level of vulnerability and intimacy with each other that we had never had before. We knew time was running out and we took full advantage. My choice to make caring for my mother my top priority for the final six months of her life taught me a depth and breadth of love I had never known before and that I will treasure always. Had I stayed in my fear and allowed it to keep me at arm’s length, I would have missed out on a lot of riches.
Wouldn’t it be in our best interest as a society to transform our fear-based culture of death by encouraging a healthier belief about death as a normal occurrence? What would it be like if we lived in a society that taught us to take time to be of service to the dying and allowed us time to do our grieving? There is so much we could do to educate and prepare ourselves to handle death with greater loving, service, and compassion.
The fact is that the dynamics of fear are exactly what stand in our way of accepting our mortality and in evolving a healthy relationship with death. Fear contracts our energy and paralyzes us from thoughtfully and compassionately responding to the object of our fear. When what is feared is death, quite a conundrum is created because no one can avoid death. Unless we learn to transform the energy of fearing death, we live in fear and die afraid.
The bottom line is a fear-based view of death is unhealthy and fails to serve us as individuals or as a society. Consider your own experiences with death. Do you avoid death and even the topic of death like the plague? Do you see death as defeat or failure — something to be avoided at all cost? When you hear that someone has died, do you automatically react with the belief that it shouldn’t have happened? When you have a bouquet of flowers and they start to wilt and die, does some part of you think it shouldn’t be that way — that they should stay fresh and beautiful forever? Is that why we invented plastic flowers?
If you are not already on board to help bring this change about — I hope you will explore your personal beliefs and behaviors around dying, death, and bereavement and seek out opportunities to help challenge and transform our culture of death in your home, at work, and in the community.
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