Children have a way of thinking and communicating that is very candid. They don’t think in abstract, poetic concepts that shield them from what’s really happening, but instead are forced to embrace reality for what it is so that they can understand it. If you’ve ever talked with a child, especially under the age of 10, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about!
Kids ask questions because they’re curious and genuinely trying to gain information about a subject – when was the last time you did that as an adult? Sometimes the questions they ask are really hard to answer because they deal with things that are already hard for us, as adults, to talk about even with each other. As we grow up, we learn to adopt a social filter that keeps up from frankly asking questions or stating directly what we mean. And where does this get us, really? Well, so far, it only helps to turn certain subjects into taboo topics of conversation that hardly ever get discussed and thus leads to only more confusion. I think sex and death are the two greatest examples of this in our culture. As much as I would really like to talk about sex because it’s much more fun, I should probably talk about death since this is a blog about death. (Fun Fact: in French, an orgasm is referred to as a “petite mort” or “small death” – coincidence? Not if you’ve had the fortune of experiencing really awesome sex.)
When someone you love dies, how do you process it? Take a second and actually think about the last time you experienced this mental state. How did you feel? What words did you use to describe your feelings? What words did you use to describe the death itself?
Now, there’s no wrong answer to any of this. You felt how you felt, you said what you said and it’s all A-OK. However, my prediction is that most of you, like most other people in a Western culture, used some language and feelings to dull that pain of losing someone. “She passed away.” or “He went home.” sounds a lot better than “She’s dead.” or “He died.” Those words are so final. They really commit us to confronting the painful reality that a person that we so dearly loved is never, ever going to be around us ever again. …and that really sucks. So we say things make ourselves and other feel better.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I’m definitely not exempt from this at all. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve used the word “dead” or “died” this week in front of someone who’s just lost a loved one. Instead, I ask things like “What day did she pass?”. So, while I’m up here on my soapbox telling everyone that it’s far better and psychologically healthier to look Death in its beady little eyes, I’m also contributing to this cultural problem of death-denial. Because it’s not my responsibility as a funeral director to tell anyone how to feel about death. My job is to make easier that which is already inherently hard and painful. But you know what? My favourite families to talk with are the people that actually correct me when I use euphemisms. “Well, she didn’t pass but she did die on Wednesday.” I absolutely love it! It lets me know that they’ve already thought about death and that it’s just not so scary anymore. Granted, there’s a very obvious connection between being more okay with death and having watched someone actively die for a long period of time. Sudden deaths are always going to be a harder to accept, no matter how ready you are to confront reality.
So what if we began to think more directly about death before we have to deal with it? I think what would happen is that we would begin to grow into a culture that isn’t so afraid of this big, inevitable sadness. Or at least we would be able to confront it a little better.
So while I can’t necessarily contribute to a more direct feeling about death through my profession (at least, not without permission), I’d like to contribute through my life outside work and through this blog.
Lastly, I’d like to share with you the clip that inspired me to write this post today. It’s a clip from an episode of Sesame Street in which Big Bird deals with the death of a friend. For a little background, the actor that played Mr. Hooper suddenly died from a heart attack. The writers struggled with how to work the reasoning for his absence into the show and finally decided to confront the reality head-on and have the character of Mr. Hooper die as well. Notice while watching that no euphemisms or expressions are used to describe his death. (Also, have tissues handy.)
Sesame Street repeated this theme again a few decades later and still kept the integrity of this lesson, managing even, in my opinion, to really top themselves by interviewing real children who had really lost a parent.
Death is something we all will have to confront. Personally, I think it’s better to see it for what it is instead of trying to hide behind language that makes us feel better. Death is painful. But it isn’t going away, at least not anytime soon (shout-out to the Singularity proponents). Be curious about it. Let yourself feel what you’re feeling, because it’s not wrong. Be like a child and disregard your learned social shame on certain topics. How else are you going to learn about it?