The Elephant In The Room That Gets Larger With Avoidance
Society treats death as something morbid and unsightly, a subject that is typically associated with plaguing only the bones of the elderly, the ill, and the feeble. No one talks about death with their lively children; dying and grieving is not addressed in schools like sex education or substance abuse prevention. When I asked my parents about death at 10 or 11, they looked mildly shocked and faintly abhorrent. I suppose it was quite a juxtaposition — a vivacious young girl questioning the end of her life. But there is no reason to make death a taboo topic for youngsters.
In fact, in an article written by a teacher in England, the author explains that when we avoid something, children and teenagers want to address it even more. Her students tend to appreciate topics like the Ancient Egyptians, who talked about death unabashedly, and the Medieval torture period and Inquisition Sentences, more than other topics.
Most of us — the authors, the readers, and supporters of Witted Roots — have not yet reached middle-age. We suppose we are a long way off from dying, and therefore it is only logical that death need not be one of our pressing concerns. Perhaps our own deaths are not quickly approaching, but people around us, people we love and who love us, are dying. So many of us have already lost someone we love. Millennial women need to talk about death, loss, and grief because it is an integral part of life.
We only talk about death in the broad sense — death tolls caused by war, disease, and famine. The adults around us avoided talking about mortality upfront and personal until it was a little too late — when we have already lost someone or witnessed a death. Even then, it goes something like: so-and-so is dead. End of story. He/she/they lived a good life and would want you to move on with yours. They’re in a better place now.
We Need To Talk About Mortality
The trouble with this approach, according to Ellen Goodman, is that it leads to a lack of closure that can bring strong feelings of guilt, uncertainty, or depression during the grieving process for family members and loved ones. They are unsure whether their loved ones’ last days were comfortable; whether it was what they truly wanted. Goodman, after her parents died “hard deaths”, started a nonprofit called the Conversation Project.
The Project is dedicated to changing the culture around dying by encouraging everyone to have a conversation expressing their wishes before they become mentally unfit to do so. It asks what is important to the patient, not what illness is affecting the patient. It centers on how the patients want to spend his/her last days, not how their family wants them to. Ultimately, it ensures that they die according to their own terms and no one else’s.
One of the first courses I took in college was about healthcare systems and medicine in the United States. The course involved reading mostly memoirs written by practicing physicians. Because all the books were written by physicians, their pages were all sprinkled with death — how the authors treated dying patients, as well as how their first patient deaths felt for them.
Death, however, was the main focus of one book only: Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. This book touched me the most, unlocking something inside me and allowing me to release the breath of air I hadn’t realized I’d been holding since my father died. Gawande comes to the conclusion, much like the author of the aforementioned article, that talking about death with the dying should be the norm. It is a tough conversation to have, but it ensures the patient is comfortable with all that is to come
For a while, I hated the book. I hated that it forced me to think about death so soon after I had witnessed it. It forced me to question whether my father’s last days were spent according to his wishes; whether my mom and I, along with his team of doctors had truly done our best. These questions haunted me, along with images of my dad’s yellow, jaundiced face, skin-and-bones physique, and a chest that struggled to draw air. Even as my dad was vanishing right before my eyes, even as the changes became more drastic day after day, I was still in denial about his impending death.
It was not until I saw his dead body, lying there in the hospital bed with his eyes blank, that I realized how close he had been to dying. It’s not as though I did not have time to prepare for it — he had been ill with cancer for years, and his ultimate decline was over a course of three months.
I should have been better prepared. I should have talked to him and to my mother about what he wanted and about how malicious cancer really was. I was afraid to ask because I thought I would appear hopeless like I had stopped supporting him against this illness. Looking back, we should have talked about it more. He certainly knew he was dying; he just did not want to upset me.
In the mad dash to protect those we love, we often forget that we won’t always be around to shield them. We forget to teach them how to protect themselves when we are gone, perhaps because we deny that the dangers and upsets will be there long after we leave. We will all die. Our mortality is the one certainty in life, and it is a shame that we don’t talk about it.
How We Should Talk About Death
We should introduce the concept of death early in a child’s life. This article suggests parents start by talking about houseplants, pets, or acquaintances that have died. There should be fewer euphemisms, especially when telling a small child, and the explanation needs to be concise, clear, and direct. This needs to be clearly explained: there is no coming back from death and that person will never speak to you again.
Despite the foreboding nature of this subject, I believe children need to hear it at a young age and before they lose a loved one, As they get older, it will help them accept death and accept having those tough conversations about last wishes. Death is a part of life, yet we have skirted around it so much that it becomes mystic and “morbid”. In order to lead a full, happy life, we need to talk about death and its friends.
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