I don’t know about you, but 2020 confronted me with death more than any other year that I remember. And, actually, the majority of those deaths were not from COVID, although I can’t say for sure that the huge stress of major life changes and distance from loved ones didn’t play a role in some of them.
I get the feeling that, as a society, we are not comfortable talking about death and grief. I’m guilty of it, too — when I learn that somebody has lost a loved one, my usual reaction is to freeze up and mumble something like “sorry for your loss”. But I’ve had even stranger reactions from friends — everything from total silence, as if I had never mentioned it, to an overly dramatic (and, to me, inappropriately comical) “oh, no!”.
My friend and I found ourselves in a heated discussion a few months ago with somebody who believed that COVID wasn’t really a threat to young people. My friend bit his lip, took a deep breath, and said “Actually, two of my friends have died of COVID already, and they were only 30”. Instead of reacting to the news with empathy, condolences, compassion, or any other reaction that might suggest humanity, the person responded with: “Oh, they probably had underlying conditions, then”. Would it have been that hard to at least start with “I’m sorry for your loss” ?
As a society, it could be said that we don’t like to think or talk about death. We’re not taught how to talk about it, so we become awkward and wooden when the subject comes up. In the UK, where I’m from, bringing up one’s own mortality is dismissed as being strange and morbid, while anyone who grieves too much, too loudly or for too long is looked at with anything from judgement to pity.
On top of that, we are constantly bombarded with products designed to keep us looking young and healthy for as long as possible. We panic when we see a wrinkle or a grey hair, terrified that it signals our journey towards death. Youth and fertility are valued, while old people are increasingly pushed to the margins; now that we have the Internet, their stories and ancient wisdom is no longer venerated. Why ask Grandma when you can ask Alexa?
But our aversion to death may go far deeper. In the book The Denial of Death (1973), Ernest Becker suggested that human civilization is nothing grander than “an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality”. Our ability to think symbolically, as well as focusing on the tangible world, means that we are able to deny death in a more roundabout way — by comforting ourselves with the idea that even if our body dies, we will live on somehow in the world.
This desire to “leave something behind” results in the creation of what Becker calls immortality projects; and while your own immortality project might be a book or Medium article that you’re writing, we can see far more exaggerated and destructive examples throughout history — let’s say, for example, massive monuments, palaces and mausoleums. He goes further to say that immortality projects that contradict one another (e.g. use of a specific piece of land, or two contradictory belief systems) threaten our core beliefs and sense of security and lead to all sorts of conflict.
So, in other words, our denial of death MAY be responsible for a huge amount of the human-created problems in this world.
Capitalism plays on our death denial by promising us ways to stay young and healthy forever, and by pushing us to build things — empires, businesses, fortunes, houses — that we can pass on and leave behind when we are gone. The continued inflation of the ego leads us to perceive our own death as a massive tragedy, rather than seeing it as part of life’s natural rhythms.
And what about grief? Grieving certainly doesn’t make for productive workers, so it is little wonder that we are prodded into recovering from the loss of a loved one quickly and to return to work as soon as possible. Our desire for quick-fix solutions has led us to expect a simple 5 or 10-step process for overcoming our grief; something we can buy, implement, and carry on with our lives.
I recently talked to Jenn M Choi on my podcast (The Way We Connect) about grief. Having lost both her parents by the age of 33, Jenn talks candidly and compassionately about the topic of grief — in fact, she is so passionate about the subject that she is writing her autobiography to remember her parents. One of the things she said that stuck with me the most was this: “Grief is not a journey that just ends. It lives with you.”
It’s nearly three years since I lost my grandmothers, and I still find myself grieving sometimes. I let myself cry when the tears come; although I accept, at the same time, that death is a natural part of life. I don’t cry over their death being some huge injustice or tragedy; I just miss them. And that’s OK.
We all die. You will die. I will die. And losing people hurts. Grief is painful. It can feel like actual, physical pain. People really do die of broken hearts. It can be very hard to sit with this knowledge, and yet denying it means that we are left with a culture that shies away from difficult conversations, awkwardly avoids uncomfortable emotions, shuffles away from giving genuine comfort and compassion, and leaves people feeling completely unable to cope when they do experience the loss of a loved one.
In 2020, the majority of countries experienced more deaths than usual, and the constant threat of COVID hangs in the air as a constant reminder of our own mortality.
I find myself wondering — how can I honour those who have passed this year in a way that really feels whole and respectful? How can we, as a society, redress our relationship with death and grief? And is our reaction to death (in the West) in need of updating?
You can listen to Jenn M Choi talk about the loss of her parents and grief on The Way We Connect podcast here