Tackling Taboos and Fighting Fears by Pre-Planning the One Thing All of Us Will Face
My in-laws had 4 kids in 5 years. As you can imagine, their dinner table conversation was pretty lively. As the kids got older, the discussion got rowdier. Every so often, someone brought up something that was sexual or scatological. To keep that kind of talk to a minimum, the parents came up with something called the Sarche family rule. Anytime a kid brought up a topic like that, someone could invoke the Sarche family rule and that kid would have explained, in detail, what they were talking about. Since it was embarrassing to explain, the kids stopped bringing up some things that maybe shouldn’t be talked about at the dinner table.
In the family that my husband and I made together, we have 2 kids who are 3 years apart. We also have the Sarche family rule but ours is a little bit different. Our dinner table conversation is pretty lively too. And every so often someone brings up something sexual or scatological, although, in our family, it’s not usually one of the kids. It’s usually me.
Talking about things that make other people uncomfortable is not embarrassing for me at all. In fact, I live for it.
I’ve always been really good at talking about the hard stuff. I was an AIDS educator in college. I was a peer counselor. When my friends were worried about being pregnant or having an STD, they turned to me for help.
When my lifelong friend, Michele, was diagnosed with a glioblastoma, a brain tumor when we twenty-six. I realized that my comfort in talking about hard stuff was pretty unusual.
At that time, a glioblastoma was always terminal. But it was really difficult for everyone to acknowledge that with Michele. They would give her pep talks telling her that she was young and strong and promising that she would beat the disease.
I handled it very differently. I said I can go with you into the hard stuff. I don’t have to tell you everything is going to be ok. And you don’t have to tell me everything is going to be ok. We both know it’s not going to be ok. When she died, I was grateful that we had those conversations. They brought us much closer, and they helped to accept her death with fewer regrets.
I really believe that my experience with Michele, working mortuary helping people put their funeral plans in place long before they are needed. I knew nothing about funerals. I didn’t have a background in social work or psychology. When I heard about the job, I knew it was exactly what I was supposed to be doing.
In doing my life’s work, I have become an evangelist for breaking down the taboos about death. In our society, we’re not supposed to talk about death.
It’s morbid. It’s taboo. It’s in bad taste. Instead, we whisper that someone “passed away” or even just “passed.” We say they “fought valiantly but ultimately succumbed to their disease.
Why are we so afraid to talk about the reality of our mortality?
It reminds me of how we used to approach sex. A generation or two ago, we would teach kids about their body parts using people using euphemisms. We would talk about their wee wee, their pee pee, their hoo ha. The euphemisms made us feel more comfortable, but ultimately they made kids think their body parts are shameful and weird. To help kids feel in control of their body, we now know we must use anatomically correct, real terms.
Similarly, I believe that the euphemisms for death do the same thing. They reinforce the idea that we can’t, or shouldn’t talk about something that is so fundamental. Each of us will experience the death of the people we love. And ultimately people we love will experience our death too. Shouldn’t we talking about this stuff and learning how to deal with it.
In Utah, there is an incredible bereavement support group for kids called The Sharing Place. Did you know that 1 in 20 children will experience the death of a parent before they turn 18? In these groups, the kids come together and each time they say, using direct terminology, what happened to their parent. My mom’s heart stopped and she died. My dad had an illness called depression; he used a gun to shoot himself in the head and he died.
Talking helps us process what happened. It helps us to normalize the experience and to feel part of a community -- less isolated and alone. It gives others permission to share their experience too.
Think about when you’ve had the death of a loved one. Do you want to talk about that person and keep them close? Do you want to share how it feels to be in the world without them?
Sometimes we avoid talking about that stuff because it makes others feel uncomfortable. What about when you’ve had a friend who’s bereaved? Do you try to rescue them from their bad feelings by saying things like “at least died doing something he loved,” “at least she lived a long life?” Or do you do something worse and go away because the whole thing just feels too uncomfortable.\
I am asking you to do something that might feel very weird. It is absolutely ok to just sit quietly or say, “I have no words but I’m here with you.” Death is part of life. It’s not a separate part.
I’m asking you to acknowledge that. Talk to your kids about that. Allow them to go to funerals and visit cemeteries. Use ritual to help with the grieving process when a pet dies. Talk to your kids about what grief might look like. It can look a lot of different ways. And the problem is because we never talk about it, all of us expect grief to look like what we learned in 9th-grade psychology. I’ve got denial now. Now I’m bargaining. I’m angry now, I must almost be done.
The problem is, when we experience grief, and find out it is not a linear process and it doesn’t end. When we experience that, almost all of us think we are doing it wrong.
Many of us believe that if we bring up the name of someone who died, we will make their loved ones feel worse. We don’t need to worry about that, because their loved one is on their mind all the time. We also believe that if we talk about death, we will make it happen. As someone who plans funerals, long before they are needed, I have proof that is not the case.
We believe that using D words die, dead, death is being too harsh. But shouldn’t we be using those correct terms?
Recently I read a book by Paul Kalinithi When Breath Becomes Air. He was a neurosurgeon who developed stage four lung cancer. He wrote about his experience in dealing with dying patients and his own experience in dying. He said, “By engaging in the reality of death, we can more deeply understand and experience Life.”
I don’t know about you, but when I know something has a due date, I put a lot more effort into it. Maybe mortality is similar, and recognizing we are mortal is similar. If we recognize that our life is finite, we can live more fully and more meaningfully.
We can talk about what makes our life worth living. Be courageous and have those conversations with the people you love. Think about why your life is meaningful. Talk about why you want to be in the world with them and what it’s going to feel like when you’re not in the world with them. Have these conversations. It’s going to take practice and I know it’s going to feel awkward. But more talking equals less fear.
Haven’t you found that when you are in the dark things are a lot scarier than when you turn on the lights and realize that you are a lot stronger and braver than you thought?